all photos by Franko Khoury, courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
The year 2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first work of art by an identified African artist to be accessioned into the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, an untitled study by Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi (Fig. 1).1 Just two years after the museum was founded, the accessioning of El-Salahi's ink drawing suggests the diverse and inclusive representation of Africa's arts that would become characteristic of this institution. It also gives insight into the increased interest of the times in more accurate and in depth understanding of African creativity—as evidenced by the launching of this journal, African Arts, within just twelve months—and reveals the fierce intellectualism and creativity in the modernist experiments of El-Salahi and his contemporaries during this era of independence movements across the continent. In addition, the acquisition foreshadowed the future of a museum that would be both proactive in collecting works of art across time period, medium, and geography, and forward looking in its approach to exhibitions, programs, scholarship, and artist and audience engagement. Understanding the arrival of such works of art into the National Museum of African Art's collections and exhibitions allows us to understand and imagine not only the stories this museum has told, but has yet to tell. For as theorist Reinhart Koselleck reminds us (2004), we must understand “futures past” to understand historical time—and in the case of this essay, look to the past to understand the futures to come.
A COLLECTION BEGINS WITH A SINGLE WORK OF ART
On June 3, 1964, when Warren Robbins, a retired US Foreign Service Officer, opened the doors of the Museum of African Art, located in the home of former slave, abolitionist, and statesman Frederick Douglass, it was one year after he had founded the Center for Cross Cultural Communication of which it was to be a part, and the height of the Civil Rights movement. Robbins had returned from service in Germany and Austria—where he had been introduced to and fallen in love with African art—to an America in which Africa's arts and accomplishments were not being represented.2 Robbins imagined a different future, one in which the history of Frederick Douglass would be represented in the same building as a print by Wilfredo Lam, and information demonstrating the impact of Africa's arts on Picasso and other European modernists would be viewed alongside African art objects.3 He envisioned a building and a collection that would grow over time and contribute to the dynamic of change taking hold in America. The nature of the collection and its displays have evolved as the center Robbins created became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 by an act of Congress, but its responsibility towards countering negative racial and geographic stereotypes and its endeavors to create meaningful engagements with African diversity and creativity has not.4 What has been underrecognized in this history, however, is the role of artists and the museum's collection practices in reimagining representations of Africa and African art moving forward.
Ibrahim El Salahi's Untitled (1962) joined the museum's then small collection as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bjorn Ahlander of Washington, DC. Leslie Judd Ahlander was an art critic with a particular passion for Latin American arts who wrote for the Washington Post for thirteen years of her illustrious career. On April 14, 1963, Ahlander published in her regular column, “Art in Washington,” a review of multiple exhibitions—including a solo showing of works by Ibrahim El Salahi at the Middle East House. She wrote:
At Middle East House, a young artist from Sudan, Ibrahim El Salahi is showing work of real interest … His work is highly knowledgeable, sophisticated and clever. He uses line magnificently, combines images with the fertility of a surrealist, draws on African art and Islamic calligraphy with equal ease to create his personal idiom. The paintings recall Wilfredo Lam in their use of totemic fetish figures, but the color is rich and subtle, with dark shadowy areas from which looming figures emerge. Short descriptions of the subjects by the artist reveal his intimate point of departure. The image is transferred directly, without apparent rationalization of its subconscious meaning, but the technique is well controlled. There is nothing naïve here. Not all of the work is of equal interest; the artist is young enough to be eclectic and uneven. But in his mastery of line and telling image, Salahi is an artist of real value. (Ahlander 1963).
