Liberia, 1931–33: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk packed a lot of punch into a small space. It told an admirably complex story about Western collecting of African art while bringing to public attention stunning works of art from Liberia that have previously languished in private collections and far-flung institutions. This installation, curated by Christopher B. Steiner, the Lucy C. McDannel ‘22 Professor of Art History and Anthropology at Connecticut College, gave the objects the chance to shine in a multilayered, thoughtful exhibition that largely succeeded in elucidating a complicated collection's history while still highlighting the grace and beauty of artworks by mostly Dan/Gio or Mano artists. Liberia, 1931–33 also featured the artwork of Alfred J. Tulk himself, whose previously little-known paintings, sketches, and drawings added an extra dimension to this tale of contact, change, and cultural exposure (Fig. 1). The clear, concise labels and exhibition brochure revealed the ways in which close and consistent interaction between the societies of northeastern Liberia and Western colonizers was changing the production and consumption of art in Liberia at the same time as it was expanding the artistic vocabulary of Western artists.
In 1931, artist Alfred Tulk journeyed with his wife and children to move into an American missionary station in Ganta, Liberia, founded by Tulk's former Yale roommate, George W. Harley. Harley would famously spend more than three decades working and collecting in Africa, and the objects he purchased formed a keystone collection in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University and in the larger field of African art. Liberia, 1931–33 fills in a missing chapter that deepens and contextualizes this larger story. Harley enticed Alfred and Ethel Tulk to join him in Ganta with exciting tales of the indigenous cultures Harley was beginning to document as an amateur anthropologist. Harley correctly believed that these rich creative traditions would spark inspiration in his artist friend.
Steiner undertook extensive original research for this exhibition, including combing Tulk's diaries to better understand his motivations for working and collecting in Africa. Excerpts from the diaries were helpfully included in the exhibition (Fig. 2). Tulk wished to document, to accurately represent life in rapidly changing Ganta in the 1930s. The inclusion of his work in Liberia, 1931–33, however, did not merely supplement documentary evidence, but added another representational layer to understand production and collecting at this specific moment for both Western and African artists. Tulk's style was permanently altered in Liberia, which was deftly shown through comparative works demonstrating the same scene painted multiple times by the artist. Several of Tulk's later works were also included, and their psychedelic style was great visual fun for the viewer while demonstrating through their expressiveness and dynamic movement the continuing impact Liberian cultures had on the artist. But some of the most arresting pieces are not the more stylized, stereotyped images Tulk refined later, but those painted from real-time observations of everyday life and of rituals in Ganta (Fig. 3).
While Harley had success in lobbying the Peabody Museum to support his collecting habits, Tulk was never as lucky, and his Liberian collection was broadly dispersed over decades. Liberia, 1931–33 reunited the small but quite extraordinary collection of African objects Tulk purchased during his sojourn. Works were loaned from an impressive variety of places that included the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard's Peabody Museum, and various private collections. Even from such institutions, however, Tulk never received the compensation he believed these objects deserved and was disappointed in his hopes for monetary returns similar to Harley's. This exhibition stood out in its willingness to engage with economic contexts, both in terms of production and acquisition, adding a dimension to the conversation surrounding collecting that is all too often ignored. It did not shy away from examining how this context dictated the African art that Western collectors were interested in or able to purchase and how it shaped the artistic output of both Tulk and the African artists from whom he was purchasing.
The lackluster response to Tulk's attempts to sell his Liberian collection hit the artist particularly hard. He had viewed his trip to Africa, and the inspiration and the art collection he gained there, as investments toward his career during the tough Depression years. Liberia in the 1930s was also facing major economic shifts, and it was only because of these that Tulk was even able to amass a collection of such high-value objects. The country was moving toward a cash economy, and property taxes were levied to push inhabitants into the workforce for encroaching international cash-crop organizations. For some, another source of cash was to sell their prized ritual goods to Westerners (Fig. 4). A excerpt from Tulk's diaries, included in the exhibition brochure, walks through such an interaction, an invaluable narrative addition to the scholarship of African art. Artists in Liberia had also begun to make objects specifically for resale, an emerging phenomenon in this area. The revelation of Tulk's careful records of this shift in this exhibition opened new avenues of exploration into the art of Liberia for future researchers.
Tulk collected both types of artworks, ritually used and “tourist,” and seeing them side by side creates a layered, complex visual conversation. Seen together, these objects tell a far richer story of collecting and producing then they do alone. This effect was heightened through the coherent display of these objects, despite a challenging space. The subterranean gallery was shared with a hodge-podge of other objects from the university's collections. However, cases were arranged to demarcate the exhibition clearly and careful placement allowed the exhibition to feel uncrowded and gave the most stunning African objects room to shine. Architectural challenges became strengths, such as the installation of the show-stopping embroidered man's robe, whose remarkable graphic details were shown to best effect in a permanent niche (Figs. 5–6). The complementary dark navy walls and warm wood accents created a welcoming space.
The object labels and collateral pieces were informative and concise, framing the themes of the exhibition for familiar and lay audiences alike without overpowering the visual impact of the objects themselves. The audio guide was also engaging, with Steiner himself presenting accessible tidbits (both in-person and remotely through a simple website) about select objects. Occasionally, however, further contextualization would have been welcome, particularly in the case of an untitled wooden sculpture by Tulk; the figural bust was likely an experiment, Tulk's only foray into wooden carved sculpture, but the racist imagery employed is reminiscent of turn-of-the-century minstrelsy. Its inclusion in the exhibition was not unimportant, as it reveals many of the preconceptions and misconceptions Americans brought to their interactions with indigenous African groups. But the imagery was jarring and required further explanation than is given in the label.
The plural “collections” in the exhibition title aptly reflected the narrative told in this exhibition. It is a complicated one, with multiple threads and layers of representation. On view was not just one collection, and not just one view of Africa. Steiner and the Fairfield University Art Museum should be commended for their willingness to take on complicated themes and for the accessibly communicated scholarship that expanded this small show beyond its square footage. Liberia, 1931–33 is a step forward in the study of Liberian art not just through its reassembling of Tulk's African collection, but through the reunion of those artworks with Tulk's own paintings. The exhibition has brought into focus a vibrant, shifting, innovative moment in Ganta, one that sparked fascinating work by both Tulk and the African artists from whom he was learning.