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Politics of Western-modelled curatorship of African Art

Brooklyn Museum’s hiring of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as a consulting curator of African Art incited a long-standing debate as to what the implications are of white-led curatorship of non-white and non-western art within the museum. With criticism from art historians, social media, news outlets, and community and activist groups, the topic permeated many social spheres, pointing to the significance and power of museum curatorship in collecting, preserving, and exhibiting objects and art (Salam, 2018). As massive powerhouses of cultural production, either as cultural landmarks (Stedman, 2002), or through their creation of semiotic meaning by way of curation (Bennett, 2012), museums render a high level of significance and power to their curators - who are tasked with designing the visitor’s experience and reception of the museum’s collections by envisioning an intention for the work. The status of the curator is therefore undeniably influential in shaping cultural narratives and identities, placing the work in a specific historical and interdisciplinary context (Ferdman, 2014).

Care is a fundamental aspect of a curator’s role. The term ‘curate’ originates from the Medieval Latin ‘curatus and from the Latin ‘curare’, meaning ‘to care’ (Morton, 2018, quoted in Curating Connections: Unpacking Identities, 2019, p. 16). Although the professional profile of the curator was formally recognised in the late 18th century (Ferdman, 2014), early-period examples of curation evidence the high status and significance attributed to curators of today as preservers of culture in society. In Ancient Rome, curators were high-ranking civil servants who cared for the Empire's vital public works such a aqueducts, bathhouses, and sewers and in the medieval church, the caratus was a priest who cared for souls (Morton, 2018; Fountain and Nordlund, 2019, 16). By the 20th Century, the role of the curator expanded from being caretaker of collections (Ferdman, 2014), to one that fabricates exhibitions of cared for collections of art or artefacts (Fountain and Nordlund, 16). This development of the curator’s role throughout the centuries suggests a gain of responsibility, as when art became more discursive and attuned to context by the end of the 20th century (Ferdman, 2014), curators were tasked with shaping cultural narratives by carefully making choices of what was most relevant to their audiences ( (Fountain, Ryerson, & Nordlund, 2019).

Image 1: The Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum: Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Objects are displayed and interpreted to convey a way of life. Photo by Duncan Millar.

Modern day curators that create exhibitions of cared-for collections of art and artefacts are responsible for fabricating wider social, cultural, and national narratives that shape identity by way of editing, framing, translating, constructing, facilitating, and promoting new narratives with and through museum collections (Fowle, 2007; Graham & Cook, 2010; Litchfield & Gilson, 2013; Szeemann, 2001; Fountain and Nordlund, 2019). In tandem to the context of their content, “curators can direct attention to issues by composing social commentary with their inclusion or omission of particular objects and by the conditions set for viewing or participating” (O'Donoghue, 2017; Whiteland, 2017; Fountain and Nordlund, 2019, 16, emphasis added).

Historically, the notion of a curator is an inherently Western construction that positions modern curators within the powerful structure of white Western Masculinist civilisation. Due to this positionality, curators innately (unless actively participating in decolonisation), participate in a culture of responsibility that relies on and perpetuates European Modernist ideals, such as individualism and liberal humanism. This raises the question of how their influence over non-white and non-western narratives and identities ought to be interpreted. The care that is innate to the curator’s role is a romantic notion based on its aims to better and develop cultural narratives and identities through its inclusion or exclusion, preservation and display, of art and objects of cultural production into the museum. This notion, rooted in classism and colonialism, is corruptive as it perpetuates ideals of Western essentialism. The curator’s role, as a microcosm of marketed Western idealism, acts as a catalyst for the continuation and validation of Western structural ideologies.

