An upcoming exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum asks questions about where "African art" fits in a canon long centered on Europe and America. African Arts—Global Conversations opens on Feb. 14 and runs until Nov. 15.
The global art community—which is to say, typically visual arts—is grappling with questions of inclusion after centuries of ignoring, marginalizing and fetishizing an entire continent's long history of artistry and its artists. African artwork was often filed away as some sort of historical artifact, or praised for its "primitive" truth.
The exhibition’s unique transcultural approach pairs diverse African works across mediums with objects from around the world. By considering how shared themes and ideas—such as faith, origins, modernism, and portraiture—developed independently in different parts of the globe, it offers new theoretical models for discussing African arts in relation to non-African arts. Moving beyond the story of European modernists’ so-called “discovery” of African arts, it fills in the blanks in decades of art history textbooks (as shown by examples on view).
The museum has been a part of this conversation about African art in America for a long time. It prides itself on over a century spent collecting over 6,000 pieces from Africa and running a 1923 exhibition that displayed some of them as artwork, even while warning that "the cultural terms [the curator] used in his writings and exhibitions are representative of terms in use during his time, and his opinions and biases are evident throughout the collection." The museum also prompted a conversation about curation and the ethnic makeup of arts administration when it announced the hiring of Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna, who is white, as a consulting curator of African art.
The exhibit features pieces by contemporary artists, as well as 18th century Kuba sculpture, 14th- to 16th-century Ethiopian Orthodox processional crosses, and pieces from Spanish, Korean and American artists.
Brooklyn Museum has been on a tear of high-profile exhibitions, from David Bowie in 2018 to Frida Kahlo in 2019.