Not only was I impressed with the Brooklyn Museum’s American/modern/contemporary showings, but furthermore, their African exhibit was, at least in some small but very key ways, truly excellent. I can’t say I exactly picked it apart for every single aspect of how there might be problems, or room for improvement, but at least I will say that a few things really stood out at me.
First and foremost, the exhibit is entitled African Innovations, so right from the outset, they’re combatting the stereotype that Africa is somehow backwards, behind, not creative, not innovative. Identical introductory panels which bookend the exhibit (you can enter at either end, or in fact from anywhere in the middle) state that the museum’s collection “includes objects of transcendent beauty and sophistication, but many of these works were valued for more than aesthetic reasons. They were created to solve important creative, social, political, and cosmological problems.” Personally, I would have said “purposes,” not “problems,” and I do find that strange, but putting that aside, here they unequivocally state that these objects are beautiful and sophisticated, but also that they serve powerful and important culturally specific purposes. We should try to learn and understand and appreciate those particular cultural contexts; these objects do not exist purely for our (or anyone’s) aesthetic appreciation or inspiration.
Left: “Skipping Girl,” Yinka Shonibare, 2009.
Further down on the same panel, it states “The phrase ‘African art’ might suggest a continent-wide form of visual expression that is unitary and timeless, but nothing could be further from the truth. … For the first time, the Museum’s African galleries are arranged chronologically, to emphasize the continent’s long record of creativity, adaptation, and artistic achievement.” It is sad, in a way, that we are still fighting this battle, that people don’t already know, appreciate, just how large and diverse Africa is, and also that its many peoples are not stuck in the past, not unchanging, but are in fact dynamic and actively engaged with the modern world. The chronological organization of the exhibit, and in particular the final section panel, “Crossroads Africa – Today,” along with a piece by Yinka Shonibare and a handful of other very contemporary art works, help illuminate this story, highlighting that Lagos, Dakar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg are truly global cities, that African artists in these and other urban centers have actively engaged with changes and developments, addressing a wide variety of questions and concerns (including “What is Africa?” and “Who is African?”), and experimenting with a wide variety of media and forms “to express these new realities.”
Admittedly, on the individual objects’ gallery labels, many of the historical/traditional objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit are described pretty much as I’d expected them to be, with descriptions of their usage and meaning within the cultural context; nothing really stood out to me as particularly exciting or innovative in terms of the narrative or discourses, but neither did anything stand out as particularly problematic. Still, the emphasis on these cultures as possessing history, as being living dynamic traditional cultures, and as simultaneously being actively engaged in a globally connected, modern and cosmopolitan world, is I think of great importance and very well put forward here. And perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that the introductory panel informs us that the Brooklyn Museum was the first in the country to display African objects as works of art. Bravo!
By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum makes little or no overt effort to combat standard narratives in its Arts of Africa galleries. You won’t find any prominent discussion here of African innovation, of Africa’s modernity, the great size of its cities, or the dynamic and decidedly active ways in which Africans negotiate and engage with societal change and cultural challenges. You will find mention of Africa’s great size and diversity, but only in the most plain vanilla manner, by way of simply introducing the topic of African Art and describing the continent & its people.
That said, though, it is not as if the Metropolitan is being blatantly Orientalist, essentialist, or the like, let alone (god forbid) outright racist in their representation of the diverse cultures of the African continent. They’re simply taking a more conservative, standard, discursive approach. Yet, it is precisely because that approach is so standard that it makes it difficult to see through it, so to speak, to know whether or not to criticize it, and for what.
