ANTON VAN DER GULIK
Exhibition explores the connections between historical African art and
24 september 2022
CLEVELAND, OH.- The connections between historical African art and contemporary practice are deep but not always apparent. Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art probes this connection through a smart selection of stellar highlights from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s African collection and loaned works by six contemporary African artists of different generations. The exhibition is on view in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery from November 1, 2020, through March 14, 2021.
“Enigmatic, awe-inspiring and accumulative are some of the words used to describe historical African art as well as its impact on the viewer,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “This exhibition contemplates how contemporary African artists from different generations draw inspiration from and seek transformative encounters with the historical canon, providing a critical understanding of African art, past and present.”
Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art presents objects from nine cultures in Central and West Africa that are juxtaposed with large-scale contemporary installations, sculptures and photographs. The exhibition considers the status of canonical African art objects as they begin their “second careers” upon entering museum collections. It simultaneously examines modes of artistic production in Africa that employ mediums that once served other purposes in everyday life.
“The exhibition’s premise istwofold,” said Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, the exhibition’s curator and formercurator of African Art at the CMA, currently the Steven and Lisa TananbaumCurator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.“Second Careers explores the role of historical African art in the Western
museum context: how the objects made their way into the museum and the expectations placed on them to educate, to act as vectors of cultural memory and history and, ultimately, to add value to the institution in their second careers. The exhibition’s secondary focus is the relationship between historical arts of Africa and contemporary practices.”
Objects from the CMA collection in the
exhibition consist of male and female figures and masks, a masquerade dance
costume, a headdress, a prestige belt, a hunter’s tunic and a throne from nine
cultures in Central and West Africa (Yombe, Songye, Yoruba, Babanki, Baule, Chokwe, Malinke, Yaka, Kuba, and Senufo). They are positioned in dialogue with large-scale works by El Anatsui (Ghana), Nnenna Okore (Nigeria), Elias Sime (Ethiopia), Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique), Tahir Carl Karmali (Kenya and United States) and Zohra Opoku (Ghana). The contemporary works draw attention to how African artists practicing today address historical African art as a living archive from which they draw inspiration and seek transformative encounters.
Minneapolis Institute of Art
24 september 2022
Calligraphy show called for a unique collaboration between Mia and Somali Museum curators.
When Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers decided to build a show about Islamic Africa, he knew he couldn’t do it alone.
“I am not Muslim, I don’t read Arabic,” said the Brussels-born Grootaers. “I thought it was impossible to do this show without someone who has lived experience in this religion, and knows how to treat objects respectfully.”
But he knew Ifrah Mansour, an artist with whom he’d worked on Mia’s first-everSomali-American show, 2017’s “I Am Somali.” She suggested he contact Amallina Mohamed, curator at the Somali Museum of Minnesota — and the resultis “Khatt Islami: Sacred Scripts From Islamic Africa,” which opened last weekend. Drawn from the museum’s own collection, all 16 objects in the show, ranging from textiles toan amulet, showcase Khatt Islami, Arabic for “Islamic line” or “Islamic design.” Calligraphy is considered the highest form of Islamic art, used to transmit the sacred words of the Qur’an.
Mohamed served as co-curator with Grootaers, who has been Mia’s curator of African art since 2008, but “I made sure community members were involved, too,”
she said. “Inviting them into these spaces that they usually wouldn’t be familiar with was necessary and important.”
Islam was first introduced to North Africa in the seventh century. Its influence remains strong in the continent’s northern half and down its eastern coast.
As visitors roam through the gallery, they may hear the rhythmic, meditative chanting and drumming of Sufi music from three different African countries, further adding to the mystical element present in this beautiful exhibition.
From Somalia to Minnesota
Mohamed grew up in Minnesota surrounded by Somali culture and language: Her parents came to the United
States as refugees in 1990. As a child, she attended dugsi, a weekend school where students learn Arabic so they can read and memorize the Qur’an. The show includes seven writing boards, which children use to learn how to write Arabic script and memorize Qur’an verses. A worn wooden board from Somalia is similar to ones that Mohamed’s parents used. “In Somalia, the ink that’s used is made out of soot and
frankincense,” she said. “Students would write a chapter, memorize it, and erase the board to learn a new chapter on it.” In some parts of Islamic Africa these boards are also used by healers, or as a spiritual
talisman to protect the home.
Mohamed and Grootaers included two “home protection boards” — allo kafi gida in the Nigerian Hausalanguage — that depict finely painted animals, including a camel, birds andpossibly a lizard, along with words, numbers and geometric figures.
The boardswere custom-made by a Muslim cleric-artist. Traditionally, the head of ahousehold hides the boards somewhere inside the home to protect from evil andbring good fortune.
Iconography of these boards draws from the Qur’an, Sufi mysticism, and Hausa animal symbolism. But the curators were stumped by a rougher-looking board full of Arabic-looking squiggles. “When we were looking for a translation, it turns out these
doodles are illegible,” said Grootaers. “This is clearly the work of a child, mimicking the movements of someone.” English translations are supplied for objects with legible Arabic, thanks to Fahimeh Ghorbani, a curatorial intern at Mia who is originally from Iran and specializes in Islamic and Persian art and architecture, with help from Alam Saleh of the Australian National University.
Other objects in the show are more commonly found in homes or mosques. A deep red Moroccan textile with silver-threaded letters from passages 21 and 96 of the Qur’an hangs on the wall next to a deep green textile with calligraphy in the shape of a bird. Although most objects in this show include calligraphy, there’s also a silver 19th-century pen box, studded with coins and beads, used to store reed pens.
