A Liberian Sojourn

October 8, 2015 through December 8, 2015

Charles Miller III

Before attending Yale University, Charles Miller III, visited Africa for the first time during the summer of 1968. He returned there in the early 1970s visiting Maroc, Senegal, Mali, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, residing for extended periods in Cameroon and Liberia.

His travels supported first by his family, were followed by his acceptance in the exclusive pioneer Five Year BA program at Yale, enabling him to live in Cameroon after receiving grants from, among others, The Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, The Carnegie Foundation, Sigma Xi, and the Connecticut Academy of Science.

In Liberia, as a zoologist specializing in West African flora and fauna, he was invited to establish a national zoological and botanical park that was inaugurated on the occasion of the OAU Conference held in Monrovia in 1976, a valued Liberian destination for visiting heads of state.

About the Exhibit

A Liberian Sojourn by Charles Miller III, an exhibition presented by the QCC Art Gallery, City University of New York (CUNY), is the first exhibition of the photographs of Charles Miller III…
The root of Charles Miller III’s enduring fascination with African culture lay in his first trip there in 1968, when he visited Dahomey (now Benin), Togo and Ghana to undertake zoological research for several museums and universities.
While investigating the West African Fat-tailed Gecko on the outskirts of a small village in Benin, he heard the sounds of drums in the distance, intriguingly punctuated from time to time with rifts of songs. The magnetic thundering of the music coupled with choral accompaniment of the audience was compelling, though he was wary of approaching, as he was a stranger after all (as well as laden down with photographic equipment!). A group of elders beckoned him to join—this would be his most vivid life experience, the participation in a female secret society initiation rite of the Fon people. Not only was his curiosity matched by the villager’s hospitality but he was unexpectedly encouraged to take photographs.

While in residence in Liberia from 1977 to 1988, the period during which these photographs were made, Miller created intimate portraits of the people who were curious by Miller, a foreigner and a zoologist who became known as "The Snake Man."

While researching the medicinal benefits of snake venom for pharmaceutical companies, Miller was himself bit and infected with their venom over 40 times. Of note, many of the photographs are of female coming-of-age initiates of the secret Sande society, a powerful all woman group known to wear "Bundu" masks during rituals, the only known instance of women wearing masks in all of Africa. Miller collected a great deal of “de-commissioned” Bundus, no longer suitable for ritualizing. Several significant examples of his Bundus will also be exhibited as well as seen in these remarkable photographs.
Another significant feature seen here is the aesthetically complex body decoration of the initiates who daily repaint themselves in never repetitious patterns representing a meaningful language known only to the Initiates.