There’s a big show of art from Africa up at the museum. I’ve gone to see it three times so far. I’ll probably go back a few times more.
The description of the show on the museum’s website—and likely in the wall texts throughout the galleries; none of which I’ve read—stresses a different approach to assessing these objects than has been standard in Europe and America since they’ve begun to be collected in earnest sometime in the 19th century. There’s an acknowledgement that these masks, figures, and fetishes were an integral part of the societies from which they were removed.
Taken thousands of miles away and across oceans to be displayed either as exotica or aesthetic object; neither being the intent of their manufacture.
I rarely read wall labels in exhibitions. The verbiage gets in the way of the experience. If I have questions or I have to write a review, I read the catalogue after. On this third visit, I spend two hours drawing in rooms without learning the name of a single piece. Does this make me the same as the often racist colonial plunderers who removed these sacred pieces of wood, earth, skin, and stone from their original context?
A few years back I reviewed a show of Egyptian art that featured a small wrapped mummy in one of the vitrines. I had the thought that it was something I shouldn’t be looking at. Certainly not as art. What if somebody dug up my grandmother, lit her dramatically, and put her in a room for strangers to gawk at?
I don’t know what the curators of the current show have in mind to correct the problem of how to display things that weren’t meant to be displayed. As I’ve said, I haven’t read most of their explanations. Is this because I don’t even want to start pulling on that thread?
Museums are always a complicated mix of good and bad. On the one hand, it’s great to see things judged as the most beautiful/profound/whatever your metric for significance/meaning; on the other, the means of their acquisition and the way they’re presented is almost always fraught. Plain old paintings and drawings—meant exactly for this type of display—many times have provenances full of subterfuge, half-truths, and straight-up crime.
Is it possible to look at them and not think about these things?
This is why I don’t read the wall labels. I’m trying to see things as much with my eyes in the moment as I can. There’s a video in the African art show that documents a ceremony in one of the home countries. It’s clearly an attempt to help visitors place the things they’re looking at into the environment they came from, at least for a few moments. I’ve avoided this video on each of my visits but hear the chants and music from it echoing through the galleries as I walk by. I’m not here to learn in the way the organizers want me to learn.
I don’t have answers to any of the questions they’re asking. There’s no way I can even begin to grasp what these figures, these faces mean to the communities from which they’ve been removed. I hope whoever sold them got a good price. There’s no Picasso, no German Expressionism or Post-Impressionism without the way these sculptors rendered the human form. The debt I owe them can never be repaid. That’s how I feel about everything that’s ever influenced me. How to give back to something/someone that’s given me so much?
All I can do is look in wonder.
—I contributed a few lines about favorite films from last year to Cine-File’s list/wrap-up.
—I’m down to my last thirty copies of Music to My Eyes. I will not be printing any more of these so get one now if you’ve been meaning to.