Milbourne: In response to Chika’s latest ambitious questions, I concur with Khwezi’s thoughtful comments but there are some subtleties that bear teasing out; for instance, his comment that we should not always make an exception of contemporary or modern African art.  This is true, but it is by no means limited to those associated with Africa.  Increasingly as the art world becomes more globalized, art and artists are getting ghettoized.  The labels used to be based on era or style; now they are determined by geography.  Just earlier this week there was an interesting article about how contemporary Russian art sales were down while Chinese were up.  The entire study broke the art world down by geography and perceived relevance—India made it in but Africa was not even represented, though The Economist ran a feature on the art market that looked seriously at artists identified as African roughly eighteen months ago.  We all know that this is happening; the challenge is in how or whether we accept the labels and the assumptions associated with them.  In addition to weathering the dueling challenges of the market—raising sufficient funds to generate meaningful exhibitions, acquisitions and programs, while also resisting or at least questioning the market-driven definitions of art and relevance— we need to insist on the museum as the place to question rather than endorse these processes. And I don’t mean this just in a didactic sense.  How are we engaging with artists as agents rather than subjects?  How are we creating exhibitions that show the complexity of what it can mean to be African or contemporary or modern?  How can we keep “Africa” in perspective with the rest of the world?

To me this means that there is no one kind of exhibition that emerges as a priority.  Quite the opposite.  How do we generate more exhibitions of multiple types: single artist AND thematic, local and global, temporally focused and expansive…and in multiple spaces—encyclopedic art museums, science museums, Africa-focused museums both on and off the continent…  It is here that I think exhibitions like Barbara Thompson’s upcoming exhibition on oil will be fantastic.  Originated by an Africanist working with African artists, this multi-region exhibition will look at the timely and incredibly significant role of the oil industry from the perspective of artists around the world.  At the same time, I think it is profoundly important that we erode the “traditional”/”contemporary” divide.  Why is it still accepted that curators, scholars and artists working with the contemporary should be grounded in Rauschenberg and Courbet but historic knowledge of Africa is seen as “ethnographic?”  We need to get past facile definitions of “traditional,” “modern,” “popular” and “contemporary.”  These practices have all intersected and often occupied the same geographic and temporal spheres.  The contemporary is not something that just happened to Africa.  How are particular histories relevant to the present?  How can these be shown alongside exhibitions where exposing such connections is not appropriate? We need to be careful to look for the places where we are inconsistent in our labels, displays and choice of words.  Money and resources will likely always be limited but our minds need not be.


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.

Clarke: I’d like to address these concluding questions in reverse order. I do agree with Yukiya that Africa’s contemporary artists are not on a level playing field in a global art world largely defined by Euro-American narratives and hierarchies. I think we are only just beginning to understand the implications of a globalized art world and the need to rethink and rework, perhaps dismantle, existing institutional frameworks (including, but not limited to, museums) and outmoded ways of thinking about art. For museums, this transformation will be especially challenging in the current economic and intellectual climate, as Khwezi notes.

In terms of priorities for future exhibitions and projects, I largely agree with what others have said. There is a need for to move beyond repetitive models and the existing canon of contemporary artists, to dig deeper in our research and broaden our awareness of the range of contemporary practice. We should be organizing more monographic exhibitions and retrospectives. We should address issues of visibility and access by ensuring that modern and contemporary art of Africa is presented in multiple contexts, including in thoughtful dialogue with the work of artistic contemporaries from around the world as well as in historic perspective.

I would add that one of the biggest challenges, to my mind, is the representation of modern African art in museums. Most of the focus in the art world, even in this roundtable discussion, is on contemporary artistic practice and it seems there are few museums acquiring and presenting works by Africa’s modern artists. Will this be the “lost chapter” in the museum representation of the arts of Africa or of modernism? While we strive to keep up with the contemporary, we also need to make a place/s for Africa’s modernisms in museums through display and acquisition.

Gule: At the risk of stating the obvious I think that one should not always make an exception out of African art, whether contemporary or modern. In some ways the issues that artist from African countries have to face apply to artists everywhere, even in the west.

We might say that African artists face greater problems in terms of visibility and in terms of access to resources and platforms as well as misreading of their work, not to mention having to battle old prejudices, but there are bigger challenges facing the art industry especially museums. One such issue is social relevance.

So I see your two questions as linked. Because of the fact that our contemporary reality has enabled us to experience several revolutions within our societies and cultures; by extension institutions of culture have had to transform themselves constantly.

We have witnessed the end of colonialism, the end of the cold war, the emergence of the information society and more recently revolutions in Northern Africa and the emergence of “new” superpowers and power blocks. One of the more interesting situations that museums will have to face is the emergence of relatively new global players such as India and China, and new ethical challenges.

