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by Rikki N. Massand

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 • 9:34am

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ –An exhibit of African tribal masks, sculptures and wildlife, part of the acclaimed Raskin family collection, opened at the Alfa Art Gallery on Church Street on Friday, June 24.

The exhibit, "Fertile, Frightful, Divine!" will remain on display through July 22.

The collection includes art from the African nations of Zaire, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With several decades of collecting and contacts on five of the world’s seven continents, the Raskin collection and gallery is known across the globe.

lya Raskin, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University, is also an acclaimed wildlife photographer whose work has been featured in National Geographics and other international publications.

He will give a special lecture on the Alfa exhibit July 8, 6:30pm.

Raskin and his wife, Vera, both originally from Moscow, have successfully carried on the business started by Ilya's father, Yuri Raskin, in 1980.

Vera Raskin, a former researcher who married into the business, took it up full-time as her interest grew. On Friday, she led a presentation of the family's collection.

Vera Raskin met her husband at a herring store in New York and from there the couple went on to study together at Michigan State University – Ilya for his Ph.D and Vera for a master's in marketing.

Today she applies her business acumen to art collecting and sales. She also became a certified life coach and works with local interior designers seeking to compliment decor or professionals living in Spain, Brazil, or Alaska.

"People buy African art for a variety of reasons. Among our clients are collectors, that's a given, but we also have artists, anthropologists and interior decorators," she said.

"I had a Portuguese sculptor who'd buy our masks and incorporate them into his designs. Also practicioners of African religions buy things from us, and professors who study certain art buy too."

Last year Vera Raskin received a call from an artist looking for a bronze leopard to decorate a set in a TV studio. Turns out it was from the production staff of the Showtime series "The Big C," starring actress Laura Linney.

Raskin said reputation goes a long way but in many cases, including for Showtime, her business was found online. The company offers a virtual museum on the web, and Vera Raskin noted that students and researchers use the catalog as an educational source.

"They may want to see about various cultures, tribes and tribal art. Sometimes I even find art history facts from our museum on people's Web sites."

Jeri Cohen and her husband, John Forte, of Parsippany are friends of Vera Raskin's parents and have frequent other African art exhibits, but said they had never seen a display as extensive.

"It's wonderful and I can see the meaning and intention behind each piece. Ilya is also a very talented photographer," Cohen said.

Although the Raskins live in Monmouth County, New Brunswick is their unofficial home where Ilya Raskin has been with Rutgers since 1989. One of the Raskin's twin daughters, Anya, just completed her first year as a graduate student at Rutgers, studying for a Master's degree in business and science degree with a focus in horticulture.

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