It is likely, though not certain, that Ahlander collected the work from this exhibition—the artist's first in the United States. There are no records confirming this origin, and the artist remembers the drawing as a study, one among many he gave away but did not consider as material for an exhibition.5
El Salahi recalls that the drawing was a “research work.”6 It dates to the time when the artist's international travels brought him in contact with such literary giants as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and reveals his investigations of anatomy in order to understand the “bones,” or structures of calligraphy, as he was trying to create a new imagery—the visual language that would become associated with the Khartoum School and would characterize his future works. Upon seeing the sketch again more than fifty years later, he said,
I wanted, when I was working with the human form, instead of having the muscles and the surface and so on, I wanted to get to the structure and have that give the rhythm. I [was] using a linear treatment, which gives almost a boundary and a void. I came to this point when I was working on calligraphy and trying to get to the meaning and move away from the meaning and to think of where it's going to take me to. That's why I had to break the for of the letter… when I did that, I felt like Pandora's box opening up. And shapes shifted which I had seen as animal, plant, as sound, as ghosts. This I found quite exciting. I used to work day and night like a madman. I never meant to keep it all. Most of it I gave away.
Although not one of El Salahi's acclaimed oil paintings or formal ink drawings, as a study Untitled provides valuable insights into the artist's process during a formative period for Sudanese modern art. Its process-based, experimental nature also serves as a poetic metaphor for the nature of collecting itself, as curators search for the “bones” that will structure the new imagery of their subject moving forward. As indicated by the letter Warren M. Robbins wrote the Ahlanders to accept their gift, “this excellent work of art will make an important addition to our collection of contemporary African art.”7 Indeed it did. Today, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art houses the largest public collection of African modern and contemporary arts in the Americas, consisting of approximately 1,100 of its 12,000 works of art.8
DEVELOPING A SHARED LANGUAGE
Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the perception of the art world extends beyond the relationship of the object to its aesthetics to include concepts of value, classification, and sociopolitical influence. He describes a field of cultural production with a “shared language” in which
the “subject” of the production of the art-work—of its value but also of its meaning—is not the producer who actually creates the object in its materiality, but rather the entire set of agents engaged in the field. Among these are the producers of the works, classified as artists (great or minor, famous or unknown), critics of all persuasions (who are themselves established in the field), collectors, middlemen, curators, etc., in short, all those who have ties with the art, who live for the art and, to varying degrees, from it, and who confront each other in struggles where the imposition of not only a world view but also a vision of the art world is at stake, and who through these struggles, participate in the production of the value of the artist and of art (1993:261).
Museums can, and do, shape “the production of the art-work,” offering multiple interpretations and presentations of singular objects and building a collective view when objects are joined together in a collection. Through their selection of artworks and voices, art museums shape the language—and vision—by which a subject (or region), like Africa (when arts from Sudan to South Africa are united) might be shared. Geographically designated museums, like the Smithsonian NMAfA, collect or exhibit works of art that institutionalize visions of the complex cultural, spatial, political, racial, and temporal constructs associated with Africa, as well as its artists. Even though Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen have so shrewdly noted that continents are a “myth” because, “when it comes to mapping global patterns, whether physical or human phenomena, continents are most often simply irrelevant” (1997:33), artists, collectors, curators, directors, governments, and others continue to invoke concepts of Africa. And, for better or worse, institutions promote or undermine existing gendered, racial, ethnic, class, and generational power differentials through the “shared language” they promote via their interactions with works of art. NMAfA's vision has changed over the decades, and this evolution points to new directions for its future “shared language.”
Throughout its first ten years, the Museum of African Art continued to acquire modernist and contemporary art by African American artists as well as African, both named and not—as was sometimes the case with “Makonde” wood carvings. The vision was more closely attuned to the principles of black pride than a continent-focused narrative. Its exhibitions also reveal how even the shared language of these earliest days included attention to modern art and named artists. 1968 marked the opening of “Ethiopian Paintings”; a Ladi Kwali exhibition entitled “Contemporary Nigerian Pottery” appeared in 1972; it was followed by “The Nigerian Sculpture of Lamidi Fakeye” in 1973; “Contemporary African Art (The Wolford Collection)” in 1974; and “Contemporary Senegalese Tapestries” in 1978—the opening of which Leopold Senghor attended.9 It was not until the later 1970s, as the museum transitioned to the Smithsonian, that it narrowed its collections policy from welcoming global artists whose work revealed the influence of Africa's arts in European and American modernism—with limited attention to the black arts movements of the day—to a focus on artists linked geographically to the African continent.
