Christa Clarke: These are great questions to begin with because personal experience can so profoundly shape what we do as curators and, by extension, the meanings we produce.
My first encounter with contemporary artistic practice in Africa was in 1990, as a graduate student in Nigeria with Ekpo Eyo doing research for my master’s thesis. Although my study focused on the carved monoliths in Cross River State, I was perhaps more fascinated by the range of contemporary arts I was introduced to 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 Lamidi Fakeye and experiencing the multitude of cement sculpture studios while en route to the southeastern part of the country.
These experiences seemed at odds with what I was reading about African art as a graduate student at the University of Maryland and seeing in museums in the U.S., which presented a more limited canon of historical masks and figures. Ultimately, this sense of disconnect between reality and representation led to my longstanding, and continued, interest in how the category of “African art” has been constructed in the West, through collecting and display. And I remained interested in contemporary arts throughout graduate school – writing seminar papers on the work of Sokari Douglas Camp, for example, and attending the symposium Susan Vogel organized to accompany Africa Explores in New York. Yet I was not encouraged to pursue a dissertation topic in this area: in the early 1990s, the majority opinion seemed to be that one would have a difficult time finding a job with such a topic.
There are two exhibitions I would single out from earlier in my career. My first curatorial project involving contemporary African art was due in large part to Philip Ravenhill, the late Chief Curator at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington D.C. As a fellow at NMAfA in the mid-1990s, I was introduced to much new work through Phil, who was a passionate advocate for Africa’s contemporary artists. At his recommendation, I was asked to curate an exhibition on the work of the Senegalese modernist Mor Faye for the World Bank Art Program in 1997.
As for museum exhibitions, my first project was a 2003 solo exhibition devoted to recent paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof, jointly organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, NY and the Newark Museum in NJ (the exhibition was in development while I was Curator of African Art at the Neuberger and carried over when I came to the Newark Museum in 2002).This was the Newark Museum’s first exhibition of the work of a contemporary artist from Africa, and it was very well-received by the museum’s trustees and our audience. Its success here allowed me to begin to acquire contemporary arts of Africa for the permanent collection, which has become a major institutional emphasis, and to mount other exhibitions of modern and contemporary African art.