all images courtesy the Newark Museum of Art
Since my earliest days as a student of African art, I have been interested in the history of collecting and exhibiting Africa's arts in the West and, by extension, the politics of representation. This research interest has been, for me, not just academic. My curatorial practice has been shaped by a historical and theoretical understanding of Western museums and museology. This, in turn, has heightened my awareness of institutional contexts and how curators contribute to the production of knowledge about, and reception of, African art. The unconventional history and collection of the Newark Museum (renamed the Newark Museum of Art in 2019) in New Jersey, where I served as a curator for sixteen years, afforded me the latitude to challenge the temporal and geographic boundaries that have long defined Africa's arts in museums. This essay looks back at how I responded to, and sought to redefine, Newark's material and conceptual legacies through strategies of collecting and display that focused on modern and contemporary arts of global Africa.
I came to the Newark Museum in 2002 from the Neuberger Museum of Art, where I served as the first staff curator of African Art.1 The Neuberger was my first curatorial position after several years of fellowships at the National Museum of African Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and a string of adjunct teaching appointments at George Washington University, the Corcoran School of Art, and Rutgers University). The Neuberger is part of Purchase College, a progressive arts school located in affluent Westchester county and one of the many campuses of the State University of New York system. Established in 1974, the museum is largely known for its collection of modern and contemporary Western art, the core of which was donated by philanthropist Roy R. Neuberger. A major gift of central African art from Lawrence Gussman, a local patron who began collecting after meeting Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Gabon in the 1950s, led to the establishment of a permanent curatorial position for African art in 1999.
The Neuberger's collection, though relatively small, was representative of the “classical” African art seen in many US art museums. Such collections have historically focused on tradition-based masks and figural sculptures from West and Central Africa, an enduring canon largely shaped by Western taste over the course of the twentieth century. In addition to the Gussman gift, the Neuberger's holdings included a group of West African objects collected by Aimee Hirshberg and donated the year the museum opened. The museum's support base also had a number of long-time collectors of “classical” African art, most notably Marc and Denyse Ginzberg, who donated works to the museum as well.
The masks and figural sculptures in the Neuberger collection, while offering formal connections with the museum's holdings of modern and contemporary Western art, seemed to me a limited representation the continent's artistic creativity. In my relatively brief, three-year tenure at the Neuberger, I focused on acquisitions and exhibitions that expanded the typological, temporal, and geographic boundaries of the collection. This included introducing textile-based works like a Yoruba Egúngún masquerade costume as well as examples of mid-twentieth century South African arts of personal adornment into the collection. I organized an exhibition that focused on the artistry of African shields, a genre whose utilitarian nature had largely excluded it from the canon, and another that presented recent paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof, the Neuberger's first exhibition of a contemporary artist from Africa.2 Considered in retrospect, these modest efforts presaged the curatorial strategies I later pursued at the Newark Museum.
Arriving at the Newark Museum in 2002, I found an entirely different institutional context and historical legacy than that of the Neuberger, one that encouraged a creative engagement with—and my rethinking of—the collection. The Newark Museum was established in 1909 by John Cotton Dana, one of the most innovative museum practitioners of the past century. Building on the precedent of the South Kensington Museum in London (now known as the Victoria & Albert), Dana envisioned the Newark Museum as a deliberate departure from the museum type represented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the river in New York. Instead of a temple devoted to masterpieces of “high” art, he proposed a civic institution dedicated to “art, science and industry” and of practical use to the diverse communities in the city, then a bustling urban center of industry with a majority immigrant population.
Dana, who began his career as a librarian, wanted this new model of a museum to do for visual learning what libraries did for book learning (the Newark Museum was, in fact, housed in Newark Public Library from its founding until the creation of a purpose-built museum in 1926). His vision was one that embraced visual culture broadly and was committed to the “art of today”; its collecting scope was international and diverse in media, and not grounded in the European “Old Masters.” Although, like most museums, its founding patrons included prominent and wealthy city businessmen, under Dana's leadership, the Newark Museum was not a place where the social elite displayed their treasures. Instead, its exhibitions challenged mainstream museum thinking of the era by showcasing the beauty of everyday objects as well as the work of living artists, and by representing global culture, including African art (see Clarke 2018).
Though unfamiliar with this institutional legacy when I joined Newark's staff, I readily embraced the prospect of working with such an extensive and historically interesting African art collection and was eager to research not only the objects but also the larger collecting history. The Museum began to acquire African material in 1917, as part of a larger department then termed Ethnology, which included objects from the Pacific and indigenous Americas as well. Its origins reflect Dana's desire to increase public understanding of world cultures through objects, especially those representing folk traditions and others of everyday use that demonstrated good design. From the start, the African collection was geographically wide-ranging (the first acquisitions in 1917 were from South Africa, the Congo, and Sudan), initially assembled primarily through collections formed by Americans living or traveling in Africa. This included Dana himself, who made three collecting trips to North Africa in the 1920s and came back with hundreds of objects, mostly representative of contemporary life (the resulting exhibition, Modern Cairo and a Few Egyptian Antiquities , stands in stark contrast to the craze for ancient Egypt in Western museums at the time). Dana's varied interests and open mind about what a museum should collect resulted in diverse holdings spanning the entire continent. A century later, Newark's collection of some 6,000 objects includes examples of canonical sculpture, but also embraces genres underrepresented in most art museum collections, such as dress and objects of domestic use, and works from northern, eastern, and southern Africa.
This collection, combined with Dana's museological philosophy, offered a grounding well suited to my own evolving curatorial vision for African art and its institutional representation. Soon after I began my tenure, I moved to push the boundaries of the collection further by acquiring and exhibiting modern and contemporary arts of Africa. This redirection of collecting priorities was intended to amplify the museum's mostly historic holdings from the continent to better reflect and represent contemporary realities of artistic production. But importantly, it was also, to my mind, very much in keeping with Newark's foundational dedication to the “art of today.” From a twenty-first century perspective, Dana's vision allowed for the development of a broad-based collection of contemporary art, one that includes “fine art” alongside other art-making practices categorized as popular or tradition-based.
