Berns: In response to your first question I can only comment on what I consider priorities for the Fowler, an institution with a very broad programmatic mandate. In recent years we have increased our commitment to contemporary African arts and have both organized and hosted exhibitions encompassing them. I’d like to mention a few, as a way of explaining the installation views I have posted, and to use them to describe the kinds of things we are likely to consider. In 2007 we invited Samta Benyahia, an Algeria-born artist living in Paris, to do a project for us. Her site-specific installation, Architecture of the Veil, transformed our galleria and courtyard using themes from Mediterranean Islamic architecture, especially the highly patterned moucharabieh screens that separate inside from outside, private from public, and male from female spheres. This beautiful architectural intervention was juxtaposed with a display of archival photographs of Algerian women from the early 20th century, including members of the artist’s own family. Wishing we had a small-scale “project” gallery at the Fowler, we hope to continue the practice of inviting artists to intervene in our existing spaces, including those outside our gallery walls.
We also have produced major group shows, such as the 2009 exhibition, Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa, curated by Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, our former Deputy Director and Chief Curator. Her research led her to acknowledge a proliferation of time-based projects being created by artists with deep attachments to the continent, and the exhibition featured the work of five artists she selected: Yto Barrada, Cláudia Cristóvão, Alfredo Jaar, Georgia Papageorge, and Berni Searle. This project introduced audiences in Los Angeles to several artists whose work was little seen in the U.S. and to artists already known within international contemporary art circuits. It focused on the representation of complex identity negotiations resulting from, in Roberts’ words, transnational movements and shifting notions of “home” and “abroad.”
This project was a groundbreaking step for the Fowler in terms of organizing a major exhibition of contemporary work about Africa, and one that appealed most particularly to a contemporary art audience familiar with such media practices. It was very different in content and impact from the exhibition of work by El Anatsui in Gawu, which we presented in 2007 to great popular response. That both types of exhibition have a place at the Fowler reveals our commitment to introducing audiences to the remarkably diverse work being produced by artists on and off the continent. This might mean group shows built around particular sets of ideas or histories, or solo exhibitions of mid-career artists. I have encouraged our new curator of African arts, Gemma Rodrigues, to develop exhibition ideas based on her own research and interests, which might potentially tour to other US and international venues. We will also consider proposals of traveling exhibitions from other institutions and would be very receptive to collaborations with colleagues working on the African continent. We are quite open to exploring a range of possibilities and opportunities.
I completely agree with Chris Spring in his identification of a “tidal wave of remarkable work” coming out of Africa or emanating from African artists living and working elsewhere. The great challenge lies in making the hard choices of what to do or show and when (and within the context of all the complicating practical and financial factors mentioned earlier in our group discussion). The Fowler also remains interested in artists whose work resonates with our more “tradition-based” collections and who may wish to come and enter a creative dialogue with them. I end by firmly stating that creative synergies exist across categories, geographies, and time periods, and that myriad possibilities exist for dynamic and innovative ways of dismantling their often arbitrary divides.