Spring: Chika, I think your second question is “how the work of African artists is presented in art and ethnology museums” and by this I take it you mean the notion of “contemporary African art” which we have attempted – or not – to define in the first strand of your question?

The BM is neither an art nor an ethnology museum, though it certainly embraces both those concepts within its remit as “a museum of the world for the world”. The old Museum of Mankind, which formerly displayed the collections of the Ethnography Dept. of the BM in another part of London, could certainly be described as an “ethnology museum,” but it closed in 1997 and shortly afterwards the collections began to reappear in a series of purpose built galleries at the main BM site, including the African galleries which opened in 2001. This relocation, together with the change in the name of the Department, has meant that the collections have been recontextualized in a fundamental way.

Contemporary art from Africa is displayed in a number of other Departments at the BM –as I write the Dept. of Prints and Drawings has a show entitled “From Picasso to Julie Mehretu”—and work is almost always on tour outside the BM, either in exhibitions such as Fabric of a Nation which showcases factory printed cloth from Ghana, La Bouche du Roi the multi-layered artwork by Romuald Hazoumé, or global, inter-Departmental loans in which sculpture such as Kester’s Throne of Weapons may often feature. However, the main displays within the BM appear in and around the African galleries, and the rationale behind these displays has not essentially changed since the galleries opened (see Spring et al African Arts 34: 3 (2001), 18-37,93). My recent book, African Art in Detail (London and Cambridge, MA, 2009) is a thinly disguised guide to the African galleries, and gives an idea of developments since that African Arts article.

Perhaps the most important element of the galleries is that they should be seen as a forum for debate, not as a statement of “fact.” Most people amongst our visiting public have preconceptions of “Africa” and of “African art” in their minds before they visit the BM, and we hope that these ideas may be tempered somewhat by encountering the work of artists such as Kester, Magdalene Odundo, El Anatsui and Susan Hefuna in a regularly changing introductory section. We further hope that, in addition to introducing some of the major themes of the galleries, these artists whose names and faces are well known, may act as ambassadors for those great artists from the past whose names and faces were also once well known in the societies in which they lived and worked. Elsewhere in the galleries Taslim Martin, Khaled ben Slimane, Gerard Quenum, Sokari Douglas Camp, Rachid Koraichi and others help to illuminate—and be illuminated by—the works which surround their own creations. Commissioning new work from artists specifically for various sites in the galleries, or discussing with artists how their existing works could be displayed to best give (I hope) a feeling of dynamism to what is, in effect, a permanent space with a fairly rigid set of display cases and open plinths.

I can’t go into details, but right now I am negotiating major proposals from two artists which will utterly transform the spaces in the African galleries in which their work will be displayed. These projects may often be years in the making and require extreme patience from artist and curator alike. I am also close to achieving the beginnings of a transformation of the space immediately above the galleries – and that is something I have been working on ever since they opened a decade ago!

Hope this gives a snapshot of “how the work is presented,”  and how I wish it might be presented at the BM.

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