Outside the field of African art
Asking whether white people should curate African art anymore, may be outdated. Instead we should ask: what is African art now and does the category matter anymore?
In the last decade, US art institutions and museums have sought to hire curators to work with their historical African art collections, with varying success. In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum faced widespread criticism from neighborhood activists and on social media when it hired a white curator in African art. That the position was part-time, limited, and potentially unrenewable seemed of significantly less importance. Two years later, Brooklyn Museum and other museums confronted another set of challenges against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and a pandemic. COVID-19 placed financial pressure on museums to cut budgets, further halting efforts to expand and diversify staff, while increased public recognition of incidents of habitual police brutality against Black and Brown people renewed calls for museums’ curatorial and administrative teams to reflect the communities that they reside in and seek to serve.
It is in this context that I encountered an article, “The Long View: Leadership at a Critical Juncture for ‘African Art’ in America,” by art historian and curator of African art, Susan Vogel. The article was published in the academic journal African Arts, which is peer-reviewed and defines the field. Vogel is a curator, art historian, museum director, and professor with more than 50 years’ experience, who worked in some of the most prominent art institutions for the study and exhibition of African art in the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), the Museum of African Art (now the Africa Center), and Yale and Columbia Universities.
The main takeaway from Vogel’s article is her displeasure with the current standing and state of African art departments in American museums. As she states, there is a void within current curatorial leadership and management of African art collections that has resulted in African art disappearing from public view in the US. In the past few years there have been more than16 vacancies for curators of African art. Only five of these positions have been successfully filled; other museums have supposedly cut the positions permanently. Vogel attempts to draw greater attention to this reality, and to the recent hires, since few outside of museum studies or art history, according to her, have noticed. Vogel argues that African art is “fading from view.” She writes that US institutions don’t have the curators needed to maintain historical collections nor can they build on the scholarship produced by earlier generations. In Vogel’s estimation, the directors and trustees of US museums with African art departments are failing their collections and the publics they serve by privileging candidates with “a familiarity with contemporary African art and culture.”
One of her more provocative statements is that African art departments, even with a full-time curator, lack the expertise of other departments like European and American art: “Denying again—just to the African collection—expertise found in other curatorial departments is indefensible and not respectful of the heritage it represents.” To Vogel, this means that the expertise found in African art departments pales in comparison to other departments, further degrading the standing of African art departments within museums.
The problem is that if Vogel thought she was being helpful, her essay reflects instead a poor understanding of contemporary race and systematic racism as it operates in African art. For one, her criticism hides the other side of the candidates to whom she objects: In the period which she characterizes as decline, US museum institutions in these instances hired more people who identify as Black Americans and/or Black African. But even more, the gist of Vogel’s argument and criticism reads more like a question: “Can White people curate African art anymore?” A more useful question would have been: “What is African art now and does the category matter anymore?” The latter invites greater discussion and participation, at a moment when institutions are trying to maintain their relevance as opposed to a reductionist, exclusionary question that looks at a narrowed past.
Let me explain.
The online resource and newsletter Culture Type, which focuses on “the visual arts from a Black perspective,” reports bi-annually on hires in US museums and cultural institutions in a column titled “On the rise.” In 2022, Brooklyn Museum, the Met, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts all made prominent hires in the arts of Africa while another 63 US institutions hired Black-identifying individuals for a range of curatorial, administrative, and leadership roles. From 2020 through 2021, 112 institutions made similar hires. Vogel takes no account of how people with training or interest in the field rose to leadership positions in US institutions. She makes no differentiation for newly created positions that reflect a more complex cultural landscape for which the arts of Africa is one of many parts.
For example, in 2021, the National Gallery of Art in the US capital, Washington, DC, established for the first time a Curator of African-American and Afrodiasporic Art. Several curators with academic and professional training in African and African-American art history rose in the ranks to lead curatorial departments at the Guggenheim Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Others assumed the directorships of leading institutions like the California African American Museum, The Kitchen (in New York City’s gallery precinct), and Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery. These examples do not even account for international developments, which are also significant. In 2020, the Art Gallery of Ontario formed the Department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora; the world-renowned Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, Whitechapel Art Gallery, and Chisenhale Gallery, also made bold new appointments of Black or African curators.
