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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!

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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.

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I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.

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Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

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Yesterday was the final day of the “©Murakami” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, displaying a great many of Murakami Takashi’s works, old and new. It included sculptures such as My Lonesome Cowboy and Project Ko2, which were incidentally much smaller than I’d imagined them being; video animations featuring Kaikai and Kiki, and one created in collaboration with Kanye West; a Louis Vuitton store, a room showcasing Murakami brand commercial merchandise, and a great many paintings.

I had expected that it would be all new works (which would have been great too) and that the opportunity to see his older works was long past. But that not being the case, it was really great to see all these pieces in person which I’d previously only seen in books, magazines, and on the Internet. Murakami does a fantastic job of creating a light, fun, colorful, playful environment. His work is fun and playful and colorful, but, I feel, in its attempt to be “real” art, it confuses and ultimately disappoints. If Murakami were trying to show that “low” art, i.e. commercial art and/or pop culture could be or should be displayed in the great art museums of the world and regarded as equal to fine art, that’s one thing. That’s a sentiment I can agree with. Perhaps. But the fact that he paints in acrylic on canvas, that he uses such standard fine art modes, and the fact that the art world seems to regard him, if he does not regard himself, as a true artiste, a creator of art for art’s sake, creative works with true deep philosophical or cultural meaning and social commentary, makes him into something very different from the “low” art creator, the mangaka for example, who wishes to see his works regarded as fine art.

In short, Murakami is pretentious. Whether this is Murakami himself, or something ascribed onto him by the art world, by people who wish to exhibit his works, to interview him, to write about him, there is the feeling that this is fine art deserving of intense, deep, artistic analysis and criticism; analysis and criticism which, I think, ultimately fall flat. I look at these works and see something playful and fun, experiments in color and design, but as far as I am concerned, any assertion that these works express a deeper meaning is simply pretentious lies. None of these works individually nor considered together speak a commentary on commercialism or anything like that to me; only the artist, his writings, the art critics, say these things. The works do not, in my opinion.

If you want to give me a fun, colorful, playful experience devoid of serious sociological commentary or artistic meaning, do it in pop culture modes – anime, plastic figurines, toys and games of all sorts. Do it with Disneyland-style artificial environments. But if you want to do serious art, in sculpture and on canvas, show your meaning a bit more clearly, and do it in a mode recognizable as fine art, one that doesn’t scream cartoons. … Then again, perhaps it is precisely this divide that Murakami is trying to bridge, and to erase.

I suppose in the end, his works are both aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking after all.


727 particularly grabs me. The gallery label said that it drew upon Shigisan Engi Emaki, which I don’t really see at all. But there is something about this work that makes it feel more “fine art” and more closely related to historical pre-modern Japanese art than anything else Murakami’s done. The way he sanded down the paint makes it look older, and the style of the wind (water? clouds?) and background are much more muted and traditional-looking than most of his works.

I do want a Project Ko2 action figure, if such things existed, and if she were more covered in certain strategic places. It’s a beautiful piece; I especially like the rainbow colors and the style of the wings; it would indeed make a nice action figure or statuette/figurine.

But I nevertheless stand by my previous assessment that (a) his works do not reflect the messages he does in his writings and interviews, and (b) I see no reason that he should be so far above all other Japanese contemporary artists in his fame, prominence, and exposure in the West. Where is everybody else?

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