My recent visit to view the expansive art collections at Brooklyn Museum, located in the Prospect Park area of New York City, provided an interesting opportunity to peruse and critique a series of complex and engaging artistic and curatorial juxtapositions. On every level of this five storey building the vast collections of exhibits and their interpretation narratives were assembled to encourage dialogues between historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, established and experimental museographic techniques, and also conventional versus innovative perspectives on curation, all coupled together within close proximity throughout the display spaces.
The African Collections on Level 1
Nowhere were these artistic and curatorial binaries more starkly evidenced than in the furthest corner of the Level 1 galleries where two, black walled rooms presented the Museum’s permanent holdings of African art objects as the temporary installation “Double Take: African Innovations.”
Whilst it was wonderful browsing these two, tightly filled galleries, packed almost to bursting point with a diverse array of artworks sourced from several African nations, the thematic nature of curator Kevin Dumouchelle’s presentation – contrasting historical sculptural pieces with a range of more recent, multi-media contemporary art exhibits – was actually rendered quite problematic by the Museum’s decision to retain the old-fashioned convention of showcasing African collections within dimly lit, darkly painted interior settings, designed to communicate (wittingly, or unwittingly) the tired 19th century tropes about Africa being perceived in the West as a culturally mysterious ‘Dark Continent’ (see, for example, Hutcheon 1995: 11-13 and Elliott 2007: 32).
On several occasions throughout this museum display, the visiting publics who manage to find their way to this remote section of the Museum are invited to “Take another look!“, cast a second glance, or view the exhibits from an alternative standpoint to anything they have previously experienced – so that audiences are literally compelled to perform the “Double Take” suggested in the title of the installation. Such repetitious instruction embedded in the interpretation text on the display panels naturally provokes more fundamental questions about what African collections in museums should look like when put out on display, and also enables visitors to assess whether this telegraphed approach to applying a curatorial innovation actually deviates in reality from prior established norms, or merely perpetuates more of the same types of viewing (and gazing) practices that invariably ‘other’ artworks from Africa as objects to be treated differently and scrutinised more closely as ‘curiosities’ than any other types of art drawn from around the world.
A non-chronological sequencing of the art objects, and a non-geographical arrangement of the exhibit types, in favour of a presentation based on (what curator Kevin Dumouchelle describes as) “themes, solutions and techniques that recur across time and space” offers the possibility that visitors will create an infinite number of self-directed pathways through the African collections to (re-)interpret them in innovative ways. Whether this is actually achieved by most visitors remains to be seen, but the attempt at curatorial ‘experimentation’ in this way is at least something to be (tentatively) welcomed when so many other museums in the West remain locked in their imperialist, 19th century conventions of showcasing continental Africa and African descent artists’ cultural outputs as a (somewhat dubious) survey of art objects produced in perpetually ‘ancient kingdoms’ and ‘primitive cultures’, forever fixed and fossilised by the West’s inherently racist and reductive artistic imaginary.
The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on Level 4
One of the stand-out contemporary artworks from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection displayed as part of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on Level 4 is the awe-inspiring, room-sized permanent installation by Chicago-born American artist Judy Chicago, titled “The Dinner Party, 1974-79” (2002). This large-scale triangular dining table, positioned on top of gold-engraved white tiles covered with the names of c.1000 famous women from around the world is an iconic piece that forms the heart of the Museum’s “Herstory Gallery” of feminist art exhibits. The artwork comprises a pristine white cloth, and 39 individually designed porcelain plates, with ornately decorated place settings laid out over tapestries featuring the names of 39 high-achieving, prominent women in ‘world herstory‘ spanning several historical eras, and representing the Dinner Party’s “guests of honour”- from Celtic Queen Boudicca/Boadicea in the Roman era and Elizabeth I in the 16th century, through to writer Virginia Woolf and painter Georgia O’Keeffe from the 20th century modernist period.
Selected works from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collections on Levels 4 and 5
Finally, some of the other significant works featured in the permanent collections on Levels 4 and 5 are illustrated below to give a flavour of the depth, breadth and variety of modern and contemporary works within Brooklyn Museum’s extensive late-20th/early 21st century holdings. Several of these fine art pieces – including the installation “Grey Area (Brown Version)” (1993) by the African-American conceptual artist and curator Fred Wilson (b. 1954, New York) – critique intersected issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, spirituality, cultural heritage and diasporic identity within the context of questioning the historical ‘othering’ and negative ‘differencing’ of people of African descent living in the West.
REFERENCES AND WEBSITE LINKS FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Brooklyn Museum website – https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/
Elliott, David. 2007. “Africa, exhibitions and fears of the dark…” In Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent [Exhibition Catalogue], edited by Simon Njami, pp. 31-35. Johannesburg: Jacana Media in association with Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Hutcheon, Linda. 1995. “The post always rings twice: the postmodern and the postcolonial.” Material History Review 41 (Spring), pp. 4-23.