As an art historical and curatorial field, “African art” is a Western construct and a relatively recent phenomena in US museums dating to the mid-20th century. The African art collection at Brooklyn Museum, as one example, emerged under the direction of Stewart Cullin the founding curator of the Department of Ethnology. Cullin expanded the museum’s African art collection by purchasing objects from European dealers, and, according to the museum’s webpage, he often displayed ethnographic objects as art objects. The Brooklyn Museum positions itself as one of the first museum institutions in the US to collect and display African art starting in the early 1900s. The Met marks the start of its Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in 1969 when Nelson Rockefeller donated 500 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in his collection. In 1982, the Met opened the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing to display these donations in a permanent collection installation. (Incidentally, Vogel began her career at Rockefeller’s Museum of Primitive Art, founded in 1954 and a forerunner to the Met donation).
As the Brooklyn Museum and Met examples show, many objects of African art that form the basis of US museum departments of African art came through private donations from wealthy patrons and not specific acquisitions made by curators, as is the case today. These donors were not trained academically and/or curatorially in this field of African art. Yet, to this day, the objects they donated to museums determine what gets studied and exhibited.
Even more so, popular and scholarly accounts of African art in the US are silent on the role of African-American collectors, whose own aesthetic habits and activities formed the basis of museum collections and art history departments at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Hampton and Howard Universities and Spelman College. Enshrining African art history within US museums and educational institutions belatedly responded to discourses long underway in Black American, Caribbean, and Black Atlantic intellectual and cultural traditions.
In her African Arts article, Vogel dates the field of African art in the US to the 1960s and 1970s, when university art history and anthropology departments started hiring faculty who studied the arts of Africa. That is also when curators with PhDs in African art began to emerge. However, long before this, Black poets, writers, theorists, artists, and activists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Suzanne Césaire, Alain Locke, and James Porter, to name a few, debated the merits of Black identity in relation to African art: already from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Black artists such as Augusta Savage, Meta Warrick Fuller, and Richmond Barthé worked in metal and incorporated the diverse iconography and imagery of the African continent in their work in the early 20th century. Like their European counterparts, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, their inspiration came from wooden masks and sculptures from the African continent.
Vogel claims to take the long view, mapping a history of African art to the 1960s, without acknowledging that this genealogy is at least two times as long as the one she presents. Furthermore, this history of African art in US museum institutions and the broader cultural landscape involves not only the European avant-garde and modernists but also the place of African art within Black American, Caribbean, and Black Atlantic philosophical traditions and artistic movements. To Vogel, the only places that matter when exhibiting African art are institutions like the Met. She overlooks, and ultimately dismisses, how alternate cultural institutions within Black communities supported and engaged with the arts of Africa. There is also the reality that the diversification of curatorial leadership in the United States presents new opportunities for improved, stronger and more equal relations of cultural exchange with African-based museums and art institutions.
Vogel expresses concern over what she calls “the famed historic sculpture tradition” and its neglect in relation to the more widely accepted “contemporary African art and culture.” By historic sculpture, she means art forms, like sculptures, oliphants (medieval hunting horns), and masks, originating on the African continent largely before the 20th century. Vogel endorses a research practice of fieldwork, which involves traveling to rural locations to observe art making in process and to live with and among the art producers under study by the researcher. According to Vogel this type of anthropological fieldwork produced an art history “grounded in observations of artworks in situ and the researchers’ personal relationships with art makers and users.” Many scholars practicing this methodological approach were white, a distinction unmentioned by Vogel.
For Vogel then, contemporary art is in opposition to the traditional. Moreover, she posits, by praising anthropological methods, that someone who spends X years in X rural part of the continent has greater expertise and authority than someone who grew up on the continent and works with living artists. Vogel argues that those curators recently selected to lead African art departments lack the particular expertise of the “fieldwork generation.” Vogel assumes their selection placed little value on any training in traditional African arts, as she defines the ‘correct’ training, but because of “other skills, especially in communications, and a familiarity with contemporary African art culture.” The traditional versus the contemporary is a false dichotomy for two reasons. First, it presumes that the contemporary only refers to the 20th century, especially the period after 1950 (essentially all art after the continent’s independence from Europe), and the 21st century. Second, the fieldwork generation relied on living artists to study historical works, and they failed to acknowledge that the artists they worked with were contemporary to their time.
It is unclear whether Vogel realizes this, but the fieldwork generation in art history and curatorship was almost exclusively white. More recently, humanities disciplines have been revisiting their histories and it seems unlikely that Vogel wasn’t aware of this. So much of her criticism comes across as tone deaf. Her vision of African art still centers a white gaze, reinforcing the notion that African art makers still must establish the value of their historical art traditions to audiences in the West. Rather, it would be productive to generate a conceptual and analytical mode of thinking where African art is made without either justification or apology. Being grounded in a contemporary art practice introduces important possibilities for meaningful exchanges and lasting collaborations with individuals and institutions based on the continent and across the Diaspora.
