- Remembering Roy Sieber (1923–2001)
I met Dr. Roy Sieber in 1965, during my senior year at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). He was on campus to give lectures about African art and culture to Peace Corps Volunteers destined to serve in Africa. As a non-PCV, I could not attend those lectures. Instead, we met at the College Museum1 where I had been a student assistant since my freshman year. Evert Johnson, director of the museum, had invited his good friend and African art expert to evaluate the African art collection. Although I was familiar with the collection, I had little understanding of the importance, especially of the Kuba materials given by William Henry Sheppard (Figs. 1–2). I assisted Dr. Sieber during his visit and in the process developed a greater appreciation for and understanding of the artworks. This encounter cemented my desire to work in a museum and began a long and beneficial association with my mentor, one that endured over three decades.
In my estimation, Roy Sieber (1923–2001) is the First Ancestor of the discipline of African art history. As the first to earn a PhD with a specialization in African art, he is the academic father of a large family of scholars. Awarded the degree by Iowa State University (now University of Iowa) in 1957, he enjoyed a long, productive career as a highly respected and much-admired professor and museum professional. Moving to Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1962, he earned the title Rudy Professor of African Art early in his tenure; he retired in 1993. He was a published author, innovative curator, and an arts administrator. Long involved in appreciation of the object and having developed the eye of a connoisseur, he became an advisor to collectors, a consultant for museum collections, and strove to develop the ideal university collection of African art. He did likewise as the Associate Director for Collections and Research at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art from 1983–1994. During his tenure at Indiana University, Dr. Sieber taught hundreds of undergraduates and mentored graduate students, of some fifty of whom earned the MA or PhD degree in African art under his supervision; I am among the latter group of Sieber graduates. Dr. Sieber's extraordinary career has been reviewed by Doran Ross (1992), and memorialized by Robert Farris Thompson (2001), Robin Poynor (2001), Christine Mullen Kreamer (2003a–b), and Stephen Mellor and Dana Moffett (2003), among others. I would like to add this personal remembrance of my mentor, surrogate father, boss, colleague, and friend. While I always referred to him with affection as "Papa" (which he knew but did not seem to mind) and we had a genuinely close relationship, I could never call him Roy. He will always be "Dr. Sieber."
When Dr. Sieber asked about my plans for graduate school, I shared with him my desire to work in an art museum and plan to apply to Oberlin College, the rare American institution at the time that offered any kind of museum training.2 Dr. Sieber helped me refine my career goal and suggested I consider applying to Indiana University instead of Oberlin. I did; and thanks to Dr. Sieber, I enrolled in the fall of 1966 with financial support and the title of "Graduate Research Assistant in African Studies in the Art Department." I received a new name, too: "Intrepid," the name Dr. Sieber gave to each of his graduate assistants.
Dr. Sieber's mark on the professions of African art through his academic progeny can be noted in several areas. He mentored more than fifty students who went on to populate colleges and universities through the United States. In each, he instilled an appreciation of the object and an understanding of how to explain the object in the context of the culture that produced it. Whether his students went on to teach in colleges and universities or assumed museum positions, the idea of the "sacredness of the object" had been firmly planted in their minds. His devotion to the object and understanding of how that object came to be and what it meant to its creators made...