Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

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.

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Detail from the artwork “Skipping Girl” (2009) by Royal Academician Yinka Shonibare MBE, comprising a life-size, headless fibreglass mannequin, dressed in Dutch wax-printed cotton textiles. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

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.

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Title panel for the temporary, two-room installation, “Double Take” displayed at the entrance to the African galleries in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

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

Call for Papers: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

Carol Dixon will chair a 90-minute conference session on decolonial scholar-activism by African and Diasporan artists, curators and educators working with collections of ethnography and works of fine art in Western museums. This session forms part of the forthcoming programme for the 6th biennial network conference Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 – 8 July 2017.

If you would like to propose a research paper, show a portfolio of work, or suggest an alternative multi-media presentation for consideration, please draft a 250-word abstract in response to the following overview:

Session: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change

"Anthropomorphic head" (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon
“Anthropomorphic head” (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon

Overview:
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.

In this panel discussion, museologists, art historians, contemporary artists, scholars, educators and cultural  commentators from around the world will come together to discuss these issues with reference to one (or more) of the following questions:
Continue reading Call for Papers: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

“Senses of Time”: an exhibition co-organized by LACMA and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (2016-17)

“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.

Un Ballo in Maschera, by Yina Shonibare MBE (RA)
A still from the film “Un Ballo in Maschera” [“Masked Ball”] – an installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA). Image courtesy of Yinka Shonibare and James Cohan Gallery, New York. Source: The Washingtonian.
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.

Continue reading “Senses of Time”: an exhibition co-organized by LACMA and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (2016-17)

Thin Black Lines: marking time – on faces, within networks, and in exhibition spaces…

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).

Portrait of Alise Lange (2013) by Jelena Bulajic. Mixed media on canvas. 270 x 200 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon

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.

Thin Black Lines (2011) by Lubaina Himid.
Thin Black Line(s) (2011) by Lubaina Himid – a diagram illustrating “moments and connections” between all the diasporan women artists who showed work in exhibitions at the Africa Centre, Battersea Arts Centre and the ICA in London during the 1980s, displayed at Tate Britain in 2011-12.

Continue reading Thin Black Lines: marking time – on faces, within networks, and in exhibition spaces…

El Hadji Sy’s ‘alchemy of assemblages’ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt

Bal des nations (2010), by El Hadji Sy. Acrylic and tar on butcher's paper, 130 x 90 cm.
Bal des nations (2010), by El Hadji Sy. Acrylic and tar on butcher’s paper, 130 x 90 cm.

Earlier this month I went to Germany to undertake gallery-based research at the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt and spent time reviewing the temporary exhibition, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics (5 March-10 October, 2015).

This detailed retrospective about the life and work of internationally renowned Senegalese artist-curator and activist El Hadji Sy (b. 1954, Dakar) features a series of thematic assemblages comprising carefully selected historical objects from the Weltkulturen Museum’s extensive ethnographic collections juxtaposed with a range of contemporary paintings and installations created by El Hadji Sy and a number of fellow Senegalese artists dating from the early 1970s through to the present day.

Wall painting: Portrait du President (2012), acrylic and tar on butcher's paper, 190 x 200 cm. Floor painting: Le Puits (2014), acrylic and tar on jute sacking, 245 x 280 cm. El Hadji Sy's artworks are displayed with four stools from Papua New Guinea that are part of the Weltkulturen Museum collection.
Wall painting: Portrait du President (2012), acrylic and tar on butcher’s paper, 190 x 200 cm. Floor painting: Le Puits (2014), acrylic and tar on jute sacking, 245 x 280 cm. El Hadji Sy’s artworks are displayed with four stools from Papua New Guinea that are part of the Weltkulturen Museum collection.

El Hadji Sy’s association with the Weltkulturen Museum can be traced back to 1985 when he was first commissioned by the then director of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), Franz Josef Thiel, to curate a collection of contemporary paintings by Senegalese scholars affiliated to fine arts schools such as the École de Dakar, as well as works by self-taught artists. This curatorial activity was later accompanied by a published anthology of contemporary arts practice in Senegal co-edited with German education scholar and art patron Friedrich Axt (Axt and Sy 1989). Their professional partnership, which began when both lived in Dakar, led to a long friendship, transnational correspondences over many decades and numerous collaborations on international arts initiatives that lasted until Axt’s death in 2010.

Presented in 13 rooms over two floors of display space the exhibition is illustrative of  the way El Hadji Sy’s curatorial “alchemy of assemblages” communicate on several discursive levels: as a series of spatial and temporal conversations between the artist and staff at the Weltkulturen Museum; between objects and texts from the past and the present positioned in museum space; between Senegal and Germany at the level of transnational arts policy and exhibiting practices; and between Africa and Europe with regard to globalised, cross-cultural and geopolitical discourses. Continue reading El Hadji Sy’s ‘alchemy of assemblages’ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt