Earlier this year as part of my visit to the USA to present at the College Art Association (CAA) annual conference in New York I was pleased to attend the CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts panel session themed around “Feminist Pedagogy through Activist Arts Practices” (New York Hilton, Manhattan, 17 February 2017). During this 90-minute session four arts scholars presented papers examining different manifestations and articulations of feminist liberatory discourse through contemporary visual arts practices. A brief outline of each paper is summarised below, with links to further information about the featured artists, their projects and their portfolios of work, past and present.
(1) “The Kinship Project: Manifesting Connections to History through African-American Family Narratives” – This illustrated talk was presented by artist, anthropologist and archivist Samantha Hill who discussed an innovative archives-based research project she first developed in the early 2010s and has been touring to selected communities within the USA since that time to specifically empower African-American families to share photographs from their private and personal archives so as to provide fresh insights on what it was like to live in the United States and challenge racisms during the post-enslavement, pre-civil rights period from the mid-to-late-19th century through to the 1950s-60s (see: https://samanthahill.net/kinship-project/).
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). Continue reading Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York
Session title:Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change
High-profile museums and galleries in the West – such as the British Museum in London, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMA in New York – are continuously revising and developing new strategic plans to ensure that their collections, cultural programmes and exhibiting practices are engaging increasingly diverse global audiences. At the heart of these developments are complex issues about the changing nature of acquisitioning, curation, display and interpretation of artworks and cultural objects described as permanent holdings. The policies and practices implemented by these institutions serve as catalysts for generating and sustaining a rich discourse that invites artists, researchers, curators, archivists, educators, scholar activists and other creative practitioners to question their own roles and responsibilities within such dynamic museumscapes.
“Senses of Time” is a series of films and video-based contemporary artworks by six artists from the global African diasporas. In each case the contributors invite their audiences to consider the various tensions, contradictions and ambiguities that can exist between personal and political time, ritual and technological time, and corporeal and mechanical temporalities.
The following six film and video-based installations feature as part of a new touring exhibition, organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC:
Sammy Baloji‘s project “Mémoire” [“Memory”] examines the themes of memory and forgetting and is set within the socio-political context of postcolonial de-industrialisation. For much of the film, a dancer (the renowned Congolese dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula) can be seen dancing amongst ruins. Baloji states that the 5-minute film is meant to symbolise:
“…the story of politicians and the working classes…of those in power and the work of those who are governed. It is also the story of a body that moves among the ruins of what was once the heart of the DR Congo.”
– Sammy Baloji (cited by Milbourne et. al. 2015: 78)
Theo Eshetu‘s film features a kaleidoscopic art installation that examines the convergence of space and time in relation to the past, present and future.
Moataz Nasr’s work “The Water” focuses on identities distorted by the march of time.
Berni Searle‘s artistic ccontribution features ancestral family portraits being blown about in the wind as a way of representing the “slippages and fragility of time” aligned with issues of identity.
The film “Un Ballo in Maschera” by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) features a lavish and ornately decorative ballroom scene with masked dancers dressed in the signature ‘Dutch-wax’ patterned fabrics that have become a major feature of his conceptual and performance-based art installations over several decades.
Sue Williamson‘s artwork – a 36-minute video projection, titled “There’s Something I Must Tell You ” – considers inter-generational dialogues.
As I stood in front of Jelena Bulajic’s large-scale portrait of Alise Lange (2013) mesmerised by the network of fine wrinkles covering her face, my momentary thoughts merged with memories of another contemporary artwork that came back to mind in sharp focus – the image of Lubaina Himid’s topological art map, Thin Black Line(s) (2011).
In Bulajic’s work, her mixed-media artistic cartography of facial lines signified one elderly woman’s life history over several decades, and also served to illustrate the wider curatorial context to the London-based international group show of works by 14 women artists within which it was being shown – Champagne Life(Saatchi Gallery, London, 13 January – 9 March 2016). Although very different in its composition, Lubaina Himid’s artwork also mapped out women’s lives. However, rather than creating a close-up image of one woman to symbolise the complexities of our universal human condition, she chose instead to map diverse cultural and socio-political connections between several black British female artists from the UK’s African and Asian diasporas as a network diagram similar in appearance to Harry Beck’s topological map of the London Underground.