Museums have had to fight for their material and metaphysical survival which has also been played out in how museums have aligned themselves ideologically and to some extent with particular political interests. There are many competing demands on museums which include being standard bearers of excellence in an era of an increasingly contested and ever expanding notion of art, unstable sources of funding, the demand that museums acquiesce to populism, in addition to carrying out their traditional roles such as conservation, education, and knowledge production.

In countries such as South Africa where museums are so dependent on public funding for both operations and programming there are significant pressures to play it safe. When we were hanging the Tracey Rose exhibition at the JAG earlier this year there were some concern about the sexually explicit material in the exhibition. But it is worth noting that the audience that came didn’t have as much of a problem as did some JAG staff.

Another possible danger is that in their fight for survival museums can become virtual proxies for commercial interests. In an age where universities and museums are becoming corporatized it might sound antiquated to say that these institutions should resist the encroachment of the market on their work. Museum professionals should not simply validate popular trends or bend to the demands of dealers and commercial galleries that want to have their artists represented in collections or to have solo shows.

Museums have a responsibility to research and foreground ideas, discourses and particular modes of production. To do this they have to have a sustained engagement with their chosen field. I often feel that much of what is produced in contemporary art circles has not been properly researched and is repetitive. It is important to develop new critical tools that can help us deal with our ever-changing political and creative environments and move beyond our limited perspectives.

Failure to do so would mean that we are relying on critical frameworks that have no more use which I think inevitably leads to the kind of conservatism that has sought to marginalize African art or even to mobilize it to reactionary ends.

Spring: In answer to the first part of Chika’s question, I think that one of our priorities (and there are many) must be to encourage museums in Africa to collaborate with contemporary artists, to acquire their work and perhaps to offer them positions as curators. One way we can facilitate this process is to support organizations like Triangle Arts by holding artists’ workshops in collaboration with museums and other cultural institutions in Africa. These workshops respond to local needs and are run by artists and owned by artists (depending on funding the participants in these workshops are usually divided 50/50 between artists from the host country and the international community); in the past three years the BM has supported three such workshops in Mozambique, in Ghana and in Nigeria. A huge number of benefits accrue to all involved, not least the establishment of a growing network of artists and event coordinators. Also, because these workshops take place over 2-3 weeks, often in very public spaces, they attract a huge number of people who witness international contemporary practice at first hand.

One problem, of course, is in convincing Western museums and funding bodies to take these workshops seriously and to realize that they can be at least as empowering for museums in Africa, and the communities they serve, as more conventional training courses in various aspects of museum work. However, even if we are unable to support such workshops directly, we can act as mediators in bringing together artists, curators and potential funding bodies for organizations such as Triangle—I can think of at least two such projects where this has happened through the BM in the last few months. I mention Triangle simply because I have firsthand experience of working with them, but I’m sure there are other organizations working in similar or related ways with contemporary artists in Africa, which would benefit from our support.

The greatest challenge facing contemporary African art as a subject of museological and curatorial attention at present and in coming years? On the one hand trying to keep up with a tidal wave of remarkable work and at the same time acquiring examples which will give our public at least an inkling of ongoing contemporary practice. On the other hand to show some of this work as part of a continuum which finally exorcises the ghost of the “ethnographic present” which for so long has haunted perceptions of African art. Better still, to curate bold, touring exhibitions which can travel to venues throughout Africa and around the world—and never let recession cramp our style!

Okeke-Agulu: We have touched on so many issues, some of which I would have liked us to push a little bit more. But I guess there will another opportunity elsewhere to continue these conversations. One thing is clear, and that is that a lot of work remains with regards to how museums deal with modern and contemporary African art and artists, and how they position themselves institutionally in shaping the future of the field. Which brings me to two concluding questions. First, I am curious to know what kinds of exhibitions or projects you consider a priority for museums with substantive interests in the modern and contemporary African art. And second, what do you consider the biggest challenges facing this art as a subject of museological and curatorial attention at present and in the coming years?

Milbourne: I am not sure I would go so far as to say collaborations with African National Museums are the norm.  At NMAfA, we have been working on a collaboration with the National Museums board of Nigeria on an Owo show, but there is no guarantee that this collaboration will happen given a number of real challenges.  And while the bureaucratic complications are lessened when dealing with a gallery rather than a museum, in general, museums in the United States try to avoid exhibiting works from galleries because they are commercial enterprises.  It is also our policy not to show private collections without an arrangement that the works on view won’t be placed on the market afterwards with increased values thanks to the exhibition.

