Attendance at the reception for Kenneth Adelman’s Congo Art exhibit in the Eastern Kentucky University Giles Gallery grew steadily Wednesday evening.

Eventually, it exceeded the space assigned for his lecture, “The Joys and Risks of Collecting African Art,” and Adelman, a retired diplomat and art collection addressed the crowd the the Gifford Theater.

Both the art gallery and the theater are housed in EKU’s Jane F. Campbell Building.

Prior to the lecture, bulky wooden masks, statuesque human figures and animal shapes stood under spotlights staring at the 100 or so people who came to view them.

“They look magnificent in there, better than they did in my home,” Adelman began his lecture, “but this is not why this art was created. A general principle to remember here is: This art was always meant to be functional and always meant to be used.”

Masks, he explained, were thought to connect their wearers to spirits. Similarly, a fetish, or wooden human form, was used as a sort of idol, he explained, that can transmit messages to and from the dead.

Animal talismans in the collection have a pawn-shaped wooden piece and were believed to indicate guilt when dragged along an animal, he said. When the piece was rubbed along an animal’s back, natives believed it would catch in front of a person who committed the misdeed being judged.

No artists’ names are listed by the displayed works because the pieces are associated with tribes instead of individual artists, Adelman explained.

The shapes have been recreated by generations using traditional materials and methods since, he said.

When Adelman and his wife moved in the 1970s to Zaire, once known as the Belgian Congo, he had no interest in the art, he said. However, a newfound friend who was a sculptor and collector taught him more about it.

“He said, ‘Ken, how do you like African art?’ and I said, ‘I don’t,’” Adelman recalled, laughing.

But after the friend kept talking about it, Adelman said, “I found a love for it.”

The collection of 35 pieces that have been on display at the gallery since September have been donated to Eastern, Adelman announced, to much applause.

Adelman, who directed the U.S. Arms Control Agency in the Reagan administration, speaks at 7:30 this evening on “Reagan at Reykjavik” in Brock Auditorium.

Machaela Ballard can be reached at or at 624-6623.

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