Kinsey Katchka: I came to museum work through the back door. And to African art, too, for that matter. So I’ll start with a bit about how I got to contemporary African art…because that was the first meaningful step I made towards it. But essentially, I had three first encounters, and three first museum exhibition projects.

Meaningful #1: Absence. I majored in International Relations and French, and was fortunate to a great deal of latitude for designing these majors, and for both focused largely on Africa. I took art history (especially contemporary) and studio classes on the side for my own interest, though I ended up with an art history minor without intending to, and interned in museums for fun…which maps things out quite clearly, in retrospect. After a brief stint on Capitol Hill I realized that conceptually, policy and institutional politics appealed to me, but in practice less so. Okwui, too, has a background in politics first, then in art, I believe.

A direct relationship between politics and expressive culture first became apparent to me while I volunteered as a research assistant to a curator at the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian. I researched legislation establishing the Smithsonian, and the debate over what form it would take in the new US. The correlation between the Museum’s establishment and nascent democracy shaped my research, and before long I became preoccupied with how this might be transposed onto the establishment and development of museums in newly-independent African nations and, given my interest in contemporary art, how modern and contemporary art fit into those cultural institutions and political rhetoric.

At the time (early 1990s), little information was available about African museums, and even less about contemporary and modern art in them, and from those regions.  My first and most meaningful encounter with contemporary African art, then, was its relative absence.

Meaningful #2: In the field.  My first direct encounter with was at the Dakar Biennale, during my initial fieldwork in Dakar in the mid-1990s. Given my combined interests in Africa, politics, and the arts, this was the ideal occasion for an initial foray, as the Biennale is highly political, a clear and deliberate manifestation of policy, discourse and creative practice in a concrete forum. But the Biennale I expected. Perhaps more meaningful was the one that was not: a different, recently established museum unassociated with the Biennale, the Senegalese national structure, or national arts community. Instead, it was a local community-based museum with an exhibition of popular arts from throughout urban Africa, and that made a direct local-global connection bypassing national structures. This striking counter-national counterpoint to the ultra-nationalist Biennale has framed my research and critical analysis ever since.

Meaningful #3: In the museum.

In my research and fieldwork I approach museums as the intersection of policy and creative practice, and museum anthropology/museum studies frame my teaching and theoretical interests. Having examined exhibitions of contemporary art from the colonial period through the present day for nearly 10 years, I felt strongly that I had to do curatorial work in a museum, however briefly, to do serious and honest scholarship on museums. After turning in my dissertation manuscript, I volunteered at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian working with then-curator of contemporary art, Elizabeth Harney).  It suits me, and to this day, my theory and practice are deeply imprecated.  Each enriches and substantiates the other.

So I consider myself to have had three first meaningful encounters with African art: the first with its relative absence, the second in the field, and the third in the ‘Western’ museum.

…First important museum exhibition project? Three very different museums, three very different first projects—outlined more briefly than the encounters, as they are documented, and may well be touched on later on.

Museum project #1: In-sights National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (co-curated with Allyson Purpura)

Allyson and I were charged with developing an in-house exhibition for the contemporary galleries at NMAfA, drawn from the contemporary collections to highlight the collection and remain cost effective. In part because Allyson and I are both anthropologists, we came at the challenge from similar intellectual spaces. We were concerned as much (or more) with the artist as the art; with process as much as result. In a region-based museum in which the majority of artworks cannot be attributed to a particular artist/maker, we developed an exhibition that foregrounded individual artists, and multiple works by each artist, to give insight into the artist and her/his body of work. There was an element of redress to this, and an awareness of compensating for the lack of such information elsewhere in the galleries. In-sights was a mining of collections and museum practice.

Karen’s series at NMAfA, Artists in Dialogue, is very important, I find, in that it foregrounds individual artists even more so, enriching it with spontaneous and proximate dialogue that injects a dynamism that the general public might not necessarily put together with notions of “African art”.  The artists’ presence and voices makes these forums and exhibitions not just engaging, but proximate and inclusive. Presence and voice are transformative for the general public.

Museum project #2: Julie Mehretu: City Sitings, The Detroit Institute of Arts

Some may recall a discussion at a past ACASA Triennial where all agreed that there was a need for monographs and solo exhibitions of individual contemporary African artists (as opposed to featuring them in larger group exhibitions). This show was close to me because Julie’s work shows that she is a macro-historian, a creative ethnographer, and geographer freed from constraints of territories as we know it.

Museum project #3: Far From Home, North Carolina Museum of Art

As associate curator of modern and contemporary art and responsible curator for African collection at NCMA (until February of this year), it was liberating not to mediate between departments, and to inhabit both. My first show there, Far from Home, was a first exploration of this unbounded territory.

This exhibition addressed the displacement of people and populations in the global community as they relocate for economic, political, educational, or other personal reasons. The artists were from diverse national and cultural origins, several from Africa or its diaspora, and many of whom had never been exhibited in the American southeast. All of the work spoke to the expansion of global networks as people relocate and travel, making their way in new places while maintaining connections to homelands and heritage, however tenuous. Focusing on the artists’ own narratives alongside processes or conditions such as displacement, separation, and belonging allowed for a more nuanced, global identity and for commonalities.

This exhibition was liberating not only for me, but also for many featured artists, come to find out. It was at once thematic and highly personal, including multiple works by individual artists—some African some not. But all sharing common experiences of relocation, dislocation, or displacement, albeit for under wide-ranging circumstances. It was an experiment in the dissolution of reified boundaries, both world geographies (without glossing over or removing them), and the boundaries that inhere in so many museums.

The overarching theme of displacement put us all on the same exploratory terrain at some level, though under wide-ranging circumstances. It was liberating, too, because it was a profoundly autobiographical exhibition, as I came to realize: I hadn’t lived anywhere more than 2-3 years at time since I left home at age 18—and, for at least 15 that, in and out of Africa myself.

It was a wonderful and personal way to set the stage for the collection building and exhibition program in the years that followed.