My interest in contemporary arts of Africa dates to my first visit to the continent as a graduate student in 1990, to southeastern Nigeria with my advisor, Professor Ekpo Eyo of the University of Maryland. Although my research then focused on the centuries-old carved monoliths in Cross River State, I was more interested in the range of contemporary arts I was introduced to for the first time that summer. This included seeing the work of Bruce Onobrakpeya, El Anatsui, and others at the privately owned Didi Museum in Lagos, a brief visit to the workshop of sculptor Lamidi Fakẹyẹ, and experiencing the multitude of cement sculpture studios while en route to the far southeastern part of the country. These experiences seemed at odds with the more limited canon I was seeing in museums in the United States, reinforced in survey texts where contemporary art was largely absent (Susan Vogel's 1991 exhibition, Africa Explores, was an important remediation the following year).
Ultimately, the disconnect that I observed between reality and representation led me to explore how the category of “African art” has been constructed in the West (specifically, the United States), through collecting and display (see Clarke 1995, 1998, 2015; Berzock and Clarke 2010). And though throughout my graduate education in the 1990s, I remained interested in contemporary arts, which were beginning to gain attention in the United States and beyond (and even had an opportunity to curate an early exhibition of the work of Senegalese artist Mor Faye in 1997),3 I was advised not to pursue a dissertation in this area: In the early 1990s, the majority opinion of established Africanist art historians in the United States deemed contemporary topics a risky pathway to a professional career in the field. Instead, I studied the establishment of the very canon I found so troubling, writing my dissertation on the influential collector of African art, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and the Barnes Foundation.
My position at the Newark Museum, however, ultimately provided an opening to pursue my interest in contemporary art, in part through its unusual curatorial department structure. Despite its longstanding commitment to the “art of today,” Newark has never had a stand-alone department devoted to contemporary art. Within departments classified by geography or genre, curators have varying degrees of engagement with—and definitions of—the contemporary. When I joined the museum, there were four other staffed departments: American Art, Arts of Asia, Classical Art, and Decorative Arts, in addition to the department that I headed, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific, or AAP (as it was then known). Institutional representation of contemporary arts largely resided in the American and Decorative Arts departments, both of which had active acquisition and exhibition programs.
In many ways, former AAP curator Anne Spencer had paved the way for the modern and contemporary initiative through forward-thinking acquisitions during her twenty-five-year tenure. Spencer had early on collected unconventional examples of “decorative arts,” particularly textiles, that reflected the hybridity of modern experience. In 1980, for example, Spencer began to develop a decidedly contemporary (and noncanonical) collection of factory printed textiles, which were mass produced in both Europe and in Africa for African patrons and carried contemporary sentiments and sensibilities. The complicated spatial and temporal narratives embedded in such works raised questions about the nature of the “traditional” and “authenticity,” markers that had long served to define Western museum collections of African art. Spencer didn't shy away from collecting other works of contemporary “popular art,” such as a “fantasy coffin” in the form of an eagle by an artist in Kane Kwei's workshop in Teshi, Ghana, acquired in 1992. And in 1996, Spencer collaborated with Decorative Arts curator Ulysses Grant Dietz to acquire a ceramic work by Magdalene Odundo. This work by a celebrated, internationally recognized, studio-trained artist in many ways established a breach in the institutional definition of “African art” (see Okeke-Agulu 2018). Two years later, Spencer initiated the collecting of African photography with the purchase of mid-twentieth century photographs by Seydou Keïta, whose body of work had only recently come to attention in the West. (Spencer had also acquired several works on paper from the 1980s by South African artists in 1994).
Just a few months after I arrived at Newark, the museum was offered a cement sculpture by Nigerian artist Sunday Jack Akpan as a gift by the Museum for African Art. The Museum for African Art had commissioned the sculpture for their 1991 exhibition Africa Explores, but was not, at the time, a collecting institution; the sculpture had long been housed in off-site storage. Newark seemed a perfect destination, as it was known in the area for the unconventional acquisitions made under Spencer's stewardship of the collection. Given my own encounters with cement sculpture while in Nigeria in 1990, I was thrilled to bring the work of Akpan—a master of the genre—into the collection.
In this first year, I also built upon Spencer's earlier acquisitions of studio photography by Seydou Keïta with purchases of works from the 1970s by Sukhdeo Mohanlall and Samuel Fosso. I was drawn to studio portraiture as a genre in part for the sense of artistic agency it demonstrated, showing Africans as they wished to be represented. The specific artists were also interesting to me as contemporaries in this genre who working in very different ways. And on a practical note, as a curator who then lacked a budget for any travel, they were among the very few photographers from Africa whose work was being represented by New York galleries at that time (Axis Gallery and Sean Kelly, respectively). I included the new acquisitions, along with the earlier Seydou Keïta purchases, in a small exhibition at Newark entitled In the Studio: Portrait Photographs from Africa that ran from December 2003 until July 2004.
But it was the 2004 exhibition My Ethiopia: Recent Paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof—the museum's first exhibition of work by a contemporary artist from Africa—that really solidified institutional support for the department's new emphasis. My Ethiopia (Fig. 1) was originally organized for and first presented at the Neuberger Museum of Art. The exhibition featured recent paintings by the Ethiopian-born, California-based artist that explored the aesthetic properties and potential of Amharic script. I had been introduced to Wosene's work through Skoto Gallery, which has long played a pioneering role among New York City galleries in introducing the work of artists from Africa. Wosene's art was both formally and conceptually compelling to me—a deeply personal visual language drawing upon both the artist's Ethiopian heritage and his experiences living in the United States. At Newark, the exhibition was mounted in a gallery adjacent to the museum's long-term installation of the arts of Africa. Although small, this dedicated space allowed me the flexibility to mount a series of changing exhibitions over the years, beginning with My Ethiopia, that were collectively intended to broaden the conceptual, temporal and geographic boundaries of “African art.”
The curatorial strategy for My Ethiopia aimed to highlight the individuality of the artist's practice and place the work within a transnational context. The artist's global experiences and multiple artistic influences were emphasized throughout the exhibition and his personal perspective included through liberal use of quotations in the label copy. I also invited Wosene to provide commentary for Objects of Devotion, a simultaneous display of historical Ethiopian art from Newark's collection in the permanent gallery next door. Wosene's commentary spoke to the ways his own practice extended, responded to or, more often, deviated from the historic works. In his exhibition review for the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter (2004) picked up on the ways in which it complicated simplistic notions of identity and influence:
Is Wosene an African artist? An American artist? Modern? Postmodern? He is all of these. And however indirectly, his art is a reminder that African art may borrow elements of modern Western style, but in absolutely essential ways, Western modernist art originated in Africa.
My Ethiopia was well received by the museum's staff, board of trustees, and our audiences, bolstering my efforts to acquire contemporary arts of Africa for the permanent collection and to mount other exhibitions of modern and contemporary work. The following year, in 2005, I presented a revised acquisition policy to the museum's acquisitions committee that established new collecting priorities more firmly focused contemporary arts of Africa. Anne Spencer, my predecessor, not only paved the way for this shift in her collecting for the museum but also presaged the new direction in an internal collecting document she wrote upon her retirement in 1999. Identifying priorities for the coming decade, Spencer wrote:
The cultures of Africa are vibrantly alive and continue to grow and evolve. It is important for the Museum to be able to portray this vitality through the selective acquisition of contemporary work such as contemporary ceramics, to avoid the pitfall of representing African cultures as dead … We are not alone in this approach to collecting. The National Museum of African Art, the Seattle Art Museum and the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, to name a few, own work by contemporary artists.4
The collecting policy that I proposed in 2005 was presented first to Director Mary Sue Sweeney Price for discussion and then to the trustees serving on the museum's acquisitions committee. Sweeney supported establishing contemporary arts of Africa as a collecting priority, which we both argued was in keeping with the museum's historic commitment to living artists. The parameters for acquisitions were intentionally broad, defined as “important work by contemporary artists from Africa, both those working in an international fine art context and those working in local contexts of artistic production” and was inclusive of works by artists born and/or living and working in Africa.5 In this way, the new policy 2007). For me, an equally important if less public highlight was seeing how my interns engaged with their work, interviewing their parents about the era and gaining, as they told me, a new appreciation for the artistic dimensions of this challenging period of Nigerian history. Another Modernity had an even greater impact institutionally beyond its 2006 presentation. Newark's demonstrated interest in representing both modern and contemporary arts of Africa led ultimately to a transformational 2012 gift from Dr. Simon Ottenberg, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, of some 145 works of art collected mostly during research trips to Africa beginning in the 1950s and often directly from the artists themselves. Ottenberg's gift nearly doubled the existing collection of modern and contemporary arts of Africa and established institutional strengths in pre- and postindependence period works by Nigerian artists. In addition to a group of ink drawings by Uche Okeke (Fig. 2), the Ottenberg gift also included works by Akinola Lasekan, Obiora Udechukwu, Taiyo Adenaike, Olu Oguibe, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Marcia Kure, among others.
The second 2006 exhibition, Expanding Africa: New Art, New Directions, was the first of several exhibitions in which I adopted an experimental interpretative approach to representing contemporary art. In addition to debuting the museum's new collecting initiative, I wanted to also draw attention to, and provoke discussion about, the constructed category of contemporary African art and its representation in museum spaces. As a curator committed to questions of taxonomy, identity, and geography, I used the introductory text to raise key issues directly for visitors: How do we define contemporary African art when artistic practices are so varied? Should we only consider art by artists who live and work on the African continent or also those who have moved away from their homelands? Should contemporary African art be included as part of a museum's gallery of African art or displayed with other examples of contemporary art? Visitors filled three notebooks with wide-ranging, thoughtful, and often passionate responses. For example, some visitors believed it critical to include contemporary art within the African art gallery to demonstrate the on-going creativity of artists from the continent. Others felt strongly that the work of Africa's artists should be presented with that of their peers elsewhere, given that their visual vocabulary and artistic concerns transcend cultural, national, or geographic boundaries. This debate continues across museums.
Addressing the latter perspective has been a central concern and challenge in my practice as a curator whose territory, so to speak, is defined by geography. As noted earlier, the department's changing gallery space did afford a certain amount of curatorial freedom over the years to mount different kinds of exhibitions. A limitation, however, was the fact that all of these shows were essentially seen as part of larger galleries devoted to “African art.” And, of course, “Africanness”—certainly a fraught and complicated construct—is not the only viable lens for understanding and interpreting contemporary arts of Africa in a globalizing world. Because I wanted to make a place for African art within a global context, I sought opportunities to work collaboratively with other curators at Newark across departmental boundaries in order for the collection to be presented in exhibitions outside of the galleries devoted to African art. This institutional practice actually began not with contemporary art but in a 2004 exhibition (with a now cringe-worthy title), Baubles, Bangles, and Bling Bling: A World of Jewelry, an exploration of the cultural meaning of jewelry across geography, culture, and time jointly developed by Ulysses Dietz (Curator, Decorative Arts), Valrae Reynolds (Curator, Asian Art), and myself.
Five years later, to mark the Museum's 2009 centennial, the Newark Museum presented Unbounded: New Art for a New Century, an exhibition featuring works by forty living artists from around the world. All were acquired during the preceding fifteen years by curators in the museum's departments of American Art, Arts of Asia, Decorative Arts, and the newly constituted Arts of Africa. In fact, the very concept of the exhibition emerged from our acquisitions committee meetings, which were typically attended by all the curators. Discussions among the curators during these meetings often brought to light connections—unexpected and otherwise—between the works being considered for acquisition and other works from different departmental collections. For instance, when I presented Sue Williamson's 2003 video and sound installation Better Lives I and II at a 2008 acquisition meeting, it engendered a larger conversation about other video artists represented in Newark's collection, including Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. Similarly, my acquisition of Kholofelo Nkomane Mahfahla's Wedding Day, a 2003 textile by Rossinah Maepa created as part did not propose a singular definition of an “African” aesthetic nor other specific criteria (for example, a work did not have to respond to cultural traditions in order to be accepted into the collection). The revised acquisitions policy also embraced different art-making practices, ranging from global contemporary art to more local art forms (for example, contemporary bogolan textiles from Mali, or urban sign painting), subverting traditional distinctions between art and craft, modernity and tradition, local and global—taxonomies that are largely defined by the West.