Ink was typically made of soot and gum Arabic; in old times, the soot was scraped
from the inside of mosque lamps, lending the ink a spiritual quality.
A contemporary Tunisian artist, Khaled Ben Slimane, integrated his Sufi beliefs into a ceramic vase covered in twirling letters. Ironically, it’s positioned en route to a Japanese calligraphy show that’s also on Mia’s second floor. “Calligraphy essentially is dancing words,” said Mohamed. “He went to Japan to learn about the calligraphy work there to make this sort of art piece.”
24 september 2022
LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).– In 1897,
the British army violently raided Benin City in what is now Nigeria, seizing thousands of priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes.
Ever since, there have been hopes of bringing
them back from Western museums.
On Friday, hope got a little closer to reality
with the release of the first images of the planned Edo Museum of West African Art, which will house some 300 items on loan from European museums — if the money to build it can be raised.
The three-story building, designed by David
Adjaye, looks almost like a palace from the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Adjaye intends it to be completed in five years, he said in a telephone interview.
On Friday, the architect, the British Museum and Nigerian authorities also announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum and other parts of Benin City to uncover ancient remains, including parts of the city walls.
The developments will be a boost to campaigners urging the return of artifacts taken from Africa during the colonial era. But
in the telephone interview, Adjaye, the architect behind the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution, seemed most excited about what it could mean for the people of Benin City. It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said,
and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.
“It has to be for the community first,” he said,
“and an international site second.”
Adjaye also spoke about his thinking behind the museum, his obsession with the Benin Bronzes and his view on the debate around
returning items to Africa from Western museums. These are edited extracts of
Q: There have been calls for a museum housing the Benin Bronzes in Nigeria for
decades. What drew you to the project?
A: To show the power of what a museum can be in the 21st century. It’s not just a container of curiosities. That doesn’t make
sense in Africa; there is no empire or sort of “discovery” of what America is or China is.
But what is really critical is to deal with the
real elephant in the room, which is the impact of colonialism on the cultures
of Africa. That is the central discussion that the continent needs to have with itself about its own history and the structural destruction that happened with colonialism. Because actually, there is a myth that Africans know their culture, but a lot has been demonized because of colonialism, and there’s a lot that’s misunderstood because of the structures of colonialism — Christianity, Islam, etc. — that followed.
I’m not criticizing those religions, but they
kind of degraded the cultural heritage of the continent. So there is the relearning of the fundamental meaning of these objects. And that retraining justifies, for me, a rethinking of what a museum is on the continent. It’s not going to be a Western model.
Q: So putting the returned bronzes on display isn’t the endpoint to you, but a beginning?
A: Exactly: the beginning of the renaissance of African culture. You need the objects because the objects provide the provenance and the physicality that start to connect you.
Q: When you talk about creating a non-Western museum, how will it be different? The images you’ve released still have display cases with objects in them.
A: When I say it will be different, I mean it’ll be different in its meaning. It’s different in what it’s trying to do.
Yes, it will have vitrines with objects in them.
But it won’t just be, ‘Here’s the restitution of these bronzes, and here they are in beautiful cases.’ That would not attract locals — not many, maybe the elite. We’ve spent a lot of time developing a museum as a community center that will be part of the community’s daily rituals and lives.
Q: The design almost looks like a fort. What story are you hoping to tell with it?
A: The building has a little romantic narrative to it. I visited Benin City several times, and it’s a place that for me is on
par with the greatest places around the world — with Egypt, with Kyoto, with Athens. To understand sub-Saharan African culture, it’s an epicenter. But you go now, and it’s sort of a concrete jungle, so you need to excavate that past and bring it back to life.
Thankfully, a lot of it is still underground. Sopart of what we’re doing with the British Museum is excavating the old walls.I’ve been obsessed with these walls — concentric circles that interact witheach other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satelliteimages, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation sowe can make them visible.
With the building, it’s a kind of reenactment ofthe palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, akind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’dhave encountered if you came pre-colonization. It’s trying to make a fragmentof the experience in a contemporary language.
Q: The Benin Bronzes are what campaigners really want returned to Benin City and shown in this museum. What do those objects mean to you?
A: It was profound the first time I saw them — and it still is — looking at these brass plaques that were in the palaces, and
these extraordinary brass heads, this really dignified, incredible civilization. It burst immediately the image of these cultures that I had, that somehow it was kind of underdeveloped. It smashed through that and showed me, here is the artistry and the mastery of culture.
I really started to do a lot of research into
the Yoruba and Benin City when I was working on the Smithsonian, and that
really inspired my thinking.
Q: Your work on this museum puts you in the middle of the debate on whether objects should be returned to Africa from
Western museums. Where do you stand on that?
A: Restitution has to happen, eventually. The
objects need to be returned. In the 21st century, this is no longer a discussion. But the timeline, and how they’re brought back, and the skill set to manage the objects has to be developed on the continent. And I think that is also part of the job of the museums and the cultures and the societies in the West that have these objects now: to support the building of this infrastructure, to allow countries to get these objects back. It’s their cultural heritage.
Q: Archaeological excavations often take
time. When do you think the museum will be complete?
A: We’re all working on a timeline of about five years, which is fast for cultural infrastructure. It took nine years to build
Q: I suppose that, given that the people of
Benin City have been waiting since 1897, another five years is not that much
A: No. Hopefully. The people really deserve
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