Milbourne: To Chika’s first question, I very much agree with Clive and Yukiya. Africa is a contested terrain. And museums can play an important role in making sure that audiences come to understand this. But I would like to suggest that museums do not have the answers; nor do I necessarily think they should. In fact, I believe that museums are the places to ask the questions. So, rather than trying to pin down the geographies of Africa and the contemporary, how can we create exhibitions or make acquisitions that challenge the range of assumptions about where and when Africa is?
One of the reasons I was tied up last week that I needed to finish writing overdue acquisition reports. We have already covered acquisition policies, but again, it is relevant here. Sometimes, acquisitions come in through gifts. At other times, they are made because the opportunity is there; the piece is available and you move on it. This means that you don’t get to have every object, or a work by every artist, that you think your museum should. In card terms, you have to deal with the hand dealt you. You’ve also got to anticipate whether to spend your money now or wait in the belief that your limited funds will be better spent at an unknown opportunity down the road. So, museums build to gaps and they build to strengths. It’s a balance based on media, artists’ names, the tastes of different curators, and geography. The geography question can be tricky. For myself, I ask the artists how they feel about being collected or represented in a museum of African art. If they are not alive, then I look to see if they ever included themselves in an exhibition of “African” art or positioned themselves as Africans. Here is where what Yukiya said is so important. There is a power differential and I am quite certain sometimes artists say “yes” because they want to be collected and represented in a museum, not because they want to be African. Theo Eshetu has exhibited his work as “British,” “Italian” and “Ethiopian;” Fatma Charfi as “Arab” and “African”… the list goes on. For some artists, like Yinka Shonibare, this complexity is the joy and inspiration for much of the work. And, of course, this is what makes his work so popular for so many museums. We get it. With visual and technical sophistication, he calls everyone on their inconsistencies and the power imbalances that shape them.
As for the fakes, in a strange way, it is a good thing. Despite their profound significance, until recent years there haven’t been international auction houses selling Demas Nwoko or Uzo Egonu, despite their profound significance in Lagos or Paris. Now that there is a market, there are fakes. This is the way of the world, and of art. As Chris, Clive and the others have written, it just means the curators (and auctioneers and collectors for that matter) have to do their homework and check provenance and consult with experts, do the reading, etc., the same as they do for any other work of art.
Before signing off, however, I also wanted to share that I spent some time with Hervé Youmbi last week and had some really interesting conversations with him.
In particular, we discussed his recent photo and sculptural installations, “Totems to Haunt Our Dreams” (in English). In them, he depicts African artists wearing dark glasses on which there are a range of icons of modern art—Warhol’s dollar sign, The Tate’s logo, etc.—and the artist must choose which he or she wishes to wear for a photograph. He then interviews the artist as to his or her choice. These are accompanied by “totems” of the towering plastic bags found throughout Africa onto which he has affixed the same logos—Damien Hirst’s diamond skull, the Louvre’s pyramid. So, he is interrogating the international spaces of art and what these spaces mean for the art world and for the artists in Africa seeking to access them. We had no problem talking about what these works might mean in, for example, NMAfA’s contemporary gallery. Then, I asked how he would feel about integrating them with a range of African art works, historic, popular, and contemporary. He loved it. But here is the catch—and it is one of my own making. I asked him that if, hypothetically, we were to do this, would he come and work with me. Would he help me to stage an intervention in the gallery where the artist’s voice helped shape the way we framed time and place in relation to both Africa and art. So back to Yukiya’s contribution and an earlier point I made about including artists on boards and the shaping of museum visions, a lot of this has to do with HOW we are engaging the artists and their work. Are we simply selecting great works, and then taking possession of them as it were, or are we also asking the artists to think through with us what it means to be in a museum? And a particular kind of museum at that? Or to broaden or focus the meanings of “Africa” through the inclusion of their works in the museum?
And this brings me to my last question, which is not on Chika’s list. A year or so ago I was in Lagos chatting with Bisi Silva and she asked me why it was that Africanist curators seemed more inclined to create shows that combined so-called traditional works with the contemporary. As she said, it wasn’t a trend she much saw in India. To this I asked her—and I don’t know the answer—Is this shame on us or shame on them?