Non-Western Art in Western Museums: Notes on Exhibition Design
Thanks to the lovely Konjit Avent for this week’s crowdsourced blog post asking me to wax intellectual on the display of non-Western art in Western (American and European museums).
In two previous blog posts - here and here - I discuss how much of what is categorized as African antiquities ended up in Europe and the USA. The centuries long process known as colonization, which included some of history’s darkest moments, namely the organized genocide known as the slave trade and slavery, resulted in the widespread removal of African visual culture from the continent to Europe and eventually the USA. Similar processes transpired in Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East.
Upon arrival to Europe these items found themselves in museums like the Quai Branly , the Louvre, the Tate Britain, Royal Museum for Central Africa (Brussels), Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam), and eventually the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago to name but a few. Key to understanding the display of these items in European and American museums is this one vital reality: these items, pilfered from throughout the non-European world, were aggregated, organized, and displayed, to tell a history that frames these European empires as the pre-eminent, sophisticated, erudite, adventurers and discoverers of their day.
In laymen’s terms, while I do believe there was an intent to care for these objects (contextualized by a vastly different purposes than those that informed the makers and making of said objects), fundamentally the regard and the gaze was wholly colonialist with the goal to show the superiority and expertise of European civilizations in comparison to non-western civilizations. Further, often times the acquisition of these objects from prestigious, wealthy collectors came along with funding, which had its own attached requirements that also would have also informed the exhibition process.
Personally, my favorite works to view have always been non-western antiquities. I’m utterly aware that one of the benefits of colonialism is my ability to see these works. One of life’s many conundrums and ironies. My personal bone to pick, however, has always been the outdated modes, and in some cases lack of care, shown these works.
Much of the label text for these antiquities is derivative of or the same as the initial texts produced during the colonial period. There has been little or no added context or information offered to talk in depth about the makers of these objects nor the historical realities that happened at the time of removal from the place of origin.
Over the past 7-10 years, there has been movement in this area. The Africa Museum (in Brussels) took on the monumental task of attempting to re-enliven its permanent collection, in part, by inviting contemporary artists to create works in conversation with the permanent collection. The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam recently opened a new exhibition titled, Afterlives of Slavery which intends to be an initial attempt at decolonizing the museum.
While these efforts are commendable and needed, the question for me is: is it enough? Total decolonization of a museum, to my mind, means complete repatriation of all objects to their countries of origin. The reality of this act, however is stark: these works would no longer be available to people descendant of the same cultural heritage from which these works derived. E.g. Black folks like me could no longer go and see their favorite Nkisi or Fang sculptures. The other point to consider is to where would these objects be returned, and who would care for them. The sad reality is that in many places, precisely resultant of colonialism, there aren’t the necessary conditions to study, care for or exhibit these works. This, however, in my opinion, makes real the need for a reinterpretation and new engagement with non-western antiquities in Western museums. The singular narrative based on the grandeur of European empires (that no longer exist) have always constituted reductionist thinking if not full on erasure. In this era we can do better and there are resources to do so.
Negarra A. Kudumu
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