The revised policy also formally established African art as a separate department existing within the larger AAP Department (though still with a single curator, myself). This was a gesture toward clarifying curatorial stewardship of the department, as someone with expertise in African art, not art of the Americas and Pacific, which henceforth required the expertise of consultants (my secondary areas of expertise are the overlapping categories of modern and contemporary and African-American art). And it was equally meant as a step toward dismantling the outmoded and ultimately demeaning grouping of these disparate and enormous collecting geographies, variants of which have been all too common at collecting institutions in the West. As importantly, the department was named “Arts of Africa,” an addition of the designation “art” to a department formerly framed as “Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific”, while “of Africa” was chosen over “African art” to signify that the works in the department are united by a common geographical origin rather than a singular “African” quality or aesthetic.
Looking back, two exhibitions that I organized in 2006 in the department's rotating gallery space set a future path for Newark's new initiative. This dedicated gallery space allowed for the presentation of exhibitions that might not otherwise be featured in the museum's primary—and much larger—changing exhibition gallery on the first floor, typically reserved for the hoped-for “blockbuster.” The first was Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke (February—July 2006). In developing the exhibition, I sought to foreground the creative process of this pioneering artist during the critical period that bookended Nigerian independence.6 I saw this kind of small, focused exhibition on an individual artist and an earlier historical period as a needed addition to the larger survey shows of contemporary African art at the time. The planning of the exhibition offered an opportunity to work with two interns, students at nearby Rutgers-Newark who, like Okeke, were Igbo. Having grown up primarily in the United States, they expressed a desire to learn more about their cultural heritage and took on the creation of a timeline of Nigerian political and cultural events that accompanied the exhibition. In framing the exhibition, I chose a title that signaled the plurality of modernisms beyond the dominant Western paradigm and, at the same time, deliberately avoided referencing Africa, or even Nigeria, in order to foreground the individual artist rather than his identity (getting the title approved by the museum's marketing department was, to my mind, one of the most significant achievements of this project).
Institutional concerns prior to the exhibition's opening that the topic was too esoteric were put to rest by its critical and popular reception (see Cotter 2006; Genocchio 2006). A highlight during the exhibition's run was an historic public dialogue at the museum reuniting the artist with the writer Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 book, Things Fall Apart, was originally illustrated by Okeke (Clarke of the Mapula Embroidery Project, sparked connections with the long tradition of quilting in the United States and Europe associated with weddings. These conversations reinforced the global nature of contemporary art and often blurred boundaries between art and craft.
It seemed fitting to celebrate Newark's centennial with a twenty-first century take on its founding mission to collect the “art of our time.” My colleagues and I proposed a curatorial model for Unbounded that was cross-departmental, collaborative, and embraced a range of art-making practices: I served as the leader of an exhibition team that included the other three curators—Katherine Anne Paul (Arts of Asia), Ulysses Grant Dietz (Decorative Arts), and Beth Venn (American Art). Working together to develop the checklist and interpretative framework, we each brought our specialized perspectives to bear in the collaborative representation of contemporary art. The works selected for inclusion spanned the globe and included painting, sculpture, video art, industrial design, fashion, mixed media installation, jewelry, and “folk art.” For example, among the works I chose from my department (in addition to the acquisitions mentioned previously) were a painting by Togolese artist Sokey Edorh, a mixed media work by South African Senzeni Marasela, a sculptural installation by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, and a factory-print cloth outfit made by an unrecorded dressmaker for the Malian actress Fatoumata Coulibaly (Fig. 3). The institutional paradigm proposed through this exhibition reflected not only the plurality of artistic centers (beyond the Western “centers”) but also of art-making practices, offering what we hoped would be a more comprehensive perspective on global contemporary art.
The range of African art-making practices included in Unbounded communicated a desire—as a scholar particularly attentive to canon formation and its omissions—to try to look beyond the standard gallery and art fair sources in developing Newark's collection. A limited if not nonexistent department budget hampered travel for much of my tenure, leading me to rely on international networks, both cultivated and happenstance. For example, the wedding scene by Rossinah Maepa was one of two textiles made by members of the Mapula Embroidery Project and acquired with the assistance of South African art historian Brenda Schmahmann. Fortuitous encounters also sometimes resulted in gifts to the collection. The dress made for Fatoumata Coulibaly was given to the museum by the Malian actress in 2005 when she visited for a screening of her recent film Moolaadé as part of the museum's long-running Black Film Festival. The 2004 film, directed by Ousmane Sembène, addresses the subject of female genital mutilation. Ms. Coulibaly, who is also known for her activism, arrived at the museum wearing the dress, made from a factory-printed textile designed to commemorate the first International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, which was held in Bamako in 2005. Prior to the screening, as I toured Ms. Coulibaly through the African art galleries, she was particularly moved to see works from her country. She was surprised and delighted especially by examples of contemporary bogolan textiles by Nakunte Diarra, a friend of hers, that I had acquired the prior year. In discussing the collection with the actress, I spoke about the museum's longstanding interest in African textiles, including commemorative factory print cloth like the dress she was wearing. Ms. Coulibaly returned to the museum the following day, presenting her neatly folded dress as a gift to the museum.
