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The Africa We Ought To Know; U.S. Museums Reconsidering The Continent

When the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco hired Natasha Becker in late 2020 to become the institutions’ inaugural curator of African art, her addition was not only historic for the museums, it proved groundbreaking for the entire field. While Becker, a South African, was steeped in African history and historic African artforms and culture, her specialty was contemporary African art.

Becker’s vision for the collection would be centered in the present, not the past. Living artists working across the African diaspora would share space with historic makers from the continent–some centuries old.

She stands as a prominent example of how museums across the United States are reconsidering the presentation of their African material.

Like the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh which completed a total renovation of its permanent collection galleries this past October, reconnecting Egypt with Africa. Despite its location on the African continent, museums, like this one, have commonly separated their Egyptian objects from other African holdings, a subtle, yet profoundly successful effort made towards distancing the magnificence of Pharaonic Egypt from Africa.

Culture on the African continent and the intellect and innovation of African people proves more difficult to dismiss when remembering it birthed ancient Egypt and the pharaohs and hieroglyphs and Pyramids. The racially motivated colonial telling of world history flows better with Egypt more European and less African.

“By looking at Egypt separately from the rest of Africa, you lose the fact that Egypt is an African nation,” North Carolina Museum of Art Director Valerie Hillings told Forbes.com, stating the obvious while reinforcing the impact of this historic curatorial choice on generations of visitors and their perceptions of Africa. “Furthermore, by excising Pharaonic Egypt from the continent and setting it up on its own pedestal, you lose the connection to the other great ancient civilization on the Nile, the Kingdom of Kush (present day Sudan), and its own connection to the Axumite Kingdom (present day Ethiopia), both of which are now mostly forgotten. Without Egypt, one’s understanding of the complex and fascinating history of Africa is not complete.”

For Western institutions operating from a colonial framework, maybe that was the goal all along.

Africa as “complex” and “fascinating” doesn’t fit the narrative. “Primitive” works much better. The “Dark Continent.”

Treating Africa more as a single country as opposed to a massive and diverse continent, 5,000 miles from top to bottom, 54 countries today, 1.4 billion people, thousands of distinct historic and living cultures and dialects–with Egypt removed–makes for a tidier, if utterly inaccurate, story. Accuracy, however, has never been the primary consideration when shaping history through the colonial perspective.

For its updated presentation, the North Carolina Museum of Art brings forward this unsettling question of why Egypt was excised from the African continent.

The Africa We Ought to Know

NCMA now boldly calls attention to these manipulations, titling its new African gallery, with Egypt included, “The Africa We Ought to Know.” Implicit in the moniker, more than 100 years of racially motivated misinformation fed Americans, Europeans–the world–about Africa.

“In general, Westerners know very little about Africa and still today our knowledge is tainted by colonialism and stereotypes,” Hillings said. “There is so much more to this continent that we all ought to know about: the powerful and influential kingdoms that flourish(ed) in Africa, their connectedness to the rest of the world and their participation and contribution to global histories, whether in antiquity or more recent times or today. That is what we present in, ‘The Africa We Ought to Know.’”

Wall text inside the gallery states: “Within museum and academic circles, Egypt has long been positioned culturally with the Near East or the more ‘civilized’ arts of the Greco-Roman world. While this placement isn’t totally incorrect, this bias has caused Egypt’s dense layers to be overlooked at best and intentionally omitted at worst. However, a strong movement throughout the museum world has reintroduced it into African galleries, recognizing that cultural boundaries and influences are mobile and permeable and that Egypt is indeed on—and very much a part of—the continent.”

Africa, with Egypt included, celebrated as a continent where empires have flourished over millennia, each contributing to a fascinating antiquity and a vigorous history extending to a dynamic and creative present.

That’s what most inspires Becker, Africa’s creative present.

“Historical collections are often separated from contemporary collections and there are contemporary artists who are very much mining the past, their own cultural past and legacies,” she told Forbes.com. “Those are the artists I’ve become very interested in working with and showing.”

Artists like Lhola Amira (b. 1984; Gugulethu, South Africa).

Facing the Future

Opening December 17, 2022, “Lhola Amira: Facing the Future” launches the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s new African art program at the de Young museum, foregrounding the permanent collection as a site of exploration for the evolving nature of African arts and their meanings today. Becker’s programming features contemporary artists whose work draws on and engages the artistic and cultural traditions of Africa.

First up, Amira (pronouns THEY/THEM/THEIRS), who embodies South African Nguni spiritual practices in THEIR life and work, emphasizing the power of remembering ancestors.

“THEIR practice is very much about asking critical questions around what are the wounds that people, places, objects carry and little practices of care and healing that can move us forward in terms of cultural healing,” Becker explained. “A mélange of indigenous spirituality, Nguni specifically, and Christianity, but also aesthetics and critical, decolonial ways of thinking and bringing all of that together to address spaces and issues that are still with us–a contemporary response.”

Undeniably African. Undeniably contemporary. Undeniably rooted on the continent.

Like the work of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962), the first artist Becker added to the collection upon being hired. Shonibare is an international sensation with artworks and exhibitions at the most prestigious museums around the world. Still, he, and other African artists who’ve broken through in the “mainstream” Western art world, find their connections to the continent marginalized.

“African artists who become very well known internationally are often incorporated into an international perspective on their work or a more global art historical approach and often the African side of that is left out,” Becker explains.

By working with contemporary artists who are deeply interested in historical African art, like Shonibare and Amira, Becker hopes to demonstrate how the museum’s collection remains relevant today, how all African art belongs on an ever evolving continuum.

“The changes over time, that is what we lose in these big permanent collections, this nuanced change over time,” Becker said. “There are some art practices–like masquerade–some kinds of masquerade continue, but there are other art practices that died out because of Christianity, art practices that were especially rooted in religious practice had to adapt or die out. These nuances around change over time visitors don’t get a sense of, as a result, the collections and this idea of African art is fossilized in people’s minds.”

“Look No Further”

As the museum sector continues engaging in extreme hand-wringing over how it can become more welcoming, more diverse in its audiences and programming, the answer, often times, can be found right under their noses.

“The biggest potential for museums in the United States and the biggest possibility and the biggest area of growth lies in these collections. It lies in the African collection,” Becker said. “The biggest potential to move forward as a society and as a culture in the U.S. lies in these collections because the African art collections connect Africans in the diaspora as well as Africa. We forget that African Americans in the United States and immigrants from Africa in the United States have a right to be connected to and close to their objects.”

Museums wondering how to be more diverse with a centimeter of dust on every item sitting in its African collection which hasn’t been reinstalled, refreshed or reconsidered in any way in 70 years simply aren’t committed to improving.

Becker thinks about Oakland’s large Ethiopian population when imagining how museum collections of African art can be utilized to reach new audiences.

“If we want to engage these communities, be these diverse institutions and anti-racist institutions, then look no further,” she said.

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