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Asking whether white people should curate African art anymore, may be outdated.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? NYC-based writer and visual historian Drew Thompson comments on the essay by art historian and African art curator Susan Mullin Vogel, The Long View: Leadership at a Critical Juncture for ‘African Art in America published in the academic peer-reviewed journal African Arts.
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.
This piece by Drew Thompson originally appeared on 06.03.2023 on Africa is a Country as ‘Outside The Field of African Art‘.
This post is also available in: it
Sharing. Inspiring. Spreading culture. GRIOT is a nomadic space, a botique media platform, and a collective collecting, amplifying and producing Contemporary Culture, Arts, Music, Style, from Africa, its diaspora and beyond.