Milbourne: The truth of the matter is that in my position as curator, I try not to define “contemporary African art.” To me, one of the greatest pleasures and challenges of this position is trying to get beyond the classifications which continue to limit our perceptions of African art. A museum ought to be a space in which the questions are raised about what African art is or can be. I want the public to understand that the answers are not easy. Right now at the National Museum of African Art, we have on view 4 exhibitions: “Selections from the Walt-Disney Tishman Collection” in which the “canon” of African art history is presented; “A Brave New World,” a focus show drawn from the permanent collection in which our new acquisition of Theo Eshetu’s “Brave New World II” is situated in relation to works on paper that also explore themes of travel, be it of ideas or people; “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira” where two artists have created site-specific work in response to one another and in so doing their work draws attention not only to the “when” of African art, but the “where;” and “African Mosaics,” an exhibition created from acquisitions of the past 10 years that shows how a museum shapes a vision of Africa with such diverse objects as a fantasy coffin in the form of a Nokia cell phone (with God’s hand reaching out in the text screen and the word “Hello”), a fabulous Krahn mask, and a photomontage Zwelethu Mthetwa made to benefit AIDs orphans.
And here I would like to draw attention to the words I’ve employed. I purposefully avoided using the words “contemporary” or “traditional.” It was rather disheartening at this past ACASA triennial to have panel after panel in which the presenters said of “traditional” and “contemporary” that we all know what we mean by these words and we all know we don’t like them. In fact, I don’t think we all know what we mean by them and we either should make sure we use them in a way in which they say what we mean or we should stop using them. The paradigms won’t shift if we use the same logic. I work consciously to write materials for NMAfA in which I discuss “temporal and geographic diversity” and I have a fantasy of collecting a work by Aina Onabolu, an early 20th century portrait painter who was a contemporary of Olowe of Ise, whose work is represented in the collection. I would love to display these works side by side and discuss how these two historic works are emblematic of different trajectories within Nigerian expressive culture and yet they occurred at the same time, in the same region, roughly 100 years ago. There are not “2 Africas” (though there may be many more). We need to come up with language that recognizes global market forces while also not obfuscating the influence of cultural and historical specificities. So for now, I prefer to identify an artist along with the medium(a) and location(s) in which he or she works, sometimes displaying the work alongside contemporaries, sometimes not, but avoiding classifications like “popular,” “traditional” or “contemporary” that may conceal more than they reveal.