African Passport Masks on Display at Lenox Hill Hospital’s Cahill Study Center

            New York, NY – Over 100 African jewels are on display until July at Lenox Hill Hospital’s Kevin M. Cahill, MD, Exhibition and Study Center, designed by Massimo Vignelli. The jewels are exquisite and rare miniature masks carved from wood, ivory, bone, stone – and even a nut. All are from the private collection of Albert Stanziano. They are in the Lenox Hill exhibition center, located in the hospital’s health sciences library which is an invaluable resource to the hospital’s clinicians who use the space to learn about advances in evidenced-based medicine and the history of medicine in order to provide the finest quality healthcare.

            “It is very appropriate that these masks, which are considered to have spiritual power (nyama) to ward off many kinds of evil, especially illness and death, are featured in our newly created exhibition and study center at Lenox Hill Hospital,” said Kevin Cahill, MD, director of the hospital’s Tropical Disease Center.  “Lenox Hill Hospital has served the medical needs of missionaries through a program developed over a half century ago through its Tropical Disease Center (TDC).  At one point the TDC cared for over 7,000 missionaries of all denominations.”

            When Africans get sick, they do not go to the emergency room, partly because it may be a day’s trek through the bush. Nor do they go to the drug store for an over-the-counter cure. First they try herbal remedies. If that doesn’t work, they consult a diviner, who helps figure out what malevolent spirit has invaded the body and which neighbors (or family) made that happen. 

            Unlike masks that are worn in public performances and ceremonials, passport masks are carefully shielded from prying eyes. A fraction of the size of masks worn over the face or head in public performances or religious ceremonies, passport masks are worn on the body, under the clothing or hidden in the hut or compound, probably near the bed or sleeping mat. Like their larger counterparts they are powerful charms, filled with spirit with the potential for good or evil.  When they are worn it is to protect the owner when is hunting or making war.  They are carried about the person when traveling; hence the term ‘passport’. The smallest in the exhibition is less than an inch high; the largest is six inches, not including feathers, cloth or other attachments.

            The masks were collected over decades by Mr. Stanziano from well-known collectors, dealers and African distance runners. Some unlikely finds were made at estate sales or in flea markets. As Mr. Stanziano points out, “What cost a couple of hundred dollars 30 years ago would now be worth thousands of dollars. I could not put this collection together again today. The passports simply don’t come on the market anymore.’

            “It is a particular pleasure for me to complete a circle of service, one that began with medical care and now evolves into displaying a collection focusing on African art and healing,” said Dr. Cahill.

            The exhibition was organized by Robert J. Koenig, director of the SMA African Art Museum with the support of Fr. Michael Moran, provincial superior of the American Province of the Society of African Missions. Kevin M. Cahill, MD, a world-famous expert on tropical diseases, has for many years provided pro bono care to priests, nuns and lay missionaries working in Africa. This exhibition is a tribute to him from all his grateful patients.   

 

      



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