Just last year, however, NMAfA did collaborate with ArtSource South Africa to take Paul Emmanuel: Transitions.  I would say the main obstacle is not philosophical but financial.  Museum for African Art was willing to go to great lengths and costs to show the Ife works (and let me just say the show is absolutely breathtaking) because there was no other way to show them.  This is not the case with contemporary art.  And let me be clear that it is unbelievably expensive to ship works of art internationally.  Most museums right now are moving away from doing any international loans—from Europe, Africa or elsewhere.  My Artists in Dialogue series has a shipping budget in the six figures, and this is for exhibitions where much of the art is made on site.  With the first exhibition in the series, it took months to negotiate CITES regulations as artist Antonio Ole had included fish bones and a crab claw in some artworks.  In the end, both the Angolan Embassy in the US, and the US Embassy in Angola had to become involved.  In addition to this, there were times we weren’t sure we could ship the art at all because we could not find a company in Angola working with the treated wood required by US customs for the fabrication of the crates.  So we weren’t sure that even if we could get the crates fabricated, we could get them in the country. The logistics for the current Artists in Dialogue 2 were so complicated that we nearly didn’t make the opening, even though we’d had two years in which we made every effort to plan.  International collaborations are hard and most museums, at least in the US, are facing tremendous staffing shortages and budget cuts making the collaborations we all desire increasingly difficult.

That being said, not only are we trying to collaborate with our continental counterparts where feasible on exhibitions, we are also seeking to find ways of collaborating professionally by partnering with both scholars and artists on the continent.  So maybe the exhibitions aren’t taken from African organizers, but we are working to make sure there is an interactive approach to the development of exhibitions in the US.

Okeke-Agulu: Enid, I am not interested here in western museums and the art vs. ethnology debate. Rather, my concern is that while collaborations with African ethnology museums—what are usually called “national museums” in Anglophone Africa—are the norm, such relationships with African modern and contemporary art museums/ galleries are hard to come by. While western perceptions of the quality of works in the Nigerian National Museum, such as the Ife collection, or the Nok, Jenne and other terracotta sculptures in the Valleys of the Niger, are unquestionable, I wonder if the lack of collaborations with the modern and contemporary art galleries/museums is just a matter of the logistical nightmare you rightly describe. Or it is a statement about the western perception of modern and contemporary art in African museums/galleries?

Schildkrout:  Apologies for pretty much dropping out of this conversation due to lack of time, but I just read Chika’s post below. I simply want to correct what seems to me to be a misstatement about the Ife exhibition, not necessarily to engage in the larger discussion about
art vs. ethnology museums. The Ife exhibition was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York in collaboration with the Fondación Botin in Santander, Spain and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. It was not organized by an ethnology museum, although one of the venues was the British Museum, which I suppose may be the referent here for ethnology museum.  The other museums presenting this exhibition all are/were art museums, and the current installation at the Virginia Museum of Art is by any definition an art installation, and I might add, an installation of the highest quality (in my view). The exhibition has changed from venue to venue, and the most “ethnological” installation was at the British Museum, so perhaps that’s where the confusion sets in.

One further point about organizing collaborative exhibitions with African institutions (or private collections in Africa) is that the logistics are not easy. Many major museums hesitate to take on the complexities of international loans from Africa (aside from South Africa). In doing both the Ife exhibition and the El Anatsui exhibition, both of which involved major loans from Nigeria, there were numerous issues that curators and registrars, packers and shippers, airlines and customs officials, are not used to dealing with. While an artist or gallery in Africa may send out a single piece via DHL without a problem (hopefully), an exhibition of high value objects and 30-60 crates, that have to travel across country before beginning its international odyssey, is a challenge.  Well worth it, but a challenge that many museums, whether art or ethnology museums, hesitate to take on.

African  Museums/Galleries and Contemporary Art

Okeke-Agulu: Clive, one can only wish Tiffany Jenkins good luck in her desire for a return of museums to the time when no one had the voice to question the their narrow-minded, and culturally and insensitive foundational missions, long before the necessary discursive insurgencies of postcolonial critique of the unreflexive universal museum’s imperial assumptions. My suspicion though is that the old days are really gone and museums will and must have to deal with the fact that they are by their nature a space for forms of political practice through art and expressive cultures.

But let me return to Chris’s last comment, which in a way reminds us that one of the important aspects recent international museum relations has been cooperation between “First” and “Developing/Third World” museums in anything ranging from co-organizing traveling exhibitions, to program and institutional development. But in relations to Africa these engagements often occur among ethnographic/ethnological museums. One can here think of the Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria exhibition of the Nigerian Museum’s collection currently traveling in Europe and the United States, or the Valleys of the Niger co-organized by ethnological museums from five West African countries in collaborations with their counterparts in France and the Netherlands in the 1990s. But such projects between African and Western modern/contemporary art museums/galleries are virtually non-existent, and I wonder if this is a statement about international/Western perception of the quality of African collections—that is, where they exist—and their relevance to the discourse of modern/contemporary art? Or, might there be some other reasons for this?