Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mills Inherits African Art for Museum

Mills College Weekly

Mills College students can find renewed inspiration in African art.

In January, Dr. William K. Ehrenfeld donated several astonishing pieces of African art, some dating as far back as the 14th century.

“[This] wonderful gift is an acknowledgement of the significance of Mills’ place in the art world,” said Mary-Ann Milford, Mills College provost, dean of faculty and professor of art history.

The artwork is a collection of pieces put together by Ehrenfeld specifically for Mills. Walking into the Mills College Art Museum visitors will be instantly pulled into the robust colors of the pieces that are on display and will continue to be impressed when they notice that each nearly life-sized sculpture is made entirely of tiny beads. Adding to the significance of the donation is having it donated in honor of Milford.

Ehrenfeld, professor emeritus of vascular surgery at the University of California San Francisco, and an avid art collector, made a connection to Mills through Professor Milford. Their mutual love for Indian art has forged a long friendship and collaborations on various art exhibitions.

“She’s a very gracious person – ambitious and bright. Because of Mary-Ann I have a special soft spot in my heart for Mills,” said Ehrenfeld.

Ehrenfeld felt that the art would be greatly appreciated at Mills, a college amongst a large Black and African population. “Bill has always had a special feeling for Oakland,” Milford said.

During the Mills College Art Museum’s opening reception on Jan. 19, Ehrenfeld was formally thanked for his enormous contribution.

“The exhibit that Stephan Jost put together was something short of miraculous,” Ehrenfeld said. When asked how people reacted to the exhibit Ehrenfeld said they “were quite taken” by the beauty of the collection. Everyone was extremely appreciative and thanked Ehrenfeld and his wife over 200 times.

“I couldn’t have done it without the students,” said Jost, director of the Mills Art Museum. “This is the biggest donation of art that Mills has received in over 20 years. This holds tremendous meaning.”

The art currently on display is only a fraction of the pieces that were donated. Altogether there are 400 pieces in total. Until this donation, African art had never been part of the Mills collection.

“The art being donated is considered to be amongst some of the most beautiful things produced by primitive people,” said Ehrenfeld.

The artwork, originating from the Yoruba Tribes, known today as the area that makes up Nigeria, offers students “a wonderful opportunity to do research on African art,” said Milford. Many of the pieces were imported from Italy.

Not many people know about the vast trade relationship between Nigeria and Italy. This is one aspect of the art that students will be researching.

Jost will be leading a college seminar on museum studies. Students will learn research skills, use those skills to investigate the pieces on exhibit and add informative labels. They will also be participating in a project where they will be curating an exhibit from the ground up. Several more pieces of the collection will be chosen and exhibited by the students.

The Art Museum will receive several additional pieces of the collection that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco were unable to receive.

“Mills will profit from this donation and will be getting some [great] Indian art and photographs [as well],” said Dr. Ehrenfeld.