The Met’s African galleries are certainly extensive, well-lit, and well-maintained. This is not some forgotten, ill-maintained, back corner of the museum. It’s not the most dynamic or original mode of display, but neither is it too blatantly archaic. That Africa is given so much space is certainly something, and in terms of its location within the museum, it’s not located in some distant back corner, a basement, or some other lesser or lower position. The Africa galleries are immediately next to the Greco-Roman galleries, which makes them very accessible, but as for whether it is a positive association, connecting it to the “great” ancient civilizations, or a negative one, placing it somehow in contrast to, or prior to, those civilizations, as “primitive” art, I don’t know; I suppose it could be both, or neither. That they are located alongside the Arts of the Pacific and of the Pre-Columbian Americas is certainly evocative of the outdated and highly problematic categorization of “Primitive Art,” but those discourses are not prominently visible here at all, and all in all I’m not really decided on how I feel about this grouping – after all, admittedly, it’s not a very straightforward geographical grouping, as placing Chinese art next to Japanese, or Greek next to Roman, may be, but at the same time, everything has to go next to something, and every pairing or grouping can be said to imply all sorts of implications… Whether this grouping is problematic, I leave open, but at the very least, there is no single overarching categorical title, such as “primitive art,” and each of these broad geographic areas is very much given its own separate space. Though, that said, the three are grouped into a single category on the museum website’s list of galleries.
The African exhibits are organized by region, and by culture, with labels that describe individual cultures, culturally and historically, from an anthropological sort of point of view, discussing how each type of object was used, or worn, in its original “traditional” cultural context, and often includes photos of the objects in use. This is certainly a step up from exhibits which might ignore the meaning of an object, its purpose and the ways in which it was appreciated or valued in its original culture, in favor of viewing the objects solely or primarily through a Western aesthetic lens. But it is still awfully standard, categorizing and describing people rather than giving the impression of having them speak at all. The culture is a single thing, to be analyzed, examined, understood, and then described, rather than as something lived and experienced, as something dynamic and changing, as something with interiority, the members/practitioners of which question their traditions and engage or negotiate with continuation versus change.
One thing that occurred to me as I read these labels, and thought about what I was going to say in this blog post, is the question, whether it is better in gallery labels to describe a culture in the present tense by their traditions – thus denying them history, change, and modernity – or in the past tense, implying their belonging only to the past, erasing their contemporaneity, implying their non-existence in the present, and their belonging to the past as primitive, less-advanced, or otherwise non-modern?
These exhibits further make little mention of the history of colonialism, mentioning its impact chiefly in terms of the tragic consequences for the destruction, corruption, or diminishing of these essentialized cultures. The “traditional” culture, in some romanticized imagined pure form, is placed on a pedestal, elevating it, and its loss bemoaned. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mourn the loss of traditional cultural practices too, but, here it is presented almost as a matter of fact. There is no anti-colonialist or post-colonialist activist bent to these exhibits, no post-colonial critique, no intermingling of contemporary works, just a real focus on the art itself, aesthetically and in terms of craftsmanship, as well as anthropologically.
In the end, I am conflicted. On the one hand, the Met’s displays of Pacific and African art are not grossly, boldly, clearly problematic, but neither are they progressive at all. The legacy of anthropological and “primitive art” approaches is evident in the over-abundance of Papua New Guinea objects, and more to the point by the absence of any historical discussion of political or societal change over time, of histories of interaction or exchange, and thus of development of the artforms being discussed. Works are described by culture, without any individual people, events, or developments discussed. We would never describe ukiyo-e woodblock prints as simply being objects representative of traditional Japanese culture, as if there were a singular traditional Japanese culture – rather, we talk about historical periods, in the case of ukiyo-e the Edo period, under the Tokugawa shoguns, a period of particular cultural and societal developments, and of considerable shifts and changes in the development of ukiyo-e, stylistically and otherwise. So, why describe the arts of the Bamara or Ibo peoples in such a categorizing, ahistorical manner?
Perhaps there is an argument to be made for different museums taking different approaches, and evincing different priorities in their treatments of cultural objects. After all, what the Brooklyn Museum does is still but one narrative, one interpretation, one version of the story. That approach, though we might see it as wonderfully progressive, also presents a limited and biased perspective, and if every museum did the same as the Brooklyn Museum does, it would create a clear sense that there are other approaches, other narratives, other interpretations that are being silenced, and which need to be heard. And there may indeed be considerable aspects to the Met’s approach which constitute such an equally valid, equally valuable, narrative or approach, alternative and thus complementary to the Brooklyn Museum’s approach. But, even so, even while the Met’s approach is not as baldly grossly problematic as it might have once been – even while the Met has clearly made changes and made progress – I think that many problems still remain.