Since the arrival on Broadway of The Museum for African Art in 1993 I'd not once been inside. It now forms a unit of the new 'SoHo Museum Row', flanked by the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim Museum, SoHo. Because of its large street-level windows, through which can be seen internally lit inset wooden shelving and consumer-friendly grey and yellow walls, it blends in with the stores which are also its neighbours. Friends had said that they'd thought it was yet another basketry and jewellery emporium and had no inkling of its role as a house of culture. In fact, The Museum only recently became a museum, changing its name from the Center for African Art to better reflect, 'the institution's activities, its broad educational mission and mature identity.' Internationally recognised as a pre-eminent organiser of exhibitions of African art, it is one of only two in the US specialising in historical and contemporary African art.
All of that said, I still felt apprehensive upon entering, perhaps because it felt like I was expected to shop when my intention was to look. The museum's recent exhibition, 'Western Artists/African Art' was developed by guest curator Daniel Shapiro, a trustee of the Museum, an art lawyer and a collector of African art. He went in search of what he presumed might be a broad spectrum of artists who collect and live with African objects, and in several months found 'more artists with more African objects than could fit in one show.' If you'd missed the key idea, the select group of 28 artists might have seemed exceptionally diverse if not absolutely perplexing: Francesco Clemente, Frank Stella, Philip Pearlstein, Mel Edwards, Helen Frankenthaler, Lorna Simpson, Richard Serra, Eric Fischl, Martin Puryear, Brice Marden, Arman, Fred Wilson and Jasper Johns, just to name a few. The lent objects are the main visual focus of the exhibition. Alongside these are a video of artists speaking about the objects; 14 photos showing the objects situated in the artists' homes and studios; and signage which accompanies the vitrine-encapsulated or wall-hung work with tiny reproductions of the lenders' work.
It's hard to know how to perceive this current attempt to bring out the affinities between Western artists and African art and objects. The show follows a decade of debate around the role of museums and the 'other', spanning MoMA's 'Primitivism' show, the Pompidou's 'Magiciens de la Terre' and last year's Whitney Biennial. But what of today? Midway through a time which has reductively been referred to as the 'multi-culti 90s', as well as having been called a grunge time, a waif time, a Generation-X time, a hiphop nation time, an eco-conscious time, a time of world-wide civil wars and an end of the Cold War time, of what interest is this exhibition? Why should anyone other than readers of House Beautiful care to see displays of what these artists have in their houses or studios? Are we supposed to be impressed by a lineage of Western artists as special people with special eyes who can discern the special beauty of these special objects? Are we also to understand that African-American artists are now admitted to the Western family of artists, but as 'different' members who have 'special' access to an ancestral past by virtue perhaps of what anthropologist Melville Herskovits referred to in his book, Myth of the Negro Past, as 'africanisms'?
An article by Leonce Gaiter recently appeared in The New York Times entitled 'Revolt of the Black Bourgeoisie'. Gaiter suggested that the mainstream media prefer to present images of a black underclass rather than the actual diversity that exists. Add to this observation a selection of current media stories and a pattern emerges. News items prominent at the time of writing include the massacres in Rwanda, the difficulties faced by Nelson Mandela, the Haitian refugee dilemma, another coup in Nigeria and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. A headline on the front page of a recent Herald Tribune read, 'In Africa, a Mood of Desperation,' while at the bottom of the page ran O.J. Simpson's official mug shot next to the caption, 'An American Hero's Fall Has Admirers Wondering.' Amidst this constant barrage of mixed messages emerged this exhibition.
One of the more interesting links made in the show was that between artists and collectors. These artists are to varying degrees collectors of African art. This implies a bridging of the gap which ordinarily exists between artists and museum patrons, establishing some common ground and diluting the artists' stereotypical 'wildness'. In a similar way, African-American artists have been 'discovered' to be a part of the Western artist/collector fold. These artists are allowed to assert their 'difference', but in terms of affiliations with the African objects, and the exhibition authorises, in fact encourages, these forms of identification. The result is a poignant attempt on the part of the African-American artists to demonstrate their awareness of the objects' circuitous arrival in the West. As I watched the artists' video interviews, I became acutely aware of how all of them projected their desires onto these objects. This is something that collectors, as well as viewers do. For the most part an acknowledgement of this particular unifying aspect was absent from the show.
In the catalogue essay by art historian Jack Flam, 'Africa' is referred to both as a real place and as 'a compelling imaginative construct in modern Western thought.' If an acknowledgement of 'westernness' as an equally powerful and complex construct had been explored here, the point that for most people, these objects now function as mirrors would have become all the more suggestive. Lorna Simpson comes closest when she describes her activity with the masks she used: 'So the idea of photographing the backs of the masks became a way of getting at the idea of how one constructs oneself, how one does or does not have access to a particular cultural past.'
Somehow the tension and ambivalence I've felt while absorbing the news lately and that which I felt while considering this exhibition were related. Despite the complex intentions, the contexts were too limiting. Somehow the Africa hailed in the exhibition, the Africa I encountered in the media, and the people of the African diaspora in the Berlin streets all seemed sadly disparate. As George Lipsitz said in a conversation last year, 'black culture as a commodity is doing very well at a time when black people are doing very poorly in terms of political power and resources. So many times, what we come up against is that people want to talk about the art and the culture, or they want to own the art and the culture, but they don't want to think about the people behind it and the conditions in which they're living. And in a way we don't want to reduce black culture to a sociological phenomenon, as if there's no art, because the whole affective power and majesty of it has to do with its ability to grab people who didn't expect to be grabbed.'
All of the artists who participated agree on the 'grabbing' power of African art and objects. Many admired the relationship between art and life which they observed in some of the objects they possessed. But to get beyond the repetition of sentiments expressed in this show will require some unflinching inquiries. It will be necessary to remember and analyse what has already been debated as well as to intensify an awareness of how we relate to Africa as myth and as news event (as well as who 'we' are). Maybe then it will be possible to examine the bitter, the sweet and the in-between of Africa's complex history alongside the objects produced there.