Throughout 1979, the year the museum was integrated into the Smithsonian, Warren Robbins and his team continued to accept gifts of contemporary art, including twenty-three enamel on fiberboard paintings by Tanzanian artist Tinga Tinga and other artists working in his style, and a vibrantly haunting canvas by Malangatana of Mozambique joined the collection in 1980 (Fig. 2). Until the arrival of Sylvia Williams as director in 1983 and Philip Ravenhill as chief curator in 1987, however, works of modern and contemporary art came in exclusively as gifts and thus it was largely chance or opportunity that determined what was accessioned. Nevertheless, it is clear that is that these gifts were accepted as part of concerted efforts to represent the diversity of expression from across the African continent. It was in 1990 that the museum purchased its first work of modernist art, a print entitled Dancing Masquerade (1979) by Tayo Tekovi Quaye (Fig. 3) and began to invest money in shaping the shared language of its future—a task that remains challenging in the face of budget constraints. The following year, twenty-five years after the accession of Ibrahim El Salahi's ink study, the museum acquired its first work by an internationally recognized woman artist, with the elegant Reduced Angled Spouted Black Piece by Magdalene Odundo (Fig. 4), marking the beginning of more strategic acquisitions that would allow for a shared language more sensitive to the nuances gained through collections that are inclusive in relation to gender, media, and nationality.10
By the time Elizabeth Harney was hired in 1999 as the first curator dedicated to Africa's contemporary arts, the collection already consisted of nearly 300 works on paper, paintings, sculptures, and time-based media by artists of diverse training and racial and economic backgrounds. The works she encountered had come in through the passion with which Warren Robbins cultivated donors, as well as through the taste of his successor, Sylvia Williams, and chief curator Philip Ravenhill. For instance, Williams had so fallen in love with the prints of Mohammad Omer Khalil that she bought twelve for the museum and corresponded directly with the artist. Ravenhill's discerning eye brought in six of William Kentridge's Drawings for Projection, along with two of the drawings used in their creation (Fig. 5).11 And exhibitions like Simon Ottenberg's “The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group” ushered in strengths in schools like the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. It was not until Harney's tenure with the museum, however, that its first collections strategy document for modern and contemporary art was drafted. In it, she pointed to the need to develop cohesive representation of major university programs and movements.12
The arrival of the new millennium at NMAfA brought with it a re-entrenching of classification systems within the museum, dividing what gets called “traditional” arts from ideas of the “modern” and “contemporary” in ways that are likely to be questioned as we move toward the future. For instance, photography is a medium often associated with the contemporary and yet it has flourished on the continent since 1839, the year the daguerreotype and calotype were invented.13 As António Ribeiro has so pithily noted, “Jacques Daguerre's discovery took just eleven weeks—the length of the voyage—to reach South Africa” (2006:133), which would make the earliest photographic images on the continent a good deal older than much of what gets labeled “traditional.” Indeed, masquerades are among the most “contemporary” performance arts flourishing on parts of the continent to this day, including in urban areas such as the city of Calabar in Nigeria (Fenton 2010:39). Thus, it might make more sense to discuss the diverse creative practices of Africa with attention to the time and space in which they are created, rather than the misleadingly temporalizing classification systems by which they have been framed. What gets called “the traditional” did not necessarily precede “the contemporary” in Africa; they have operated side by side, and obvious though this may sound, all Africa's arts have been contemporary at the time that they were made. NMAfA's collections increasingly reflect this turn in curatorial thinking, with 2016 seeing the museum commission two Ekpe masquerade costumes for the collection.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
CURATED BY KEVIN D. DUMOUCHELLE, CHRISTINE MULLEN KREAMER, AND KAREN E. MILBOURNE
OPENS NOV. 4, 2017
Building on a series of recent, award-winning thematic exhibitions, “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts” marks a turning point in the National Museum of African Art's interpretation and exhibition of its collection. This reimagining of the National Museum's permanent collection is its largest long-term presentation to date, and the first to offer broad thematic connections between works across the full spectrum of times, places, and media represented in the museum's holdings.