Image 2: Roman Bath House still in use as a result of the careful architecture and preservation. A practical and artistic artefact. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Western curators, having come under scrutiny over the past two decades over their participation in curating African art and artefacts, suggest a confrontation with the uncomfortable history of the West’s exploitation of the continent. The discomfort around Western curatorship represents a much deeper issue with Western influence over non-western narratives through art exhibition. A complex and multi-faceted matter, curatorship is entrenched in issues of colonialism and imperial structuralism, Social Darwinism, ethics and interculturalism, and specifically, race (Robbroeck, 2010). Lize van Robbroeck, a critical voice in Visual Studies that works at the intersection of Settler Colonial Studies and psychoanalytic theories on race and racialisation, proposes that the threat to contemporary African art (which is often racialised), is a white influence that is corruptive and restrictive to black artists (Writing White on Black, 2010). The prior often than most dismisses the opinions and perspectives of the latter, that suggests the use of African artwork or participation of African artists is a result of the Salvage Paradigm - an early 20th century anthropological term that describes the belief it is necessary for dominant cultures to preserve so-called ‘weaker’ cultures (Gurney, 1990). As such, the West view themselves as the agent of salvation of black culture, a major act of Western ethnocentrism (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 177). The common and relentless overgeneralisation of African identities endorses a tone of Western essentialism in art historian discourse (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 173). In context of the art itself, with a complicated history embedded in Western Imperialism, contemporary African art is doomed to be disadvantaged from the onset. African culture is not only at risk of the systemic power of structural colonialism through the Western curation of its art, but suffers from the inability to piece together its own art history and create an independent art educational system, rendering it unable to secure its own cultural identity (Chikukwa, 2011).

As the first recognised art form, African material culture such as sculptures and objects, rarely merited the attention of art historians and art critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 173). The lack of representation of African material cultural is not solely the most violent act of voiding African cultural identity. The history of the deprecation and destruction of existing African artistic traditions within the 19th and 20th century is a consequence of the violence of Christian Missionary. It condemned artistic practice in traditional idioms as idolatry, violently combatting ancient and traditional African display and participation practices, by seizing and destroying tons of art objects in bonfires (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 173). This is a result of the impetus of Western modernist civilisation, which positions and classes objects of African material culture as signs of racial and evolutionary difference, contributing them to the lesser and uncivilised position of “primitive art” (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 173):

“The prevalence of Social Darwinist ideas regarding the evolution of cultures had a profound impact on nineteenth-century perceptions of African material culture and continued to determine the way black artistic production was viewed.” (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 174)

Image 3: A demonstration of a plot to weaken Africa's cultural identity. 1835.

This structural divide of power that polarised African identity from the Imperialist ideal of modernist civilisation was sanctioned. This disparity of power is still felt in the relationship between Contemporary African practitioners and Western institutions (Chikukwa, 2011). It places African artists in the ambivalent position of working within modernist paradigms, where “the contemporary black artist has to be seen to participate in an institution in which individualism and the right to self-expression is enshrined, yet he/she must simultaneously serve as representative of 'the race'” (Chikukwa, 2011, pp. 179-80).

This restrictive space within the canon is what leads the second largest continent in the world to experience and remain in a vast lack of representation, and to have a cultural identity formed of mass generalisation, whilst playing to the rules of European modernity. When contemporary African art meets Western influence, it is at the risk of encountering a colonial discourse, a by-product of modernity, that disrupts and defers the achievement of Africa’s full modern identity. The African story is either intercepted by a Western perspective that either dismisses notions of independent and authentic African identity, or re-writes and re-imagines the African narrative by imprinting highly prized modern European traits and ideals, such as rationalism, materialism, innovation, individualism, and liberal humanism (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 172). White-owned narratives of African cultural production allow for subtle systemic forces of power to intervene and regress cultural development of African identities. Generalisation is a tool used in Western practices to counter the threat of full individuation (Robbroeck, 2010, pp. 173-4). The African identity remains incomplete and overly generalised and is used to codify a racialised culture that remains on the outskirts of European modernity. The African operates within a space that renders him incapable of achieving full modern identity, as it is his innate Africanness that necessitates separate categorisation, despite his engagement with modernity and its promise of universal individual subjecthood (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 179).

Image 4: a Luba Mask, an anthropo-zoomorphic mask of the Luba people from DR Congo. The mask is displayed behind glass in Belgium, separate from its ancestral context or history of its being pillaged.

