Marla Berns: Looking back, several events in the early 1990s heightened my consciousness and colored my engagement with contemporary African art. At the time I was director of the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara where our program focused on modern and contemporary art (Western, of course). In 1991 Africa Explores woke me up, introducing many artists who were new to me, and provoking the kind of debate that made me rethink traditional categories, boundaries and definitions.
The next event was the 1993 exhibition, Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout at the National Museum of African Art. I confess to being dubious about the juxtaposition since the D.C.-based Renée Stout was little known at the time. As soon as I saw the show, however, I considered this curatorial decision to be bold and brave. After seeing all those minkisi—powerful, aggressive, overwhelmingly male and iconic—came the quiet but potent work of a young African-American woman who had the chutzpah to cast her own body as an nkisi in the remarkable Fetish #2 (1989). I was moved by her intensely personal, multi-layered and meticulously crafted sculpture. Stout was making work to retrieve her African past as a way of empowering her present. I found her sculpture and installations so compelling and Renee so approachable that almost on the spot, shortly after the opening, I invited her to do a project with us in Santa Barbara.
The third event was a two-day conference at the University of Iowa in 1994 on “Clay and Fire: African Pottery in Social and Historical Context.” Although most of us gave papers that were either ethnographic or archaeological, Magdalene Odundo had been invited as a kind of “token” Africa-born artist to talk about her work. Africa Explores introduced her austere and beautiful vessels to most of us. Like Renee, she was retrieving something ancient in the village-based pottery techniques from Nigeria she employed but she was also laboriously making forms that were utterly new. Her vessels’ shapes captured the ways women’s bodies could be manipulated and reminded me of the sacred ceramics I had studied in northeastern Nigeria. So, again, I invited Magdalene to do an exhibition with us in Santa Barbara, losing no time to be the first to organize a solo exhibition of her work in an American museum. It didn’t hurt that her dealer lived in Santa Barbara! In January 1995 we opened “Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads”: A Project by Renee Stout and in March 1995, Ceramic Gestures: New Vessels by Magdalene Odundo. Both had catalogues and both travelled, Renee’s to five venues and Magdalene’s to seven. My head spins to think how quickly this all came together. These artists, like many others, possess a “double vision,” a term Michael Harris used to describe Renee’s work and one that seems apt if I look at the trajectory of my own museum projects with contemporary African artists.
p.s. Enid, when we presented Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth in 2010, a blogger also thought it an insult that his “art” would be seen in a “cultural history” museum. Some things die hard.