To be successfully credentialed and hired by US museums or in the academy in the field of African art, attending Ivy-league schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia Universities used to be the requirement. Aside from the financial difficulties with pursuing a curatorial and museum career in African art, there were even fewer undergraduate programs in African art outside of these universities. For example, only in 2012 did Williams College (my alma mater), known for its art history program and its training of museum directors, hire a full-time expert in African art. Now, this pedigree appears no longer the sole pathway, much to Vogel’s chagrin it seems. She voices her fears and renders judgment without engaging deeply with the work product of this “new” crop of curators. Her snap judgment removes any benefit of retrospection. These newly selected curators have not occupied their positions long enough to be critiqued on the merits of their work. Their institutions have tasked them with multi-year reinstallations of their African art galleries and challenging provenance research. Vogel’s politics of expertise is about resources and cultural capital. It is also, although she refuses to acknowledge this, about race, gender, and exclusion—all areas that the art historical discipline and museum professions have struggled to address.
When Vogel writes more “conventional candidates have been passed over” for positions in US museums, the informed reader, knowing the history of the field and discipline, is left to assume she means “white.” On the other hand, one gets the impression that Vogel assumes her readers are white and that they will understand she means white and will be sympathetic to her views. Vogel uses her own expertise and half a century of experience to discuss openly who she believes is equipped to curate African art. What is even more worrying is that African Arts’ stature gives Vogel a platform to disparage and punch-down colleagues junior in rank. Vogel’s statements and African Arts publication of this writing illustrate what cultural theorist and historian Saidiya Hartman calls “the protocols of intellectual disciplines” that are in play and their associated violence. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman grapples with trying to discover something about Venus not available within historical archives, and she states,
The romance of resistance that I failed to narrate and the event of love that I refused to describe raise important questions regarding what it means to think historically about matters still contested in the present and about life eradicated by the protocols of intellectual disciplines.
In Vogel’s “dialogue,” there is a pernicious devaluation and policing of Black female voices from the US and the continent of Africa. There is no wonder why so many of the scholars Vogel attacks avoided the traditional arts historical perspective.
We are in a moment when a Western institutionalized construct like African art is losing its legibility, relevance, and import. Artists who the field of African art has long shunned and relegated to the “contemporary” foreshadowed this moment when they were left to debate and face the impact of conversations on multiculturalism in museums in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these artists embraced the concept “post-black” as an alternative space for creative thought and aesthetic practice. The Black curator and museum director Thelma Golden developed and spearheaded this idea within her exhibition practice at The Studio Museum in Harlem. “Post-black” is an example of an alternate tradition that Vogel takes aim at by invoking a politics of expertise, and in the process, she dismisses both established curatorial interventions and crucial scholarship. Similarly, the late Stuart Hall’s writings on contemporary art and museums in Britain illustrate what’s at stake with Vogel’s politics of expertise. In the essay “Museums of Modern Art,” Hall considers the limitations of certain art concepts and the inclination to attach “post” to certain terminologies:
The impetus which constitutes one particular historical or aesthetic moment disintegrates in the form in which we know it. Many of those impulses are resumed or reconvened in a new terrain or context, eroding some of the boundaries which made our occupation of an earlier moment seem relatively clear, well bounded and easy to inhabit, and opening in their place new gaps, new interstices.
Vogel’s notions of “African art,” “traditional,” “expert”, and “field” exclude people and conversations not aligned with traditional historical scholarship. She limits definitions of Blackness and Africanness. Thus, Vogel’s statements have the danger of being irrelevant to larger ongoing shifts happening outside of the field of African art.
In sum, Vogel advocates for a field where her expertise, her voice, her pedigree, her methodological approach, and her interpretations matter. The recent staff hires by museums challenge Vogel’s standing, world view, and ability to determine the standing of African arts in museums and academic institutions. Such questioning and policing of Black scholars’ and curators’ legitimacy within museum and academic spaces is not new. Perhaps we should just let African art as a field of study die. The art and material culture of the continent should not be relegated to such a specific and limiting prison. The challenge has been, and will always be, to not take Vogel’s bait, and to continue and build on field-defining scholarly traditions, like Golden’s curatorial concept of “post-black” and Suzanne Césaire’s writings on surrealism, that have long unfolded outside of the field of African art.