The multiple curatorial perspectives that informed the exhibition were apparent in the podcast at the introduction to the exhibition, which featured the four curators offering sometimes overlapping, sometimes differing, reflections on contemporary art and the rationale behind the exhibition.7 Three broad organizing themes highlighted shared concerns and ideas among the diverse works. “Mixed Messages” presented works by artists who find inspiration in the visual power of symbols and their associated, sometimes conflicting, meanings. A second theme, “Revisiting History,” presented the works of artists who mine the past, especially family histories. The final theme, “The Human Condition,” highlighted works that explore issues of human consciousness and experience. In the exhibition itself, select works of art had label copy jointly written by two curators. These interpretative strategies prompted our visitors to consider how specialists from different areas of art look at, think about, and analyze works of art.
Unbounded, we believed, offered a model for the representation of contemporary art in a globalizing world, one that made a place for varied approaches to art-making and curatorial interpretation and challenged traditional museological classifications. It prompted dialogue about definitions of contemporary art and how forces of globalization were reshaping its presentation in the public sphere. Our public responded enthusiastically, embracing the exhibition's mix of “high” and “low” and the inclusion of artists beyond the mainstream (Western) art centers. On its opening night, one of the museum's patrons felt the exhibition's model so important that she committed to funding a publication that would serve as a lasting document (like many projects at the Newark Museum, a perpetually underresourced institution, this was done on a shoestring budget without funds for a catalogue; see Clarke 2009).
The exhibition also generated much positive press, including a review in the New York Times by Benjamin Genocchio, who lauded how we “set aside the usual turf wars and decided to mix things up,” calling it “a magical show of astonishing, beautiful things from the museum's encyclopedic collection” (Genocchio 2009). Interestingly, the one negative review, by Ken Johnson, also writing for the Times, seemed to miss the point altogether, critiquing the exhibition for the very thing it challenged. Johnson conceded that the diversity on view was “mildly engaging,” but complained that, with the exception of Bill Viola and Martin Puryear, the exhibition included “no famous artists, and none of the usual darlings of the international art scene.” He concluded dismissively that “instead of trying to compete in that arena, the museum has evidently been collecting with an eye to the perceived interests of the local community: a multicultural audience that it apparently assumes to be more responsive to social and political issues than to avant-garde style” (Johnson 2009). Working in the shadow and against the grain of the mainstream art world has long been a challenge for the Newark Museum. A decade later, Johnson's critique—thankfully—seems even more out of touch.
Artist interventions and commissions afforded further opportunities to present contemporary art outside the framework of “African art.” In 2009, I invited artist Yinka Shonibare MBE to create a site-responsive installation in Newark's historic Ballantine house, an 1885 Victorian-era home that is part of the museum's campus. This was one of four artist commissions that were also part of the museum's centennial celebration. Invited artists responded to the museum's history and diverse collections, finding points of intersection and connection between seemingly divergent areas. Shonibare was ideally suited, having long explored the intertwined histories of Europe and Africa, especially those of the colonial era. And though he works in a range of media, he is especially known for his use of “Dutch wax” factory-printed textiles that have come to signify “Africanness,” and a unique strength of Newark's collection, as previously discussed.
For this project, I again collaborated with Ulysses Dietz, who provided Shonibare with important historical and cultural background on the Ballantine House. The result was Party Time: ReImagine America, a theatrical sculptural tableau staged in the Ballantine House's opulent dining room (Fig. 4). Eight headless figures (typical of Shonibare's figurative sculptures) are midway through a lavish dinner party, their behavior tipping toward debauchery as the servant appears bearing the main course, a peacock with a gilded beak.8 Dressed in period costume fashioned from African print cloth, the figures dramatize the interwoven threads of wealth, industry, trade, and oppression that fueled the Gilded Age in America. Party Time, which was ultimately acquired by the museum, remained on view for a year (through June 2010) and has been periodically displayed in the Ballantine House since, replacing the usual period room furniture.
Newark's collection of modern and contemporary African art now includes several hundred works with a breadth and range found in few other public museums, as art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu discusses in his previously cited essay. It encompasses works by artists based on the continent and those who now live and work in Europe or the United States. Many of the artists in the collection are now well known on the international circuit of biennales and art fairs, while others have yet to gain widespread recognition. During my tenure at Newark, I endeavored to broaden awareness of important artists who were then relatively unknown outside the continent. In quite a number of instances, the Newark Museum was the first museum in the United States (sometimes the first museum anywhere) to acquire their work. These artists include Olu Amoda, Sokey Edorh, Rossinah Maepa, Elizabeth Malete, Nnenna Okore, Zak Ove, Amalia Ramanankirahina, and Julien Sinzogan. The acquisition of Simon Ottenberg's collection, with its strength in Nigerian pre- and postindependence art, established a focus on modernism that I built upon with acquisitions such as Ibrahim El-Salahi's They Always Appear (1964–65) (Fig. 5). And in keeping with Dana's liberal definition of the “art of our time,” I acquired contemporary glass beads by Cedi Nomoda, a “fantasy” coffin by Paa Joe and his workshop, an Iwayo costume for Egúngún performances by Ayan Agalu, a contemporary bogolan cloth by Nakunte Diarra, as well as continuing to collect factory-printed textiles.
It's important to note some of the factors that facilitated the development of this collection. Foremost, although the Newark Museum often struggled with raising operating expenses, it had a fairly significant acquisition endowment that is shared among the curatorial departments. This endowment was built over the past two decades largely through the deaccessioning of the European paintings that had found their way into the museum over its history but fell outside the museum's collecting mission. As important as resources for purchases was the support of the institution's leadership, especially former director Mary Sue Sweeney Price, during whose tenure much of the collection was built. Newark's board did not include any longtime collectors of African art, a seeming liability in terms of departmental support. But this also meant that the trustees had no preconceived notions of what African art should be, which led to their enthusiastic embrace of contemporary arts of Africa. And finally, the absence of a stand-alone department of contemporary art also gave me freedom to develop the collection. The acquisitions I proposed were not contested terrain in the sense that they did not have to be vetted by another curator who might have had less familiarity with, and desire to represent, artists from Africa. In the case of transnational artists—one born in Nigeria, for example, but now based in the United States—I would work collaboratively with the American art curator on the acquisition proposal and presentation. In many institutions, negotiating such processes can be difficult and a barrier to institutional change. Collection databases can be equally resistant to such classificatory nuances. At Newark, works by transnational artists were simply cross-listed in the database as belonging to both the African art collection and the American art collection. Often imperceptible to the general public, institutional factors such as these play a significant role in what a museum shows and how it is displayed.
