Upon entering the Newark Museum's reinstallation of its Arts of Global Africa collection, visitors are immediately greeted with Yinka Shonibare's spectacular Lady Walking a Tightrope (2006; Fig. 1). The life-size, headless female figure balances precariously on a rope stretching diagonally across a corner space. Lady Walking a Tightrope is positioned high—above eye-level, as any tightrope walker would be—and captures the immediate attention and the upward gaze of visitors as they enter the gallery. Shonibare's Lady is dressed in the artist's signature Dutch wax fabric, and the heavy layers of the brightly colored textile surely make her task—walking across the tightrope—even more challenging. Indeed, the figure's left hand grips a fistful of the dress, pulling it up so as not to trip as she balances with her right arm stretched backwards.
Positioned just to the right of Shonibare's work is a second remarkable sculpture: Man with Bicycle, a Yoruba carving. The man has paused momentarily with his bicycle, while en route to market, carrying and balancing significantly high and heavy load of goods on his head.
These paired works open the exhibition with the connected themes of careful balance and purposeful, forward movement. Together they speak to the daunting challenge faced by a curator who is tasked with presenting a vision for the Global Arts of Africa with only fifty-four objects (selected from the vast permanent collection of nearly 6,000 works) and arranging those objects to fit into a mere 1,500 square-foot space (reduced from the originally proposed 8,400 square-foot plan).
The installation, curated by Christa Clarke, is conceptually rich and visually compelling, in spite of these constraints. As the museum's first dedicated curator of the Arts of Global Africa, Clarke's keen and creative vision has shaped this exhibition. Nearly ten years in the making and the result of fifteen years of dedicated collecting and curatorial work, it also reflects the collective input of an advisory team of distinguished curators, educators, and academics as well as others who worked with Clarke in the department. Several temporary curatorial positions were funded by a multiyear grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for which Clarke served as project director since 2011. The grant also supported research on the collection and the publication of the first-ever African art collections catalogue. A Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities provided additional funding toward the reinstallation of the galleries in a new and renovated space. Today the Newark Museum holds one of the most diverse and vital collections of contemporary African art in the world.
Arts of Global Africa opened on December 8, 2017, the centennial year of the Newark's African art collection. The reinstallation was a key piece of the Newark Museum's larger revitalization project, during which its African art collection moved to its new location: a prominent space with greater visibility just off the busy main lobby and on the first floor of the museum. Odili Donald Odita's magnificent mural Gateway (Fig. 2), a site-specific work commissioned by Clarke for the occasion, surrounds the Museum's central lobby and visitor center. Odita's mural is positioned along the upper register of the walls, calling attention to the exhibit and helping to draw visitors into the space. Visually, Odita's bright, multicolored work elevates the central museum space and underscores the importance of African art at the Newark Museum.
The span of exhibited works encompasses historical pieces like an embroidery fragment from eighteenth century Azemmour, Morocco, to more recent photographs by Seydou Keita, Samuel Fosso, and Lalla Essaydi. The exhibition includes a range of media from across the continent and diaspora: a carved wood Bamana headdress from early twentieth century Mali; a painted Ethiopian triptych depicting a Christian Madonna and Child (late sixteenth–early seventeenth century); and a glass flask, shaped like a pomegranate, from ancient Egypt (twelfth century BCE).
The exhibit uses the Newark collection to tell a story of the extent to which African and African diasporic artists have contributed to world visual culture and creative expression.
The exhibition revolves around five organizational themes that effectively guide both the visitor's thinking and movement through the space:
• What is African Art?
• Spirituality and Belief
• Art and Leadership
• The Cultured Body
• Arts of Global Africa in the 21st Century
The collection occupies three spacious, well-lit, connected rooms; concise and clearly written labels provide focus. In the smaller entrance space, the introductory theme, “What is African Art?” cites Chimamanda Adichie's “The Danger of a Single Story,” underscoring diversity and difference in Africa's creative arts. The Nigerian author and feminist's words also signal the presence of black women as subjects and as makers—a key strength of this exhibition and of the Newark's permanent collection as a whole.
One highlight is the magnificent Epa/Elefon headdress with warrior (Orangun) (ca. 1920s), a towering sculpture in the middle of the central gallery (Fig. 3). This complex, intricately carved work by Nigerian artist Bamgboye of Odo Owa anchors the room visually. The headdress is surrounded by works that connect to the next three exhibition themes: “The Cultured Body” explores imagery related to the human body, its presentation and adornment. “Art and Leadership” speaks to political or royal leadership, including an assemblage of stunning gold Asante regalia, three “seats of power,” and a factory-printed textile featuring an identifiable political leader, Nelson Mandela.
In “Spirituality and Belief,” Osi Audu's absorbing Outer and Inner Head (2002) is paired with a beautifully crafted Yoruba house for the head (ile ori). These objects complement each other visually as they amplify each other's meaning. Audu's abstract diptych presents the artist's philosophical understanding of the head as a container, an idea drawn from Yoruba beliefs about human consciousness. This reflection on the head is likewise communicated in the mixed media ile ori. The label includes a quote from Audu that explains these concepts to the viewer. This example also points to a strength of this exhibition: contemporary artists are exhibited alongside historical works in juxtapositions that draw out or illicit new meanings.
“Arts of Global Africa in the 21st Century” occupies the exhibition's third and final room, visually dominated by a stunning sculptural piece by Simone Leigh. Untitled (2017; Fig. 4) consists of dozens of massive handmade ceramic cowrie shells. Enlarged, abstracted, and gathered together, these cowries hang from the ceiling, exerting a tremendous physical presence that is simultaneously beautiful and threatening. Viewed from below, they take on a slightly menacing quality.
It is worth mentioning that while Leigh's artistic career has experienced a meteoric rise in recent months with accolades from The New York Times, Guggenheim Museum's Hugo Boss prize, and a High Line sculptural commission, the piece here was Leigh's very first museum commission. Clarke commissioned it in 2015, underscoring the strength of her curatorial vision and foresight, her ability to identify artistic talent in promising artists.
Along with the Epa/Elefon headdress, Leigh's work prompts a conversation with the works that surround it, including El Anatsui's Many Came Back (2005) and a pair of photographs by Ayana Jackson: Etta and Aina from the series Dear Sarah (2016).
Jackson's work uncovers and explores the life histories of black women through photographic means (Fig. 5). She tells the tragic story of Sarah Bonetta Forbes, a nineteenth century Yoruba woman who was born into a royal family but then kidnapped and enslaved. Eventually Forbes was presented as a “gift” to Queen Victoria by King Ghezo of Dahomey. In this moving series of portraits Jackson uses her own body to reclaim and retell Forbes's story. The artist transforms herself to take on the various roles experienced by Forbes. Jackson renames Forbes in various photographic iterations. Etta shows Sarah dressed in expensive fabric and sitting in a formal, seated pose, taking on the pose of a royal figure. In the opposing image Jackson renames Sarah as Aina, here dressed entirely in white, with arms raised in an angelic pose, as if floating in air or on water.
A 360-page collections catalogue accompanies the exhibition and features over 100 high-quality color images. The book, edited by Clarke, features several lengthy scholarly essays by both Clarke and leading scholars in the field, as well as 100 shorter catalogue entries by 45 contributing authors.