Clarke: I would like to respond to the entwined issues related to accessioning and the geography of contemporary art.
Like many curators working at collecting institutions, I have developed a formal document that serves to define the scope of collecting within the department of African art. The guidelines place a priority on collecting contemporary art, defined as a work by an artist born or living and working in Africa. This definition is broad enough to encompass works in varied media and does not place limitations in terms of content; in other words, a work of contemporary art acquired by the museum does not necessarily have to relate to the historic works of African art in our collection. In terms of the geography of contemporary African art, the location of an artist does not outweigh the work’s quality (and I recognize that term is a subjective one) when considering an acquisition. However, I do not believe that an artist must be canonized first by the international art market in order to have her/his work enter our collection.
As noted before, the Newark Museum does not have a stand-alone department devoted to contemporary art (or Photography, or Prints and Drawings, for that matter) so a contemporary work by an artist from Africa rarely is contested terrain in terms of how it is accessioned into the collection. And we don’t have a gallery of “Contemporary Art” or “20th Century Art” that could offer an alternative display space for a work by a contemporary artist from Africa. That said, I often work collaboratively with the other curators here to present works across departmental boundaries, primarily through temporary exhibitions. To Laurie’s point about displaying the El Anatsui alongside a Mark Rothko (which was not quite the example I gave at ACASA, and did not happen at Newark), I actually don’t feel a sense of “disappointment” when I see works by artists from Africa placed in transnational dialogues. In fact, our 2009 exhibition, Unbounded: New Art for a New Century did exactly that: it encouraged our audiences to consider connections between artworks that transcend nationalism. I do feel, however, that such dialogues benefit from informed knowledge of the artist’s work and intentions, which was not the case in the example I cited. In Unbounded, the affinities between artworks presented together were grounded in the shared expertise of the four organizing curators.
Discussions between the curators, the director and our trustees during acquisition committee meetings have often probed these very issues. Yesterday’s meeting was a perfect example. After presenting a canvas diptych by Osi Audu, entitled Outer and Inner Head (2002), one of our trustees commented, “Why should we acquire this work as part of our African art department? This work says nothing about Africa.” Although Audu’s work is actually informed by the Yoruba concept of the “inner head” (in addition to scientific studies of perception and human consciousness), the abstract visual form of the canvas didn’t seem “African” enough to our trustee. I responded that our acceptance of such works into the collection should not be predicated on whether or not they fit the idea of “African art” as constructed through 20th century modernism; instead, such works enable us to redefine perceptions of African art and further, to question whether there is even such a category as African art.
In short, museological space is contested terrain, as many of us have already observed. And while we should all celebrate the inclusion of artists of African heritage in museum galleries devoted to 20th Century Art or the Museum of Modern Art in NY, I don’t think we should do so uncritically. We need to think about their inclusions and exclusions, the power dynamics and imbalances. Where do works by Aina Onabolu, Ernest Mancoba or Ibrahim El Salahi fit into these spaces, if they are even collected at all?