Cambridge Arts Restores Monumental African Mask Sculptures By Vusumuzi Maduna

1/19/20213 years ago

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Greg Curci (left) and an assistant restore  Vusumuzi Maduna's “Inner City Totem I,” 1981, at the Cambridge Community Center, August 2020.

Greg Curci (left) and an assistant restore  Vusumuzi Maduna's “Inner City Totem I,” 1981, at the Cambridge Community Center, August 2020.

"People gather strength through their roots," Vusumuzi Maduna—who died in 2007, at age 66—once said, "and it is through art that we hear our ancestral voices."

In August, Maduna’s “Inner City Totem I,” 1981, a wood and steel sculpture outside the Cambridge Community Center that resembles a monumental African mask, was vibrantly restored by Greg Curci of Winthrop for Cambridge Arts. Curci replaced rotted wooden pieces, painted to match the original; cleaned and varnished rusted steel; and replaced worn fasteners. Curci completed restoration, including repairs to significant structural damage, of a companion piece, “Inner City Totem II,” 1983, at the Margaret Fuller House this month.

“People in that community feel like the city doesn’t always invest in them. ... People are very happy and energized by the investment from the city to restore that sculpture,” says Darrin Korte, executive director of the Cambridge Community Center, a nonprofit providing social, cultural, educational and recreational activities to the Cambridgeport neighborhood—especially to the "most under-represented, under-resourced members of our community."

“Greg Curci executed a sympathetic treatment that really allows the two ‘Totems’ to be seen again as, we believe, Maduna had intended,” Cambridge Arts Director of Art Conservation Craig Uram says of the restoration. “Additionally, some slight structural modifications were made that will allow us to more easily maintain the pieces as part of our annual program, keeping them looking remarkable for a long time.”

Maduna was born Dennis Didley in Cambridge on Oct. 22, 1940. He went on to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and live in Boston. An artist and teacher, he co-founded the gallery at Boston’s Harriet Tubman House. For a time, he was an artist-in-residence in the African-American Masters program at Northeastern University, later he had a studio at Boston's Piano Factory building.

Maduna’s mother's parents were from Barbados. He grew up surrounded by people from the West Indies. "When I went to the barber shop they talked about the independence of Barbados, these old Black gentlemen," Maduna told The Boston Globe in 1992. “People just talked about their Africanness all the time. Maybe that's what stimulated me.”

As part of his pursuit of his roots, he took a new African name, said to mean “builder of a culture.”

“He wanted to delve more into mask-making and sculpture, so he changed his name. And I think he relished the fact that he could be different,” says Lena James, Maduna's on-and-off companion with whom he had a son in 1973 and a daughter in 1986.

At a 2007 memorial, Kay Bourne reported, Maduna's friend Arnie Cheatham recalled how Maduna worried that the name he had been given was “such a mouthful.” Cheatham replied, “Just keep saying it to people and they’ll get used to it. Sometimes it’s good to be reborn.”

Maduna's exploration of African, Caribbean and Native American cultures also informed his art. He crafted masks and standing wood sculptures from pieces of dressers, tables and other things he found on the street.

“He would say the spirit was in him—not just to replicate, he would make changes," James says. "He would look at books that he had on African art and then go and do his own thing."

Maduna was often single-minded in his dedication to making art. “He don’t care what he lives on, he has to do his art," James says.

Vusumuzi Maduna's restored “Inner City Totem II,” 1983, at the Margaret Fuller House, January 2021.

Vusumuzi Maduna's restored “Inner City Totem II,” 1983, at the Margaret Fuller House, January 2021.

Among Maduna's first public commissions was his 1971 “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial,” inside Cambridge’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., School. The 40-foot-long sculpture of plastic, perforated sheet metal and metal mesh portrays a sermon, a demonstration, an arrest, and the mule-drawn cortege at King’s funeral.

“He wasn’t a rah, rah Black Power type,” James says. “I asked him about Martin Luther King in discussions. I think he was more radical than the peace movement, but he said it’s for everyone to choose for themselves if they’re only going to associate with Black people. He said, for himself, it’s all [people].”

The "Inner City Totems" were among Maduna's first attempts at translating African-inspired masks into large-scale sculptures.

In 1987, Maduna sculpted “The Judge,” a 12 1/2-foot-tall, painted steel evocation of a horned African mask that stands outside Boston’s Roxbury courthouse. “Something quiet with dignity, with its eyes opened, and no expression—something that has nothing to do with the judicial system's traditional role in the black community,” Maduna told The Boston Globe in 1995.

“He said it is a mask for justice,” James recalls, “and he wants Black people to pass and see there’s the library where you could learn and there’s the courthouse. Black people could pass and know to have justice you must know, get the knowledge of what history is about, what’s happening now—in my words—so you could go into the courthouse and argue.”

For Boston’s 1991 First Night New Year’s Eve spectacle on City Hall Plaza, Maduna worked with scholar and artist Robin Chandler to create a ship adorned with a huge mask adapted from the Yoruba culture to recount that explorers from the Kingdom of Mali may have sailed to the Americas early in the 14th century.

“I am an African person born in America and so when I work, it reflects my African heritage,” Maduna told The Boston Globe in 1992. “When you're an artist you go inside yourself and express what you find.”