Berns: I think we can probably all agree that classifications are by definition restrictive and do not allow for the grey areas that exist between them, making terms like “contemporary” or traditional” hard to define and apply, often leaving behind expressive forms that do not easily fit in either camp (e.g., Africa’s varied modernisms or popular urban arts). However, I would disagree with Karen that their use in the museum be avoided in favor of other kinds of language specific to the project at hand. Any language we come up with (and we haven’t found it yet) likely will suffer the same deficiencies as the words we use now. Consider the fact that even today, the word “tribal” is still employed in the global marketplace to distinguish the non-Western from the Western and the contemporary (or even modern) from the not-contemporary. We have found at the Fowler that using the word “contemporary” has helped us distinguish for our audiences the work of artists who participate in a different global discourse and whose work is “of the moment.” In 2009 we presented a small exhibition called “Transformations: Recent Contemporary African Acquisitions” to signal that the recent gifts were NOT “tradition-based” or what our audiences most often associate with us. The choice of words was intentional, a way to reinforce the Fowler’s deepening and expanding commitment to a range of contemporary African expressions. In our case, we are working against a set of assumptions about what the Fowler has historically collected and the kinds of exhibitions we have distinctively done, largely focused around particular genres of traditional arts. If we cannot use these terms it is difficult to signify shifts in our institutional priorities. However imperfect, the terminology functions as a descriptor of difference.
That said, we need to be mindful of the soft-edged and permeable boundaries between artists we call contemporary and those who are not, and also to distinguish artists who may be, in fact, more “contemporary” than others. Let me acknowledge that an artist like Magdalene Odundo, who builds pots in a studio outside of London, is not the same sort of artist as Dije, who works in a room in a Ga’anda village in northeastern Nigeria making vessels for domestic and ritual use. I have photographed both of these artists at work and both are remarkable for the meticulousness and beauty of their art. Creating an exhibition of Magdalene’s work is not the same thing as including Ga’anda vessels in an exhibition encompassing the arts of the Benue River Valley even if perchance I am lucky enough to know an artist’s name. I think we have to accept that despite being coeval, these artists do not occupy the same discursive space and have completely different relationships to the “idea” of a public exhibition and to me as its curator. For me, Magdalene Odundo is a contemporary African artist and Dije (and other Ga’anda women artists) is not. I have interviewed both of them and filmed them at work. They both can, in effect, talk back, but it is likely that only Magdalene would speak in the same language as the person asking the questions or the persons hearing the answers. We include in our long-term exhibition, Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives, a video of Magdalene talking about her work, its meanings, and the intimacy of her process. For some, this strategy might be considered problematic. Moreover, even though vessels by Odundo have come to signal the “contemporary” for many institutions, especially those slow to feature the work of other more conceptually-based contemporary artists in their departmental purviews, I would venture to say that Magdalene’s work, not much changed over the past twenty years, might not be selected by other curators for exhibitions they would define as contemporary. Indeed, such are the problems and limitations of the classification “contemporary,” but as Karen says, the range of our programming and the different strands we may represent, can communicate something of the diversity and complexity of work by African artists today.