“Visionary” occupies the entirety of the museum's multistory second-floor gallery, covering nearly 6,000 square feet and featuring over 300 works of art—re-anchoring the permanent collection at the heart of the museum's programs and visitor experience. With dedicated space for periodic rotations featuring new acquisitions, “Visionary” will offer a new and evolving stage on which to see Africa's past and imagine its future.
The exhibition takes as its central premise the primary museum activity of looking—looking closely at issues of technique and creative expression, looking historically at the varied lives these assembled objects have lived, and looking critically at how new contexts shift how we see art works. Built around the multiple lives of African objects, “Visionary” is organized through seven viewpoints, each of which serves to frame and affect the manner of experiencing Africa's arts. With one room devoted to each perspective, the installation presents the museum's collection through the eyes of collectors, scholars, artists, sponsors, visitors, performers—and the museum itself. A range of interactive experiences within the gallery connects visitors to the role such angles play in shaping our understanding of an object.
Through the full range of media represented in the museum's collection—assemblage, ceramics, costumes, drawing, jewelry, metalwork, sculpture, painting, performance, photography, printmaking, and video—visitors are encouraged to find visual and conceptual links between works by twenty-first and twentieth-century African artists and those made by earlier artistic predecessors. Over thirty named artists are initially featured, including: Mo Abarro, Solomon O. Alonge, El Anatsui, Chike C. Aniakor, Osi Audu, Bamgboshe, Bright Bimpong, Sokari Douglas Camp, Etim Bassey Ekpenyong, Ajere Elewe, Ali Omar Ermes, Takim Eyuk, Romuald Hazoumè, Gavin Jantjes, Stephen Kappata, Mohamed Omer Khalil, Sizwe Khoza, Frank Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Magdalene Odundo, Ọlówè of Ise, Ouattara, Owusu-Ankomah, Andrew Putter, Sakadiba, Tchif, Iké Udé, Osman Waqialla, Susanne Wenger, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
Womanology 12 (2015), a stunning new work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a globally celebrated British painter of Ghanaian descent, stands as the show's signature image (Fig. 9). A confident woman in a scarlet dress and matching hat emerges from a swirling backdrop of blue and black. She holds in her hands a pair of binoculars as she looks purposefully off into the distance—unaware or unconcerned that someone may be looking at her. Yiadom-Boakye's large-scale images are not portraits. Instead, they represent fictional characters within an emerging world developed and shared by the artist. Her titles seem to heighten the tension between the reality and fiction of her characters. Womanology 12 suggests there might be earlier works in a series we have yet to encounter. The artist has dropped us into the middle of a story for which we must envision the image's prologue and proceedings.
While planned as a long-term installation, “Visionary” will evolve over the coming years, with new acquisitions, and new artists' voices, featured over time. An article in a future edition of African Arts will explore the curatorial logic and processes that led to the exhibition's fall 2017 opening. In the meantime, readers are invited to join with the museum, in the spirit, perhaps, of Yiadom-Boakye's visionary protagonist, in seeing Africa's artistic past and imagining its future.
