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UMMA African Art Curator Tackles Curatorial Dilemmas In Gallery Reinstallation Project

What does it mean to exhibit African art in a museum? 

This question, and many more, are at the heart of a recent University of Michigan class, speaker series, and U-M Museum of Art gallery reinstallation that explores the latest thinking in representing the African continent and its various cultures in an exhibition setting.

Laura De Becker gives a talk in the 'Power Contained' exhibitionUnder the heading “Curatorial Dilemmas,” Laura De Becker, UMMA Helmut & Candis Stern Associate Curator of African Art—along with Raymond Silverman, U-M History of Art Professor and their co-taught class, “Black Art/White Cube: Exhibiting Africa in the Art Museum”—will start a series of conversations to prepare for the reinstallation of UMMA’s African art gallery.

As a part of a lecture series titled “Curatorial Dilemmas,” UMMA is hosting three African art experts to discuss some of the groundbreaking reinstallations they have developed at their respective institutions.

De Becker says that UMMA’s current African art gallery installation has been in place for nearly a decade. With pieces going in and out of rotation, the gallery has lost many of its original thematic connections.

“I would like to reintroduce a clear structure in the gallery, pairing artworks in evocative ways to tell stories that are pertinent today,” she says.

To do that, De Becker will present new thinking in the museum world on how to exhibit African art. Hence, the guest speaker series and the museum studies class. 

“I hope this process of including students and bringing experts to the campus will contribute to making the final installation more inclusive,” De Becker says. “When you work with these materials on a daily basis, it is easy to develop a form of tunnel vision and it becomes harder to imagine a completely different or innovative way of approaching or displaying them.”

Professor Silverman says that inclusivity and discussion are the best way to make an exhibition representative of the art on display – a goal he has in mind for his students in his “Black Art/White Cube” class.

“In this day and age of globalization, it is critical that museums embrace the notion of dialog,” Silverman says. “Involving multiple voices in the process of exhibition planning is critical to creating experiences that will engender dialog and bring meaning to a variety of visitors.”

Those multiple voices include Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, UCLA Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance and Consulting Curator for African Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art at Seattle Art Museum; and Christa Clarke, Senior Curator Arts of Global Africa at Newark Museum. All three are scheduled to visit the University of Michigan during the “Curatorial Dilemmas” speaker series this October and November. 

“In a nutshell, they are grappling with the challenge of presenting more complicated and nuanced views of Africa for the museum audiences they are addressing in their exhibitions,” Silverman says.

UMMA’s Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery of African ArtThe speaker series and class coincide with the exhibition, Power Contained: The Art of Authority in Central and West Africa, on view through December 31, 2017, in UMMA’s Brandon Bridge gallery. 

The ultimate goal of these conversations, De Becker says, is to inform the reinstallation of UMMA’s African art gallery, scheduled for winter 2019.

“The discussions with the students and the speakers will contribute towards a plan for the gallery, which will then be poured over carefully by staff at the museum,” she says. “We will attempt to complement gaps in our collection through new acquisitions, especially with regards to contemporary African art, or through long-term loans and donations from local collectors of African art.”

Curatorial Dilemmas: Representing Africa at UMMA Speaker Series

Thursdays, 7 p.m., UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium