Karen Milbourne: My first meaningful experience with contemporary African art came about when I was still an undergraduate. I spent a semester on an exchange program at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Even though I was 19 at the time, El Anatsui let me sit behind him in his studio and watch him work. Obiora and Ada Udechukwu had a party for me one night with a slide show. Chike Aniakor and Chuka Amaefunah were both there, too. It’s pretty amazing because this wasn’t so long ago and the American academic structures really didn’t support studying “contemporary” African art. I had to petition and fight Bryn Mawr College to get a degree in art and “African Studies” rather than anthropology.
In terms of museum exhibition projects, there are two. The first was when I was with the Baltimore Museum of Art, ostensibly an “encyclopedic” museum but one very focused on the “M”s – Monet, Mattisse… So, I decided to work within the comfort zone of the museum and its audiences by turning to the vocabulary of Impressionism and exploring the themes of light, color and pattern in African contexts. I also invited a contemporary artist to create an installation for each theme. Theo Eshetu responded to light, Fatma Charfi color (red, black & white), and Mary Evans pattern. I really enjoyed these shows but they never traveled and had no publications.
Since coming to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, we’ve been able to launch a series called “Artists in Dialogue” in which 2 artists are invited to create new work in response to one another. Antonio Ole and Aimé Mpane were featured in the first, and the second is currently on view with Sandile Zulu in dialogue with Henrique Oliveira of Brazil. For the third, I’ve invited Wangechi Mutu to choose the other artist with whom she’d like to be in dialogue (and I don’t yet know the answer). It’s been an interesting series in that it’s a simple premise but it allows us to explore some more complicated issues and it has inspired some interesting conversations.