Recent years have seen additional efforts to identify and rectify weaknesses within the collection that could impede the museum's future ability to conserve and display Africa's arts across time periods, geography, and media. As a result, the museum has launched a photography initiative and become home to works by Sammy Baloji, Gary Schneider, Helga Kohl (Fig. 6), Lalla Essaydi, and Bakari Emmanuel Daou, among others. In addition, in continuation of a Ford-funded project to expand the representation of women artists across media, the museum has sought out and acquired work by both formative modernist women artists and visionary artists working today. Nandipha Mntambo's play upon isolation, stereotype, and exchange, Contact, now greets visitors at the entrance to the permanent collection (Fig. 7), and will soon be joined by Mary Sibande's iconic tribute to generations of South African domestic workers and her own grandmother, Sophie-Merica (Fig. 8). Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's luminous Womanology 12 became the first oil painting by a woman artist to enter the collection (Fig. 9), followed shortly thereafter by a rare canvas by Mozambican modernist Bertina Lopes (Fig. 10). 2013 saw the museum's first acquisition of haute couture—an evening gown created by Nigerian designer Patience Torlowei in response to the exhibition “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” (Fig. 11). Such efforts reveal the profound significance of collections assessments in identifying blind spots that might be left out of the future's past—to return to that insightful turn of phrase by German theorist, Reinhart Kosallek—and limit the language to be shared moving forward. They also point to the new turn in museum practice as artists become increasingly entangled in—or instrumental to—curatorial initiatives.
A DIALOGIC TURN
During his keynote speech at the 2016 African Studies Association conference in Washington, DC, Achille Mbembe elicited more than a few chuckles from the crowd by poking a bit of fun at all the “turns” now taking place across the disciplines of African Studies.14 Within African art history, Mary Nooter Roberts (2012) has most prominently evoked the curatorial “turn” in her poetic First Word on shifts within the field in relation to concepts of “tradition” and contemporaneity. Though not an Africanist, Paul O'Neill has also tackled the idea of the curatorial turn, particularly in relation to group exhibitions. As he writes, “by bringing a greater mix of people into an exhibition, it also created a space for defining multifarious ways of engaging with disparate interests, often within a more trans-cultural context” (2007:14). He goes on to describe artists and curators as cultural agents producing “expressions of persuasion, whose strategies aim to produce a prescribed set of values and social relations for their audiences” (O'Neill 2007:15–16). But there is more to it than this. As Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) has taught us, novels, words, thoughts—and by extension things—exist not in isolation but are connected to what came before and what is still to come. The curatorial turn to which O'Neill refers is dialogic in nature and generated by the creative framings of artists in dialogue with curators as the divide between artists and curators as separate, or successive, narrators of artworks becomes ever narrower.15 As the National Museum of African Art turns toward the future, its curatorial turn relies increasingly on collaborative projects with and between artists. The interpretations and processes we present are more frequently conceived and implemented with artists than about artists.
In 2009, the NMAfA launched its series Artists in Dialogue, in which two artists are invited to create new works of art in a call and response with one another to foreground the dynamics of the creative process (Fig. 12).16 The goal was to peel back the layers separating audiences from artistic production and to highlight the fact that Africa's artists, like artists everywhere, are diverse living, breathing, thinking individuals engaged in global currents. Ideally, this engages visitors in an experience of haptic visuality akin to that espoused by Laura Marks in relation to intercultural cinema that draws “us into a deep connection with all things, absent and present” (2000:110). To accomplish this, the museum offered behind-the-scenes blogs leading up to the opening of the exhibitions and videos of the artists in their studios, artists participated in extensive public programming, the museum created its first mobile app, and an exhibition-specific Twitter feed was installed in the gallery to allow the public to ask questions of museum and artists alike, in addition to the artworks in the gallery and the more traditional print publications to commemorate the process.
While such interactivity is part of what makes “museums matter,” as Stephen Weil would say (2002), it also forecasts the increasing transparency of museums, in general, as we move into the next fifty years. It is also important to note that such open engagement with artists can have its perils—beyond the clichés of sensitive personalities—in that it becomes increasingly important to clarify whose voices combine to present the work of art and how. For the 2013 exhibition and linked projects “Earth Matters”—which surveyed the Earth as a material that has been mapped, interpreted, protected, and manipulated—two strategies of artistic collaboration were employed. Within the interior gallery spaces, works of art were chosen that had been created before the curatorial selection process began, so that the exhibition brought together voices that had already been speaking rather than presenting responses to a curatorial idea. In fact, the themes by which the objects were grouped derived from conversations with artists, like Wangechi Mutu and Clive van den Berg, as to important subjects to consider.17 Outside the museum's walls, however, four artists—Ghada Amer, El Anatsui, Ledelle Moe, and Strijdom van der Merwe—were invited to respond to the themes of the exhibition and create new earthworks, which allowed these spaces to be transformed in ways not previously imagined by the museum or Smithsonian Gardens staff (Fig. 13).18
The ability of artists to transform and reinvigorate museum spaces is not new, but it is still very much a part of the future. For NMAfA, artists have been approached to create new works of art throughout all the museum's nongallery spaces. Windows, stairwells, a bulkhead opening in the ceiling, all of these are anticipated to become sites of interpretation for artists and new arenas of engagement for audiences.19
CODA: CHARTING THE SHARED LANGUAGE FOR NEW FUTURES PAST
While much of this essay has focused on the past, it is because we turn to the future with what we have learned from the past. If Warren Robbins had not seen the benefit in accepting the gift of a pen and ink study by a young artist, the museum today would not have the ability to build to strengths in the arts of the Khartoum school, in particular, and contemporary African art, in general. As the collection grows and new scholars, artists, and communities come in contact with it, the individuals who make up the institution learn to ask new questions. The dialogic turn allows museum staff—from curators to educators, designers, administrators, and the director—to engage with creators to understand what questions the artists are asking while they are asking them, a step beyond critiquing or presenting a review of what concerns artists might have been considering in the past. Museums, like NMAfA, now work with artists from the time an accession is proposed, interviewing the artist and understanding optimal and minimal conditions for the object's presentation. Museum also frequently commission and make possible new works, as can be seen most recently at NMAfA with Emeka Ogboh's Market Symphony—a sound art installation (Cover). Exhibition concepts are conceived, and projects developed, in concert with extensive conversations with artists and other scholars.20 Artists like Renée Stout now routinely serve on the NMAfA's governing board and as the museum searches for a new director, an artist sits on the selection committee. For the past ten years, NMAfA has proactively assisted artists like Kader Attia with their research as they develop future projects (in Attia's case, analyzing repair techniques), as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program.21 And in 2016, NMAfA launched its annual African Art Awards dinner in which two artists will be honored each year for their groundbreaking intellectual pursuits, actions and artworks.22 New technologies, as well as the dialogic turn in methodology, allow museums to create and carry out projects in collaboration with artists and communities. As a result, our shared language becomes increasingly polyvalent.
As we move forward, the dialogic turn will ideally result in museums like NMAfA becoming increasingly inclusive spaces for artists and communities in all their diversity. Currently, NMAfA is working on initiatives to increase the visibility of women in Africa's arts and to create safe space(s) in which LGBTQ artists and other voices of change can speak. Working alongside artists like Milumbe Haimbe and Jim Chuchu, our future will be populated with black, female super heroes and a fusion of music, image, style and attitude.
Ibrahim El Salahi's Untitled ink drawing was not the first work by a named artist to enter the museum's collection. Earlier in 1966, Robbins had accessioned a painting by Uruguayan artist Jorge Dumas and a woodcut print by Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, as the museum had not yet focused its accessions to exclusively the arts of the African continent. All were part of Robbins's efforts to show the far-reaching influence of Africa's arts worldwide. Each came in through different donors.
In 1963, Robbins incorporated the Center for Cross Cultural Communication. Its original advisory board included Margaret Mead, Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller, S.I. Hayakawa, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Mike Wallace. The Center acquired Frederick Douglass's residence on A Street in 1964 for use as the Museum of African Art. Its first exhibition was entitled “Introduction to African Art.” Robbins then founded the Frederick Douglas Institute of Negro Arts and History in 1966 and connected it to the museum. Email communication with Brad Simpson, who archived Warren Robbins's papers, April 25, 2017.
