Museums are strange places. They are even stranger to me since watching Black Panther. During my visit to the African Art Museum at the Smithsonian, I couldn’t help but stare into the glass case at an ivory bracelet and wonder about the ways this artifact was acquired.
“Owo, Ondo State Nigerian Bracelet” by an unknown Yoruba Artist is an intricately designed ivory bracelet from the 16th century. It’s kept in a glass box. If you get too close, an alarm sounds and one of the omnipresent security guards seemingly appears out of nowhere to stare you down. I tripped the alarm twice. Stealing from a museum was never something I thought of, but I felt guilty for standing so close. The bracelet is more like a cuff and looks like something Erykah Badu would wear. The docent informs us that the museum would never buy something made of ivory today, but since this is from the 16th century, the terms under which it was acquired are totally different. I couldn’t help but fantasize about Michael B. Jordan in that shearling collared denim jacket and his gold teeth walking around the museum, secretly plotting his revenge on the world. As I walked through the current and ongoing exhibition “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Art” the pan-Africanist in me felt a range of emotions from enragement to longing.
I was late for the docent-led tour, but I could hear the voice of the small elderly white woman explaining the work to the small group of white people. The group consisted of a married couple and an aid worker based in Malawi but visiting the states on vacation. I was the only Black person on the tour, and a part of me wished the young Black security guard was leading the tour. I asked her how she liked working at the Museum; she said, “I enjoy it.” I asked her if this particular museum picks up during Black History Month or since Black Panther premiered, “Yeah, a little bit,” she replied in her strong D.C. accent, her eyelash extensions fluttering.
“Is this museum mainly contemporary or ancient?”
“Um, it’s a good mix of both,” she explained
And it is. Though a bit too ancient for my tastes, the contemporary pieces in the museum are noteworthy and memorable.
Here are a few my favorites.
A figure painting of a browned skinned woman in a red swimsuit or tank top and hat. She’s looking through binoculars at something more interesting. I’m not sure where she is, she could be in a body of water, as the bottom of the painting is shrouded in blue. But the painting is textured, blurred and vivid as if the painter, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye snapped an off-guard photo of her subject without focusing the lens of her camera. The painting almost seems out of place, surrounded by more traditional ideas of art. But that’s what makes the piece strong. It’s made by an African artist, so it’s African. It doesn’t have to fit into the stereotypical narrative of the continent.
When I saw this piece, I immediately thought of Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” video featuring SZA. Three figures outlined in white against the black starry sky stare into the abyss. The figures, by Gavin Jantjes, are crudely drawn, reminiscent of what was found in caves. The painting itself is huge, so the black background that the figures are staring into feels like it could engulf you as you take it in.
I saw a video on facebook a few years ago about extravagant burial rituals in Africa. People were being buried in their favorite outfits, in their cars, their coffins were stuffed with their possessions. And then I saw that people were being buried in coffins shaped like their favorite possessions. The “Nokia Cell Phone Coffin” by Samuel Narh Nartey is an actual coffin carved to look like a Nokia cell phone. It was perhaps the most contemporary piece in the exhibit and my favorite because it’s literally a huge Nokia cell phone. Affectionately called a “burner phone” by some now, this phone is iconic. It came about in an era where there was still variety in cell phones. And it represents a social class that is typically lower but aspiring to ascend their current place in society. I really appreciated this because extravagant funerals are not limited to Africans on the continent. It felt good to see yet another connection between the Africans on the continent and those of us in the diaspora.
As the tour got toward the end, the docent began to talk to us about a work featuring a mask with “filed” teeth.
“I had a group of African American students visit, and the little boy says, “just like mine!” and I said, “that’s right!” mused the docent.
One of the tour members asked if the said boy had filed teeth as well.
“Well, they were kind of separated,” the docent replies.
“There are some things they still do today huh-”
The docent laughs and almost replies but remembers I’m in the area, and everyone on the tour gets very self-aware and quiet, and I stifle my laughter. It’s fine for me to acknowledge the connection in current behavior between Africans, but it will always be strange when white people do it.
Secretly I Will Love You More
At first glance, you think it’s simply a portrait of Maria van Riebeeck, the wife of Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch settler and founding father of the Afrikaner movement in South Africa. But then the jaw starts to move, and it sings a lullaby in Khoikhoi. In this work, the lullaby is being sung to Krotoa the servant girl and translator. As the only work featuring white people in the exhibit, it’s an oddity that’s a bit unsettling. Perhaps it’s the eerie stillness of a singing portrait or the backstory of an 11-year-old being forced to be the servant and translator to the family responsible for colonizing her country. The song implies that Maria loved Krotoa, but is love possible in any relationship between the colonized and the colonizer? I guess that’s for the viewer to decide. The piece, by Andrew Putter, puts me back where I started in regards to how I feel about the entire museum.
On one hand, I’m in love with the work and happy to see it. But I can’t help to think about the means in which every piece was acquired. Especially in regards to the ancient works but also the contemporary pieces. What hoops did the African artists have to jump through to get funding, to get their work made, and then seen and acquired by major museums? Are museums ethical places? I’m still unsure. But the “Visionary: Viewpoints of Africa’s Arts” gives you a lot to look at as you consider the question.