Enid Schildkrout: Responding to Chika’s first request — that we describe our first encounter with contemporary African art, I have to go back a long time to an exhibition called Contemporary African Arts in 1974. No doubt few people remember this exhibition today (although if you look up “Contemporary African Art” on Wikipedia, there it is), but I was at the American Museum of Natural History and when I got there, this exhibition from the Field Museum, and curated by Maude Wahlman, was scheduled to travel to AMNH. Not only was this before the days of large -scale travelling exhibitions, but this one didn’t at all resemble what we would today associate with that title, While it was arranged according to medium – architecture, pottery, painting, print making, tapestries, etc., it did include some important artists whose names you will all know – Bruce Onobrakpeya, Skunder Boghossian, Ladi Kwali, the Wissa Wassef weaving workshop, and others. Like a number of other exhibitions at the time, the term “contemporary” was used as a catch-all category to describe everything that was happening at the moment at that for sure was not going to be admitted into the slowly-emerging canon of traditional African art./i.e. sculpture. I think it would be interesting to look back at this period, long before the global market in contemporary art turned its attention to Africa, to see how the term was first used.
My next experience, also at the American Museum of Natural History, was in the late 1990s when the Sokari Douglas Camp’s exhibition, curated by Nigel Barley at the British Museum for Africa ‘95, came to the AMNH, with considerable revision since at the AMNH we decided to make the exhibition much more of an artist’s installation. Sokari had created the series of large figures that were part of a Kalabari masquerade and with them she wanted to exhibit the masks from the BM collection lying on the ground; her intention was to show how they were disembodied from the performance. We created a sand-filled platform and put the masks very close to the floor – and we also showed the film Sokari had made called “Dressing” (as well as, in the exhibition space, the entire 45 minute Alagba film she made with Jane Thorburn.) We also had quotations from the artist silk screened on the walls, complementing the labels created by the museum(s). I was very pleased that the AMNH was doing that exhibition and was willing to do such a non-traditional display – it was innovative and anything but ethnographic. Nonetheless, the review that appeared in African Arts by Andrea Barnwell voiced regret to the fact that the exhibition was shown in a natural history museum, as if this was an insult to the artist. This prompted me to write a First Word column saying that if we wanted to get away from the disciplinary and institutional boundaries that segmented museums, and that often ended up segmenting peoples’ minds, exhibitions that broke out of the stereotypical and historical paradigms of different types of museums are a good thing. I think these typologies, reinforced in my view, by the ART/artifact exhibition and several others like it, are very unfortunate. As I said at the time, they are glib short-cuts to “explaining” the history of museums and getting across points about the museum effect on objects; they are useful as didactic exercises, but they do very little to advance our understanding of art or artists.