As the modern and contemporary collection grew, I increasingly came to see a need to establish a permanent space for such works. In 2010, I proposed establishing a dedicated space using the gallery that, beginning with My Ethiopia, I had long used to present temporary exhibitions. The loss of this space for rotating exhibitions meant I would no longer be able to present an active roster of small, often experimental exhibitions. But the trade-off was the first gallery of its kind in the United States devoted to a permanent collection of contemporary African art. The gallery's title, Present Tense: Arts of Contemporary Africa, was a curatorial framing that underscored its focus on the creativity of the current moment but at the same time acknowledged that the contemporary was part of longer historical trajectory. From 2010 until 2017, when the Arts of Africa collection was relocated from its second-floor space to a first-floor gallery just off the lobby, Present Tense featured a rotating selection of contemporary art from Newark's collection. The interpretative model included label copy that began with a quotation from the artist, foregrounding the artist's voice and perspective. The long-term display also allowed the gallery to be regularly incorporated into educational programming, especially school tours.
An ongoing challenge as a curator at Newark was how and where to place the contemporary arts of Africa in broader dialogues, given the lack of a permanent gallery space for global contemporary art. To address this, I often sought to work with my colleagues in other departments, using temporary exhibitions as opportunities for curatorial experimentation. Works of contemporary art from Africa were included in smaller, cross-departmental shows such as Outside the Lines: Color Across the Collections.9 Highlighting artists who explore color and texture through layering, translucency and abstract pattern, the visual dialogue in this exhibition not only crossed national boundaries but also traditional divisions between fine and applied art. (Collaboratively curated exhibitions also featured historic works from the collection, such as The Global Art of Patchwork in 2011). In some cases, works from the arts of global Africa collection have migrated to the contemporary galleries of the American art wing. At one point, in 2012, two photographs by Moroccan-born, New York-based artist Lalla Essaydi were on view simultaneously, one in Present Tense and the other in a small photography exhibition in the contemporary American art gallery entitled Through Her Eyes.
Temporary exhibitions were more focused in nature, looking, for example, at modern and contemporary art in Nigeria,10 or presenting a specific body of work by a single artist. In certain exhibitions, I took the opportunity to include works from our historic collection in different ways. In 2015, Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria's Monarchs/Recent Photography by George Osodi presented forty large-scale portraits from a series by the acclaimed Nigerian photographer. Exhibited for the first time in the United States, these lush color photographs feature the regional kings (and a few queens) of modern-day monarchies throughout the country. Offering a rare and intimate look inside Nigeria's palaces and throne rooms, Osodi captures the personalities of the rulers, the splendor of their dress, and the details of their settings. In developing the exhibition, I proposed to the artist the idea of including a few, carefully chosen examples of related prestige dress and regalia to add texture and historical context to the sartorial emphasis in Osodi's photographs. Osodi embraced the idea. Among the items that accompanied portraits of current traditional leaders were a selection of colonial- and postcolonial-era Yoruba beaded regalia, a lavishly embroidered gown created for a Hausa aristocrat in the late 1920s, and a coral-beaded headdress, specially made for the Newark Museum in 2004 by the authority of Queen Esther, the first wife of Solomon Akenzua, Oba Erediauwa of Benin Kingdom. A highlight of the exhibition was the pairing of the ceremonial robe worn by Oba Adesida II, the Deji Of Akure in 1959 (captured in the well-known LIFE magazine photograph by Eliot Elisofon) along with Osodi's 2014 portrait of Princess Adetutu Adebiyi Adesida, then regent of Akure, photographed in the same palace courtyard (Fig. 6).
A multimedia solo exhibition of the work of Hassan Hajjaj, who divides his time between Marrakech and London, provided another opportunity for creative engagement with the Newark's collection. My Rock Stars, presented at Newark in 2015 with a subsequent tour, featured a video and series of nine photographs recently acquired by the museum. In this exhibition, I worked with the artist on a site-specific installation that was conceptually based on Hajjaj's previous incorporation of vernacular objects sourced from North Africa in a salon-style setting. I invited Hajjaj to select objects from the permanent collection to place on display in open shelves that defined the video area. The artist chose things that appealed to his quotidian sensibilities, ranging from Moroccan shoes to Nigerian carved calabashes to a telephone-wire tea set made in South Africa (Fig. 7). From a curatorial perspective, the installation was at once in keeping with Hajjaj's artistic practice while nodding to the historic founding of the museum and its celebration of the art of the every day.
Along with challenging the temporal and geographic boundaries that have defined the field through strategies of collecting and display, I also addressed the terminology used to define the department itself. In 2013, I proposed renaming the department the Arts of Global Africa. The move, which was fully endorsed by the institutional leadership, also finally established the Arts of the Americas as a separate curatorial entity. My intention in renaming the department was to affirm the interconnectedness of arts of Africa within the wider world, both past and present, and to challenge the notion of the continent as a hermetically sealed entity. On a practical level, I also believed this reclassification more accurately reflected the collection itself, which includes not only glass beads from Venice and printed textiles made in Holland, but a range of works by artists in Africa's global diaspora. As then interim Director Ulysses Dietz stated in a memo defending the name change:
The museum has built a position of being at the international forefront of collecting modern and contemporary African art to amplify its own historically far-reaching holdings from the Continent. The nature of the contemporary African art world, and the museum's role in that world, has changed dramatically in even the last decade. The term “Arts of Global Africa” embodies the idea that art produced on the Continent and that produced in the global diaspora are deeply interconnected and can be studied and used in teaching an audience increasingly attuned to a global perspective.11
Reframing the department as the Arts of Global Africa is distinctive within museums and offers what I hope is a new model. It represents a culmination of my curatorial practice at Newark over the years but also reflects my experience with and awareness of departmental structures at other museums. In 2003, for example, I developed a teacher's resource publication on African art for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I relished the opportunity to select excellent representative examples from the museum's department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA). But I also advocated for the inclusion of works housed separately at the Met, such as a Magdalene Odundo vessel from the decorative arts department and a work by Seydou Keïta from the photography department. At Newark, the Arts of Global Africa designation allows for works to “coexist” across multiple departments, challenging traditional museological taxonomies. In reconceptualizing the department, I was especially inspired by the exhibition The Global Africa Project, organized by Lowery Stokes Sims and Leslie King-Hammond for the Museum of Art and Design in New York in 2010. Their curatorial thesis highlighted the migratory nature of artists and objects, while also challenging hierarchies of art, craft, and design.
