Laurie Ann Farrell: First, I would like to thank Chika and Nka for convening this roundtable. You’ve brought together an amazing group of scholars and I’m honored to be included in this group.
My first encounter with contemporary African art dates back to the late 1990s when I was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was working for Dr. Elizabeth Brown as an intern at the University Art Museum while studying African art history with Dr. Herbert (Skip) Cole. Liz knew I was interested in contemporary art and looking to find a way to make a contribution to the field. She suggested that I take a trip down to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego to see the William Kentridge Weighing and Wanting exhibition. Seeing this show in 1998 as a young art historian had a profound impact on the focus of my career. For a period of time after visiting the show I found my mind continually returning to Kentridge’s incredibly gestural mark making, the emotional qualities of the music and the predicament of his protagonist Soho Eckstein who is faced with coming to terms with his own corruption and financial gains made during apartheid. It was the first time I truly felt and understood art’s agency in a specific and potent socio-political context.
Approximately one year later I was an intern at the Museum for African Art in New York assisting Frank Herreman with the Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa exhibition preparation while on summer break from graduate school at The University of Arizona. Working on Liberated Voices provided an invaluable opportunity to conduct research and meet artists while developing my thesis topic on contemporary South African art. The Museum for African Art internship led to a job at the museum and eventually my first small curatorial project with artist Ingrid Mwangi (2003). Later that year my first major exhibition Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora opened featuring newly commissioned and recently produced works by Fernando Alvim, Ghada Amer, Oladélé A. Bamgboyé, Allan deSouza, Kendell Geers, Moshekwa Langa, Hassan Musa, N’Dilo Mutima, Wangechi Mutu, Ingrid Mwangi, Zineb Sedira and Yinka Shonibare. Numerous challenges came with mounting Looking Both Ways within the context of an African art museum. While many artists responded enthusiastically to the premise of the show, others said that they had gained recognition through their work, not their ethnicity, and that they had reservations about participating in a group exhibition in a museum dedicated to African art. Some stated that they didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a category, or cited previous expectations placed upon them to represent Africa to the West. The variety of responses led to productive discussions (both internally at the museum and externally with the artists) that ultimately strengthened the exhibition and led to proactive growth within the museum.