Besides the difficulty of divorcing African art from the historical structure of imperialism that founded the notion of the museum in the first place, there is still a worldwide interest and trade in African Contemporary Art in major Western institutions that facilitates a demand for its inclusion (Bennett, 2012; Chikukwa, 2011). This begs the question of what the West gains from the success of African art. Raphael Chikukwa, African curator, and Executive Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, clearly outlines the flaws of the relationship between African artists and Western institutions; the prior being representatives of African culture and the latter being the gatekeepers of universal modernist culture and identity. Outlining issues such as Africa’s Connectivism versus the West’s Individualism, the power disparity and socio-cultural difference always seems to pollute the potential for contemporary African art and identity development to succeed on its own. It is the need for the West’s intervention that Chikukwa observes as highly problematic, an observation echoed by Robbroeck:

“It is frequently implied that black artists only enter history upon contact with European teachers; from a background of timeless anonymity and collectivism, the black artist gradually thus begins to acquire identity and individualism.” (Robbroeck, 2010, p. 178)

After all, the West’s failing to showcase work on the African continent contributes to Africa’s deeply rooted history of colonial exploitation (Chikukwa, 2011). Without African-led or based biennales, representation of the diversity of African cultures remains limited, leading to Western curators and theorists often placing all of Africa in one basket. Chikukwa warns against this, suggesting that the lack of representation will never “come to an end because [Africans] somehow play along with their game” (Chikukwa, 2011, p. 228); referencing how the Venice Biennale of 2007 raised many questions about national and continental representations and questions how and why anyone would dedicate to the second largest continent in the world only a single pavilion (Chikukwa, 2011).

Image 5: Zeitz MOCAA, the largest contemporary African art museum built in Africa, in Capetown, South Africa. The museum was built in response to the lack of representation and authority of African art on the continent, and is the largest museum in the world showcasing the art of Africa and its diaspora.

Although unavoidable and contentious, there is a recognisable advantage, or more so the room for possibility, within the existing relationship between Africa and the West (Chikukwa, 2011). With there still being considerable risks, Western curatorship and mega-exhibitions play a vital role in creating a platform for African art in major Western institutions (Chikukwa, 2011, p. 227). The notion of the artist’s capital is a vital consequence of this relationship, which is when an artist gains a platform for their work and their professional profile is heightened through acceptance into the canon. The effect of inclusion into the canon supposedly provides the artist with the power and status of recognition that enables them to shape cultural and social commentaries using their work.

Under these premises, there is an opportunity for collective participation between Africa and the West. One where supposedly Western curatorship can represent Africa’s cultural and political adversary, to avoid African practitioners playing to the original and imperialist rules of the canon. As it seems necessary to participate in the canon, it can be a way to systemically challenge and subvert white, Western hegemony through the appropriation of cultural modernity. By way of creating new definitions and categories that contain an emphasis on alterity and the implications of spatial and temporal distance (Robbroeck, 2010), such a relationship and use of representation can act as a catalyst for change. Regarding the risks, it will be a relationship that heavily depends on an equal emphasis of inclusion, participation and agency of African artists and narratives.

Bibliographical Sources

Fountain, Heather Leah Ryerson and Carrie Yvonne Nordlund. "Curating Connections: Unpacking Identities." Art Education (2019): 15-22.

Bennett, Susan. "From Display to Experience." Bennett, Susan. Theatre and Museums . London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 8-22.

Chikukwa, Raphael. "Curating contemporary African art: questions of mega-exhibitions and Western influences." African Identities (2011): 225-9.

Ferdman, Bertie. "From Content to Context The Emergence of the Performance Curator." Theater (2014): 5-9.

Greenberg, Kerry. "Tate Modern Exhibition: Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art." 2013. Tate Modern. December 2019.

Gurney, Janice. Introduction. Exhibition Catalogue. Toronto, Ontario: YYZ Books, 1990.

Oguibe, Olu. "Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art." Third Text (2010): 243-59.

Pantazis, Steve. Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997-2002), Tate Modern (2013) . Review . London: Nka Publications, 2014.

Robbroeck, Lize van. "Writing White on Black." Third Text (2010): 171-82.

Salam, Maya. "Brooklyn Museum Defends Its Hiring of a White Curator of African Art." The New York Times (2018).

Stedman, Richard C. "TOWARD A SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF PLACE Predicting Behavior From Place-Based Cognitions, Attitude, and Identity." Environment and Behaviour (2002): 561-81.

Image Sources

Image 1: Millar, D. (n.d.). Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum. West Office.

Image 2: Gallup, S. & Getty Images. (2014). Roman Bathhouse. The Week.

Image 3: Royal Museum for Central Africa. (2021, August 4). Luba Mask. Africa Museum.

Image 4: Lord Macaulay’s Address to the British Parliament, 1835. (2021).

Image 5: Zeitz MOCAA. (2017, September 17). Capetown Tourism.


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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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