Beginning in 2010, I devoted much of my curatorial energy to a major reinstallation and expansion of the Arts of Global Africa galleries. The original plan was to increase the footprint of the existing gallery from 3,200 to 8,000 square feet. I worked with colleagues in other departments to successfully secure funding for the expansion and to establish a departmental endowment. The project was generously supported by a $500,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), awarded in 2010, for which the additional 1.5 million in matching funds was raised over subsequent years. In 2011, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the department a five-year, $1,000,000 curatorial capacity grant. This included matching funds for the endowment (now established for the Arts of Global Africa department at Newark) as well as a much-needed budget for travel, which had a significant impact in terms of acquisitions and exhibitions. The Mellon funding also provided for additional curatorial staffing in the department. From 2012 through 2017, six scholars gained curatorial experience in Mellon-funded positions, contributing in various and important ways to the eventual reinstallation; most have continued in the field.12
But just as institutional factors can facilitate new initiatives—as was the case with the development of the modern and contemporary art collection—so too can they alter the best-laid plans. Following major staff layoffs and a reduction in the operating budget in 2013, a new director arrived in 2014 and redirected institutional priorities. The long-planned African art reinstallation was relocated to the first-floor gallery, its footprint reduced to 1,500 square feet. Though significantly smaller than the former gallery, the new space has the advantage of greater visibility within the institution, being adjacent to the museum's original entrance and lobby. The move, coupled with the renaming of the department, in effect recontextualized the collection.
During the course of planning and developing the reinstallation, one work from the collection remained a special source of inspiration to me: a sculpture of a man with his bicycle. Made sometime in the mid-twentieth century by a Yoruba artist working in southwestern Nigeria, it may represent a merchant en route to market. The man bears scarification marks on his face and wears Western-style dress; the bicycle, introduced in the region in the 1920s, facilitates trade and signals his upward mobility. Acquired by Anne Spencer for the Museum in 1977, this visually compelling yet functionally enigmatic sculpture later captured the attention of writer James Baldwin, who enthused:
This is something. This has got to be contemporary! He's really going to town! It's very jaunty, very authoritative. His errand might prove impossible, whatever it is. He's one place on his way to another place. He is challenging something—or something has challenged him. He's grounded in immediate reality by the bicycle (Baldwin 1987: 125).
In turn, the sculpture became a touchstone for philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's extended meditation on postmodern and postcolonial Africa in his book In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1993). For both Baldwin and Appiah, this work is significant because it offers an African perspective on modern life in which a bicycle is not necessarily a symbol of the West but as much a reflection of African culture.
I selected this iconic sculpture as a point of entry—metaphorically and literally—to Arts of Global Africa, which opened in December 2017 (Fig. 8).13 The reinstallation begins with a section—“What Is African Art?”—that takes as its point of departure Chimamanda Adichie's 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Working within the limitations of space, I selected eleven works that tell different stories yet collectively convey the artistic complexity of the continent and its global ties, past and present. Ranging in date from the twelfth century BCE to the twenty-first century, they include an ancient Egyptian glass flask, a late sixteenth-century Ethiopian triptych, a self-portrait by Samuel Fosso from the 1970s, an eighteenth-century embroidered textile from Azemmour, Morocco, and Yinka Shonibare's Lady Walking a Tightrope (2006). The reinstallation also features thematically organized sections that integrate modern and historic works of art and a separate section devoted exclusively to contemporary arts of Africa (Fig. 9). A highlight here is Untitled (2017), a cluster of large-scale cowrie-shaped ceramic sculptures suspended from the ceiling created by Simone Leigh especially for this gallery, the artist's first commission for a museum's permanent collection. Here, form and material are layered with meaning, alluding to diasporic histories, the black female body and racial identity. A visual anchor to the gallery, this work also speaks to the complex relationship between Africa and its diaspora, making connections to the representation of American art in the galleries nearby as well as with our internationally recognized collection of ceramics, also displayed on the ground floor.
Leading into the gallery and furthering the connections between the arts of global Africa and rest of the museum is Gateway, a mural by Odili Donal Odita that spans the entrance lobby and was commissioned to accompany the 2017 reinstallation (Fig. 10). Odita was, to my mind, the ideal artist for this high-profile work. His use of color and abstract form explores personal memory and cultural history, revising the language of Western modernism to include his own narratives. Odita's work connected to the museum's existing strengths of geometric abstraction from North and South America. A post-independence work by his father, the Nigerian modernist E. Okechukwu Odita, is also part of the museum's collection. For the Newark Museum commission, Odita responded to Newark's global collections and unique history, taking inspiration from the museum's Tibetan Buddhist altar and using pattern fields that evoke African designs. Odita's wall paintings frame the Renaissance-style archways of the postmodernist lobby, subtly inviting visitors to make connections across time and cultures as they tour the Museum's global collections.