For more on the history of the National Museum of African Art, see Binkley et al. 2010.
On February 9, 2017, the NMAfA partnered with the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture to organize a public program entitled “From Tarzan to Tonto: Stereotypes as Obstacles to Progress Toward a More Perfect Union,” as part of its ongoing efforts to use its platform to address negative stereotypes. https://africa.si.edu/education/from-tarzan-to-tonto/. Accessed February 12, 2017.
In a note at the bottom of a museum form sent to Leslie Judd Ahlander on October 2, 1985 (the only correspondence in the file to include a statement by the donor, who passed away in 2013), Mrs. Ahlander wrote: “The work was purchased from an exhibit of contemporary African art held in Washington on New Hampshire Ave. by an African American Goodwill Group, around 1960, I think.” The Middle East Institute, formerly the Middle East House, is located on 18th Street, right by its intersection with New Hampshire. It is possible the study was made available for sale or gifted in relation to the exhibition, even if the artist did not exhibit it.
This and the following quotes come from an interview with the author at the artist's home in Oxford, England, October 8, 2015.
Unpublished letter in the registration files for 66-25-1, the only gift the Ahlanders made to the museum. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
It should be noted, however, that 416 of these works are cartoon drawings by Victor Ekpuk, as the museum is now home to this archive of this body of the artist's work, as well as three of his “fine arts” drawings.
Lydia Puccinelli, Warren Robbins's widow and a former curator at NMAfA, recalls the 1974 Oshogbo-focused show as the museum's first “contemporary” show, as she considered the Ethiopian religious paintings, Ladi Kwali, and Lamidi Fakeye exhibitions “traditional.” Interestingly, Lamidi Fakeye came to the museum during the run of his show and offered demonstrations. A door he produced is now part of the collection of the John F. Kennedy Center for performing arts in Washington, DC. Conversation with Brad Simpson, former assistant to Warren Robbins and currently digital imaging specialist, NMAfA.
In 1969, Warren Robbins accepted the donation, from Mr. and Mrs. Allan Kulakaw, of an acrylic on paper painting by Pauline Rae Boswell. She was 14 at the time she made the painting—a semi-abstract explosion of flowers. A letter from Roberta M. Fonville of the New Stanley Art Gallery in Nairobi describes that, “Pauline Rae Boswell was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1953. She began her early instruction in with the Kenya Arts Society. In 1964, she had a professional teacher in England before returning to Kenya in 1965. Some early work was included in the junior exhibitions with her first notable success in the Commonwealth Arts Festival, 1965, when the picture was chosen by the selection committee at the Royal College of Arts in London.” Warren Robbins wrote a letter of acceptance for the painting on February 24, 1969: “On behalf of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of African Art, I would like to thank you for the East African tempera painting by Rae. We appreciate your continued interest in the museum's programs and for helping our permanent collection of paintings grow.” Neither Rae nor Flori's works have been exhibited to date. Curator Bryna Freyer also recalls that in the early days of the museum, Robbins was keen to increase the collection numbers in the belief that this growth would strengthen his applications for funding or inspire additional gifts. This last comment is not based on an interview or archive, but consistent with statements she has made to the author over eight-and-a-half years working together as colleagues at the museum.
Ravenhill's successor, David Binkley, was also a champion for contemporary arts, purchasing important works by artists like Ezrom Legae of South Africa.
Harney is also responsible for multiple important exhibitions at NMAfA that testify to the museum's continued commitment to offering its diverse publics a broad range of representations of Africa's arts—including a new sensitivity to issues of diaspora. These include an exhibition in 2000 of collages by Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian that had been accessioned in 1996; the installation of the museum's first permanent collection display of contemporary art, “Encounters with the Contemporary” (2001); and the more the-matically conceived or conceptual shows, “Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora” (2003) and “TEX-Tures: Word and Symbol in Contempoary Art” (2005).
