Introductory Essay – a Liberian Sojourn

A child coated in a white substance

A Liberian Sojourn by Charles Miller III, exhibited 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 the 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 about 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 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.