The centennial of the African art collection was also accompanied by the first-ever dedicated catalogue, published early in 2018. In the wake of downsized galleries, this publication gained greater importance in my mind as a representation of the breadth of the collection and its unique history. Seeking diverse perspectives and expertise, I invited forty-five scholars from around the world to contribute individual catalogue entries and commissioned four essays focusing on the collection's distinctive strengths—North African art, textiles, art of the Yoruba, and modern and contemporary art. I selected 100 works showcasing the range of Newark's collection, including masks and figural statuary, objects of domestic use, dress and adornment, sculpture, photography, paintings, and video art.14 To the best of my ability, absent firm dates for some of these works, I arranged the catalogue entries in chronological order to historicize their creation. In this fashion, for example, a 1955 photograph by Seydou Keïta of Mali is seen as contemporaneous with an asafo flag by Ghanaian artist Kweku Kakanu. Collectively, my hope is that the wide range of works in this publication offer a new vision of African art, reflecting the diversity of artistic creativity on the continent as well as its global reach, both past and present.
Reflecting on my career at Newark, I would describe my curatorial practice as informed by a desire to expand the canon, to question the prevailing categories and boundaries of art, and to make art works and the ideas they embody accessible to a broad public. This personal narrative is based on my tenure in a single, and fairly unusual, institution in the United States—not a broad-brushed proscriptive that is equally applicable to every institutional context. And I readily admit that I still grapple with how to represent comprehensively and thoughtfully the diversity of artistic traditions of a complex continent and its global diaspora, as a curator whose cultural terrain ranges from historic, tradition-based art to international contemporary art. Like others challenged by curating a continent, I am motivated more by questions than answers: “What is African art?” as well as “Where and when is African art?” But the challenge is also a welcome opportunity, indeed a privilege, to continue to think afresh about how to present African art both within and beyond the confines of geography.
Looking beyond geography—perhaps even dismantling the idea of “African art”—may offer a future direction for its representation in public spaces and consciousness. In a 2002 review, the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote, “Africa, whatever it is, is everywhere. It's far more than just a continent. It's a global diaspora, an international culture, and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West” (Cotter 2002). Africa is indeed everywhere, and its arts can be found in many curatorial departments of encyclopedic museums classified in myriad ways. This includes ancient art, Egyptian art, Islamic art, modern and contemporary art, photography, prints and drawings, textiles and decorative arts in addition to departments specifically defined as African art—a situation that surely has no parallel with other fields of art. And its diasporic influence and global presence extends its scope even further. The fact that African visual culture can be classified in so many different ways in museums is a powerful reflection of its inherent complexity and hybridity. The challenge for a curator is to do justice to this wondrous hybridity by continually pushing conventions of representation and classification through modes of display and interpretation. In the end, this may best be achieved by creating new and innovative museum spaces characterized by overlapping territories and entwined histories.
I sincerely thank guest editor Karen Milbourne for inviting me to participate in this special issue of African Arts. It is a true honor to be included with such a deeply respected group of women and I appreciate also the opportunity to reflect on my career at the Newark Museum, having moved on at the end of 2018. I am grateful to Karen, as well as to Elizabeth Harney, Ellen McBreen, Andrew McClellan, Kim Miller, and Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this essay. And to Ava Hess, former research assistant at Newark, for her willingness to share her insights and perspectives on some of my curatorial strategies and how they have responded to Dana's legacy.
Henry Drewal was a consulting curator for African art at the Neuberger Museum prior to the establishment of a staff position in 1999.
African Shields: Art, Power and Identity was on view at the Neuberger from August 2002 through March 2003, then traveled to the Newark Museum (March 2003–January 2004) and the Birmingham Museum of Art (May–June 2004). My Ethiopia: Recent Paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof was on view at the Neuberger from September through December 2003, then traveled to the Newark Museum (February–October 2004) and the University of Iowa Museum of Art (February–August 2005).
In 1997, at the recommendation of Philip Ravenhill, then chief curator of the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, I was invited to curate an exhibition of works on paper by Mor Faye at the Art Gallery of the World Bank. The exhibition featured a selection of thirty-two works from a collection of nearly 600 preserved in the Joint Atlantic Collection, a foundation established by Senegalese lawyer Bara Diokhane and American filmmaker Spike Lee after the artist's death in 1984. See Clarke (1997).
“Africa, the Americas and the Pacific: Collecting Guidelines,” undated (1999) document written by Anne Spencer. Curatorial records, AAP Department, Newark Museum.
“Art of Africa: Collecting Guidelines,” undated (2005) document written by Christa Clarke. Curatorial records, AAP Department, Newark Museum.
I am grateful to Skoto Aghahowa and Alix du Serech for facilitating the loan of these works from the artist and to Sylvester Ogbechie, with whom I consulted in my research for the exhibition. Another Modernity offered an opportunity to build relationships with New Jersey's sizeable Nigerian Igbo communities. Although beyond the scope of this essay, community engagement has also been a focus of my curatorial work.
The National Museum of African Art opened the Sylvia Williams Gallery in 2000 as a dedicated space for contemporary African art but not one solely devoted to its permanent collection.
A 2013–2014 exhibition, The Art of Translation: The Simon Ottenberg Gift of Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art, organized by Curatorial Associate Perrin Lathrop, featured mostly works on paper by thirteen artists and examined the ways that Nigerian artists have drawn upon Nigerian cultural and aesthetic traditions, translating their meanings, forms and functions as they navigate the country's evolving social and political landscape.
Board report of Collections Stewardship, Newark Museum, November 14, 2013.
They include: Nichole Bridges, Curator of African Art, 2012–2013; Perrin Lathrop, Curatorial Associate, 2012–2013; Kimberli Gant, Pre-Doctoral Fellow, 2015–2016; Roger Arnold, Research Associate, 2015–2016; Henone Girma, Research Associate, 2016–2017; and Ava Hess, Research Associate, 2016–2017.
I am grateful to Kimberli Gant, Henone Girma, and Ava Hess, my colleagues in the Arts of Global Africa department, for their assistance in conceptualizing the reinstallation and to the many staff members in the museum's exhibitions, registrars, education and development departments for helping to realize this long-term project.
Following the much earlier model of Susan Vogel's 1981 landmark catalogue, For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection, my vision for the publication included object entries written by scholars with relevant specialized knowledge and overall for it to be inclusive of a range of different voices and approaches to African art.