In the catalogue essay for his 2006 exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography (Göttingen: Steidl, 2006), Okwui Enwezor highlighted the pervasiveness of Afro-Pessimism in the media. Ten years later, the term has been roundly banished from the vocabulary and vision of “Creative Africa.” This series of five tightly curated exhibitions celebrating historical and contemporary artistic production from the African continent was on view during the summer 2016 season at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building. Despite a typically monolithic treatment of a generalized Africa in the show's title, the programming and exhibitions themselves provided nuanced and thoughtful insights into a diverse range of creative pursuits from the continent, including historical arts, photography, architecture, design, fashion, and dance. Though four of the exhibitions were organized separately by Philadelphia Museum curators, including Peter Barberie, Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, Dilys Blum, H. Kristina Haugland, and John Vick, all were informed by consulting curator Kristina Van Dyke's commitment to the idea that art, no matter the origin, is an expression of what it means to be human.
African art is not a primary collecting area for the Philadelphia Museum, but they have previously hosted important exhibitions of African art, including “African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back” in 2004, organized by Seattle Art Museum curator Pamela McClusky While “Long Steps” sought to recontextualize historical African art for visitors, “Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art” (Fig. 1), the central and largest show in “Creative Africa,” argued for the primacy of the African art object in itself. “Look Again” curator and independent scholar Kristina Van Dyke, formerly of the Menil Collection and more recently Director of the Pulitzer Foundation, believes in the discipline of African art history and of the merits and validity of close looking and formal analysis. Organized around a series of questions that prompt visitors to look closely and think deeply about the objects from West and Central Africa on view, the exhibition takes as its central conceit that anyone can engage with works of African art. Presented in white cube style with blue dividing walls that partitioned the gallery like stretches of minimalist sky or sea, “Look Again” prioritized the perception of these objects as works of art.
Guiding questions incorporated in wall text loosely grouped the objects on view according to qualities like material, form, function, process, and ornamentation. Given room to breathe and space for contemplation alone and in groups, power figures from the Kongo Kingdom read as both sculpture and document, as objects authored by multiple individuals. Questions such as “What happens when an artist combines different types of objects?” led visitors to push past the potentially opaque (anti-) aesthetic choices behind bundled power objects from Central Africa to understand their ability to harness and concentrate the power of the natural world. Others, like “How do materials influence what an artist makes?” compelled visitors to consider the constraints under which the artist worked or the reasons why an object looks as it does. Though I overheard the exhibition described as “like walking through a textbook,” I would consider such a designation to its credit. Rather than overly prescribed or pedantic, I found the show's text-heavy didactics to be stimulating and useful tools as a teacher, curator, and historian of African art.
Because of the often violent conditions of their initial collection during the colonial period, we frequently know precious little about historical African art objects. Van Dyke did not shy away from this fact. Drawn almost exclusively from the extensive holdings of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (the Penn Museum), the installation brought attention to these moments of rupture in objects’ histories, asking “How did these works come to be in Philadelphia?” When little is known about the artist, facture, use, or original context, as is the case with the bronze plaques and heads initially seized and then sold by the British during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, the objects are indispensable records themselves, as discussed in a panel text highlighting the work of Benin specialist Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch.
The installation culminated with a wall of floating Kota reliquary guardian figures (Fig. 2) that are part of Belgian computer scientist Frederic Cloth's Kota Data Cloud, a search engine and algorithm, also on interactive display, that identifies connections among 2,000 Kota figures. Cloth's work was first highlighted in Fall 2015 by an exhibition also organized by Van Dyke at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. Though “Look Again” did little to expand conceptions of African art beyond a previously accepted canon of historical objects, its analytical frameworks informed my visit to each of the other exhibitions on view as part of “Creative Africa.”
“Three Photographers/Six Cities” featured the work of Akinbode Akinbiyi, Seydou Camara, and Ananias Léki Dago. Each photographer documents change in African cities that are not necessarily their own. Akinbiyi, an established British-born, Berlin-based Nigerian photographer, is known for his treatment of cities like Cairo or Lagos as palimpsests, densely layering information within each of his black-and-white images to draw attention to the concurrent temporalities of the cityscape. Dago, from Côte d'Ivoire, records the in-between spaces of Bamako, Nairobi, and Johannesburg, also in black-and-white. In his series Manuscripts of Tombouctou, Malian photographer Seydou Camara, on the other hand, photographs the ongoing efforts to preserve that city's invaluable collection of more than 400,000 rare manuscripts dating to its heyday as a center of Islamic scholarship and book production. Camara's rich, velvety, and dramatic images are closely cropped to accentuate the materiality, fragility, and tactility of these singular documents recently under threat from the region's precarious political climate (Fig. 3).
Sense of place also informed the exhibition “The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community” (Fig. 4). The installation revolved around the Berlin-based, Burkina Faso-born architect's sensitivity toward local culture, knowledge, materials, and technology in the design and construction of building projects in his home village of Gando, Burkina Faso and elsewhere. In the age of the global “starchitect” imposing dazzling homogeneity onto local contexts, Kéré's community-focused initiatives collaboratively bring into being much-needed but smaller-scale public buildings like schools, health centers, residences, and libraries. The exhibition integrated photography, video, models, and interactive spaces to give visitors a sense of Kéré's site-specific practice. I most appreciated the display's focus on raw materials like clay, brick, and eucalyptus wood that inform Kéré's ultimate designs. The installation worked to expose the genuine innovation that can occur when Western design and engineering are integrated with local craft skills and construction traditions.
In the early 1990s, Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare began to use Dutch wax print fabric to poke fun at the British public's desire for a sense of the “African” in his work. After failing to captivate the European market, wax-print, or European-made imitation Indonesian batik, was exported to West Africa by companies like Vlisco and caught fire there. “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage,” a fourth exhibition (Fig. 5), lined four gallery walls with examples of the Dutch company's bold and colorful wax-print patterns. Didactics explain the process behind designing and creating new patterns and reveal the complex history of pattern names and the power of market women throughout Africa in generating their popularity. A raised central platform featured dazzling contemporary couture fashioned from wax-print by designers like Lanre da Silva Ajayi, Araba Stephens Akompi, Inge van Lierop, Manish Arora, and Philadelphia-based Ikiré Jones. Though a historically and academically relevant deep dive into the intricacies of the histories and locally dependent interpretations of individual patterns, the exhibition also read as an advertisement for Vlisco, with little critical distance from wax-print as a generic signifier of Africanness.
A final, somewhat static installation of historical African-produced textiles, “Threads of Tradition,” rounds out the “Creative Africa” extravaganza. Drawn from the Penn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum's growing collection of African textiles, the exhibition explained the processes and techniques of strip weaving (Fig. 6), resist dyeing, piecing and appliqué, embroidery, and bead and shell work. The show featured Yoruba, Akan, and Kuba examples, among others. Keeping with the general commitment to interactivity throughout all five exhibitions, a table of colored building blocks encouraged visitors to play with Akan patterning.
The vibrant “Creative Africa” installations were paired with a series of related programs, including a discussion with photographer Ananias Léki Dago (June 25, 2016) and performances by Zimbabwean-born and Brooklyn-based dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire (September 23 and 24, 2016). Stimulating, engaging, and relevant, together these five exhibitions demonstrated the value of close examination for understanding the undeniable contributions made by historical and contemporary African arts to non-specialists and scholars alike.