Erin Haney's book Photography and Africa (2010) provides important insights into the interplay between photography and textiles and the role of photography in the display systems of the Mende Sande society. As additional studies emerge that look at the cross over between the misleadingly named “traditional” and “modern” approaches across time, we will gain greater insight into how these spheres overlapped and coexisted.
Keynote address. December 3, 2016. 59th annual African Studies Association conference. Marriott Wardman Hotel, Washington, DC.
Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee's insightful anthology (Grabski and Magee 2013) examines the production of knowledge and change that occurs between artists and scholars of their work through the process of interviews and foreshadows the role of artists in the dialogic turn within curatorial practice.
Of the two completed Artists in Dialogue, the exhibitions were accompanied by websites (see https://africa.si.edu/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/#present), as well as publications. Artists in Dialogue 2 also featured the museum's first mobile app (in both English and Brazilian Portuguese)—which can still be downloaded for free from the Apple store—in an effort to extend the exhibition's reach beyond the physical walls of the museum. A third Artists in Dialogue is planned with Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire that will rethink the lingering presence of performance in the gallery after the performer has moved on and the interactivity of audiences within museum spaces (see Milbourne 2009, 2011).
The 2012 exhibition “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” (Kreamer 2012) was also realized in close conversation with such artists as Karel Nel, Marcus Neustetter, and Willem Boshoff. For “Earth Matters,” both Mutu and van den Berg contributed to the catalogue, along with artists Allan de Souza and George Osodi.
Tremendous thanks are due to Barbara Faust and all the staff of the Smithsonian Gardens who worked with NMAfA colleagues for two years to realize these complex garden installations. For more on the “Earth Matters” projects, see Milbourne (2013) and https://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/index.html. In addition, Anawana Haloba created a site-specific work inside the museum but outside the gallery, and Jeremy Wafer was commissioned to create a new work at the National Air and Space Museum as part of the affiliate exhibition, “Views of Africa.”
Eight artists have been approached and expressed interest in transforming museum spaces. As funds are raised, it is hoped that this might become an ongoing juried project, allowing new ideas to be tapped and museum spaces to be dynamic and changing. Ideally, each installation will be acquired by the museum.
This paper has focused on artists and contemporary art in the museum, but the dialogic approach described here is also true for projects that address communities more broadly. Dr. Amy Staples, Chief Archivist of the Eliot Elisofon Archives, curated “Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria” (2014–2016). She has worked very closely with the court of Benin, the Alonge family, and the families photographed by Alonge. In 2017, the exhibition will travel back to the museum in Benin. The accompanying book was developed collaboratively with partners in Nigeria. Such a project showcases how scholarly projects that include books and exhibitions are now seen as partnerships with artists and communities rather representations of these artists or communities.
2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a program open to emerging, as well as established, artists from around the world to carry out research with Smithsonian collections, archives, and scholars as they create and develop future projects. Past and current fellows connected to Africa have included: Ghada Amer, Sue Williamson, Marcia Kuré, Kader Attia, Mary Evans, Clive van den Berg, Christine Dixie, Mary Sibande, Hervé Youmbi, Aimé Mpane, Evaristus Ogbodo, Peju Alatise, Ian Garrett, Ato Malinda, Milumbe Haimbe, Anawana Haloba, Marcus Neustetter, Sammy Baloji, Victor Mutelekesha, Kiluanji Kia Henda (who was unfortunately unable to come), Dimitri Fagbohoun, Syowia Kyambi, and Sam Hopkins.
In 2016, Yinka Shonibare and Ato Malinda received the African Art Awards, designed by artist Victor Ekpuk. The focus of 2017 is on the underrecognized contributions of women to the arts and politics, and the honorees will be Ghada Amer and Mary Sbande.