Every now and again, someone comes along and makes a difference. Not just in one person’s life or even in a community, but a difference that reverberates throughout a region and crosses institutional boundaries. In this case that someone is a couple: Reggie and Celeste Hodges of Durham, N.C.
Celeste and Reggie tell their story about meeting and falling in love, collecting art, shipping it home, and their hopes for its new life in the museum community and beyond.
Over a 17-year period, from 1968 to 1985, the couple lived and worked in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ghana and assembled a collection of over 600 outstanding works, including one of the largest single U.S.-based collections of masks from the women-only Sande society (sowei). Of these works 12 have been selected to enter the NCMA’s collection, including seven of the sowei masks; two comical masks known as gongolis (often considered too “ugly” to be in museums, they are intentionally grotesque and hilarious, making them the most beloved masks in Sierra Leone); a rare Poro men’s society mask (goboi); a masterfully carved four-figured stool; and an ancient Nomoli stone figure.
But the Hodges’s generosity doesn’t stop there. They have also donated outstanding works to each of the area museums, with a focus on textiles at N.C. State’s Gregg Museum, and an even larger selection of equally breathtaking sculptural works going to Duke’s Nasher Museum and UNC’s Ackland Art Museum. They also plan to continue this endeavor with historically black colleges and universities and more North Carolina museums and universities. All they ask is that these artworks enliven the North Carolina community and help us see our connectivity to Sierra Leone, and Africa in general.
Reggie and Celeste met as Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone in 1968, at a time when their interracial relationship raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers. But they didn’t care—they simply knew they were meant to be together and that they loved the people, culture, and arts of Sierra Leone. As educators, Celeste and Reggie kept their focus on learning and knowledge dissemination, and their subsequent continuation of research has come through in the wealth of information included with each piece. In most cases we know the names of artists and masks, towns, and villages and the significant reasons for the creation of such works. Since Western collecting practices often privileged form over cultural context, this information is rarely available, particularly for the arts of Africa, making the Hodges’s gift to the people of North Carolina extremely significant.