Spirits: Ritual and Ceremonial African and Oceanic Art from the Dr. Alan and Linda Rich Collection

Over the course of four decades, Dr. Alan and Linda Rich have displayed a passion for helping others, traveling the world and bringing medical care to those in need. With his profession as an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon and hers as an occupational therapist trained to help Alan in clinics and in surgeries, the Riches worked together to transform the lives of many in need of critical eye care. While administering to patients in clinics in Papua New Guinea and throughout Africa, the Riches also immersed themselves in the diverse artistic cultures of the countries they visited. Along the way, they acquired a collection of ritual and ceremonial objects that fill their home in Lakeland today. In this Polk Museum original exhibition, these artifacts, most of which speak to the close spiritual communion between humans and animals, will be displayed publicly for the first time

As long-time Museum patrons, Linda and Alan — who goes by Rico, familiarly — have always had a passion for art and its ability to expand the knowledge of those who see it. Now, the Riches (no relation to the author, but dear friends) are generously sharing both their collection and the story behind it for this exhibition. The show is the culmination of two years of conversations and collaborative work with Linda and Rico, as we tried to develop a unique exhibition that functions on two separate but interwoven levels:  it is at once an examination of the spiritual objects themselves and their places within the cultures they come from and a story about the humanitarian work the Riches undertook in the process of acquiring the objects. The two histories are tied together intricately.

Medical Journeys

Although they have traveled all over the world for leisure and for business, the Riches began their joint medical care trips in the 1970s. They first worked side-by-side in the Sudan Interior Mission Eye Hospital in Nigeria, followed by excursions to Zambia, Botswana, Niger, Ghana, Namibia, Angola, Senegal, and South Africa. The primary purpose of each trip was medical care, namely performing eye surgery for the blind (often the result of cataracts) and disfigured (often from cancers or crossed-eyes). Along the way, though, seeking better understanding of each respective culture by means of its art became a key element of the Riches’ experiences, too.

“Any art collecting was certainly secondary to the eye mission itself,” Linda explains. “Each object chosen had a special meaning as to how we acquired it and what its purpose was in [each people’s] world of spirit and ancestor worship — not ‘art for art’s sake.’ We appreciated self-taught art, and how the artists appreciated the principles and elements of design.”

The seed of their non-Western collection, which extends beyond African and Oceanic art to works from Asia and Latin America, was planted in the years before the couple began traveling together. Rico actually acquired their first artifact in the 1960s, before having met Linda, while active with the East African Flying Doctor Service in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

“I obtained our first pieces in Tanzania when working with the Maasai tribe. Their leaders would often want my shorts, or jeans, and I would trade for some of their artwork.  We were really ‘out in the bush,’ so this was a great place to secure some authentic, non-commercial pieces [directly from the original artisans],” Rico recalls.

The Riches first visited Papua New Guinea on a medical mission in 1987, after having stopped there briefly on a prior trip to Australia and New Zealand. Always medical professionals at heart, they wanted to return to the Southern Highlands, where, as Rico explains “they had no access to eye care — and little access to the outside world.” Traveling with Surgical Eye Expeditions and working out of a small, makeshift hospital, the Riches providing critical care to the local population, many of whom had never before come into contact with Westerners.

A Collection Grows

The diversity of styles and types of African pieces in the exhibition demonstrates how broadly the collection developed from Rico’s first acquisition in the 1960s. From Kenya and the Maasai people alone, the exhibition will showcase shields and animal masks, wooden statues and dolls, and more everyday cultural artifacts like bracelets and beaded baskets. Among the highlights of the Riches’ collection are a large relief carving of village life scenes from Mozambique; five beautiful wooden Chiwaras — headdresses in the form of antelopes that are worn during dances and rituals related to agriculture — from the Bambara people in Mali; and the eleven magnificently crafted and varied masks, which normally hang above the Riches’ entryway, that come from all over West Africa, including Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Mali.

The collection boasts such variety because of the couple’s love for learning about other cultures and because of the relationship Linda and Rico often developed with the local peoples, especially when their work — giving the gift of sight — was so life-changing. 

“We would occasionally receive gifts from grateful patients, or maybe a tribal chief,” Linda says. “Then, too, I liked to barter in village markets and surrounding areas, always trying to avoid that souvenir, commercial market.”

While the exhibition will feature more work from across the African continent than from the South Pacific, the Oceanic art in the exhibition underscores the Riches’ eye for the culturally meaningful — and genuine — artifact. Some of the largest and most striking ritual pieces in the collection are those from Papua New Guinea — and from the Sepik River District, in particular. Highlights of the exhibition from that region include painted basket masks, cult wooden carvings, boar’s tusk, kina, and cowrie shell necklaces, alongside functional objects like crocheted bilum bags and fiber trays.

A Spiritual Connection

Despite the vast oceans that separate the peoples of Papua New Guinea and Africa, the works that make up Spirits are remarkably linked in the intentions underlying their creation. Much of the art in the Riches’ collection demonstrates a shared belief among artisans of Africa and artisans of Oceania that all life on earth is joined together.  Linda recollects discovering this early on:  “They have a devotion to nature and ancestors deeply embedded in their beliefs. And we were surprised to see that neither culture creates art just for itself; all art is intimately connected to rituals and ceremony.”

Having built a collection solely out of their own profound appreciation (and care) for cultures of the world, the Riches never intended their art to be seen by anyone besides themselves or visitors to their home. This Fall, however, Linda and Rico open their memories to us, allowing visitors to the Museum to go on a journey alongside them as we all expand our art historical knowledge, delving into the artistic wonders of Africa and Oceania.

H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D.
Executive Director and Chief Curator