PORTSMOUTH — A world-class African artifact collection amassed during an archaeology professor's lifetime is taking on its second life-form at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center this summer.
"Heavy Metal Africa" debuted last month on the second floor of the cultural center on Middle Street, featuring a slew of new selections from the collection of Ben and Betty Werner, of Shelburne, New Hampshire. Ben Werner was a longtime archaeology professor who collected African, South American and Egyptian artifacts over the course of his life. According to his obituary, he had visited 78 countries before his death in 2008.
Last year, SAACC acquired the collection through a donation from the Werner estate. Since last June, “Guinea To Great Bay: Afro-Atlantic Lives, Cultures and History” has been the flagship exhibit at the center, showcasing Werner's expansive collection of African masks.
The latest exhibit features artifacts of metal, made and used in Africa, as early as 5,000 BC and continuing today. Africa has long been an important site for innovations in metallurgy, the science and technology of making and refining metals, for ritual, social and economic uses.
SAACC members have wondered why Werner's collection didn't go to the Smithsonian, or perhaps the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The greater Portsmouth community has Vernis Jackson to thank for SAACC's special acquirement, as she traveled to the Werners' home to see the collection when they were still alive.
Jackson, SAACC's founder, just returned to Portsmouth after a winter and spring season down south, and she's committed to elevating the center's collection in the public eye.
"The first time I looked at the metal exhibit, I said, 'What a gift to this community,'" she said. "And this is what I want the community to know, that we have this gift here for them. They need to enjoy it, embrace it."
The "Heavy Metal Africa" exhibit is the center's first tangible show of its new relationship with the University of New Hampshire. Casey Golomski, assistant professor of anthropology at UNH, now sits on the center's board, and curated the exhibit with UNH interns Danielle Toland, Cal Gross-Santos and Madison Maksy. Jackson praised the contribution of Golomski and his interns, which furthers her mission of getting young people involved at SAACC.
"Casey brought those young people from UNH that just turned this place upside down," Jackson said. "They did a such a great job under his guidance in connecting these objects to the African community."
SAACC board member Robin Lurie-Meyerkopf said Heavy Metal Africa is a "different twist" to the original Werner collection. It will be up for the entirety of the summer, she said.
"Now that this interchange has taken place, it’s amazing that UNH hasn’t been involved sooner," Lurie-Meyerkopf said.
She noted SAACC has recently joined Art 'Round Town, in which on the first Friday of each month, downtown Portsmouth celebrates art and innovation with a free gallery walk.
"That has really boosted the local interest because a lot of locals participate," she said. "They come back and bring guests. That has helped the exhibit have a wider audience."
The front desk staff at Discover Portsmouth, which SAACC is housed in, are now trained to direct visitors to SAACC, facilitating a symbiotic relationship between the two organizations in the same building.
On Sunday, July 14, SAACC will hold a special "Remembering African Roots" presentation featuring Dr. James Nabwangu and his wife Dr. Marie Joubert Nabwangu, who will share their fascinating and inspiring stories as a neurosurgeon, a neuroscientist, authors and accomplished world travel photographers.
James distinguished himself by overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges of the 1940s British colonialism in Kenya and racism of 1960s Baltimore to become the first African graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School and eventually, a neurosurgeon. In 2014, he won an award from the International Leica Photography Competition.
Marie distinguished herself by being the first to describe a neurological condition known as the Joubert syndrome. Her photography has been described as being on a par with National Geographic photographers.
The 3 p.m. reception has a suggested donation of $10, and is free for SAACC members. SAACC is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 10 Middle St.