African tribal chants and the smell of burritos

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African tribal chants and the smell of burritos

At first glance, the unassuming entranceway seems to lead to nothing more than a typical Seoul building. But when you enter and start to climb the stairs, a small tribal statue of a man with drawn-out limbs on the third floor landing hints at something extraordinary here. As you climb on, the halls begin to fill with pieces of African art. At last you reach the fifth floor, the entrance to The Museum of African Art.

Awaiting you is an eclectic collection of artifacts from over 70 African tribes collected over the course of 25 years by Han Jong-hoon, and as ritual tribal masks leer at you from the walls, you're suddenly transported across the globe.

"About one-third of the collection was originally acquired from Africa and the other two-thirds were collected throughout the United States and Europe," said Woo In-sook, the museum curator. The museum's collection spans two floors: the fifth floor houses smaller items like masks, weapons and small statues; the sixth floor houses the larger statues and masks. Tribal chants play softly overhead as you walk among the displays.

The fifth floor features an exhibition of ritual masks from the Guro and Dan tribes of the Ivory Coast. Also on display are spears and other weapons from various tribes. Even mundane items like stools and neck pillows are infused with the same intricate carvings as decorative artifacts such as an Ujamaa ebony tree from Tanzania. A particularly stunning display on this floor is the Ibibio Janus headdress, an 18th century artifact from the Ekoi tribe of Cameroon.

The sixth floor houses the collection's largest items, including a giant statue of a hornbill crafted by the Marka tribe of Mali. Standing 2.4 meters high, the hornbill has wings that appear to envelop visitors who stray too close. Each of the statues and masks on this floor is so vibrant that it would not be surprising if they came to life.

Also a part of the museum is a Mexican cafe, El Paso, which also contains a number of African artifacts. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

To get to the museum, take the No. 4 subway line to Hyehwa Station, exit No. 3, and follow the signs. The museum is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.50) for adults, 2,500 won for students and 2,000 won for children.

For more information, visit their Web page at or call (02) 741-0436,7.

by Steven Lee
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