Ariana Perez and Theo Zittel
On February 24th, the Saint Mary's College Museum of Art celebrated the opening of their Spring exhibition, “Power & Purpose: Reflections from the African Art Collection.” Curated by Dr. Kathy Littles, an alumnus of Saint Mary’s College, the collection displays art from various tribes across Africa, challenging Western perceptions of African art whilst emphasizing the rich history and diversity of cultures within Africa. Moreover, the collection desires to spark conversation around colonialism and the ethicalities behind a museum's obtaining and displaying of art, particularly for those affected by the African diaspora, and those who desire restitution and reclamation for not just stolen works, but stolen history.
Dr. Littles recalls her post-graduate work at the de Young Museum, where she worked at the African Art exhibit. There, she noticed how much of the African Art on display was admired for its sculptural properties, with little information given on its origin and use within its cultural and communal context. The Power and Purpose collection serves to return the viewing of African Art within its cultural realm, with the museum hosting several plaques that give in depth information on the role of community and spirituality in regards to the works and their use in tradition. Kuba Cloth from Central Africa, (The Democratic Republic of Congo) tells of matriarchs and the role of women in the community, of their critical part in creating the elaborate textiles through a complex process. In addition, Ceremonial masks give insight into the role of performance art within many African tribal communities, with the masks fashioned after and for important members of the community and utilized in ceremonies and rites of passages. Towards the back of the exhibit lies an ancestral altar where members of the community are encouraged to engage in the spiritual reverence of their ancestors. However, despite the descriptions of the works history and function, many of the artworks are nonetheless missing their creators, places of origin, and other notable information. The second half of the exhibit serves to reflect on these issues, of why these works, which are primarily meant for communal practices, are in collections and museums in the first place.
The purpose of the art exhibit is to compel the observer to raise questions in response to the displayed collection. Do these objects belong in a museum? Whose art is it, and what is its origin? What is the story behind the pieces that I am looking at? Through questioning the restitution that occurs when African art is taken away from Africa without permission, the exhibit invites all to situate themselves in shifting the narrative away from simply observing art to entering a conversation around its origins and history of display. At first glance, many object labels for the art pieces do not show a specific creation date. While a predetermined location of origin may be displayed, the history behind the pieces has been taken from them.
Dr. Kathy Littles shares that the role of museums exists in the living identities that are showcased within them. Thus, this leads back to the ethicality of displaying art in different art exhibits, which is one of the foundational goals that the show seeks to create. In addition, it creates an environment where these sorts of questions can be raised—a significant portion of the art in museums has missing information. One of the ways the exhibit raises awareness of this issue is by concerning the role that colonization and the history of colonialism play in the convention of stolen art.
Displaying a documentary of King Leopold of Belgium, who holds one of the largest collections of African artworks, indicates his crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The colonization of European powers in Africa led to African artwork being treated as artifacts of the colonized rather than living people’s living works with heavy cultural significance in culture and community. A section in the exhibit titled “Mapping Meaning” helps shape the meaning and place of the identity of the art that is showcased. Through June 19th, 2022, a designated location of origin for each piece, or the ethnic tribe that created such pieces, will be added to the map. This section of the exhibit is interactive and meant to allow viewers to engage themselves with the conversation surrounding the origin of each piece throughout the collection.
With the multiplicity of views shared by curators, museums boards, and political officials, a small section allows members of the SMC community to share their thoughts and opinions on the matter themselves, promoting community engagement. In addition, we invite anyone who may be interested in visiting and seeing the exhibit for themselves to contribute formative insight that can add to the overall conversation of the exhibition.
Melanie Moyer '22,