On the Record with Matthew Rarey, African Art Scholar


Photo Courtesy of Matthew Rarey

Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa Matthew Rarey is spearheading the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s re-installation of its African collection.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa of the black Atlantic Matthew Rarey joined Oberlin’s art history department in fall 2015 and has since made strides toward building a comprehensive African art history curriculum for students. The first professor in his position at Oberlin, his background ranges from the study of Andean archaeology to the study of the ways in which African art developed during and after crossing the Atlantic with an emphasis on its presence in Brazil. His work has been published in many volumes, most recently in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography. Before arriving at Oberlin, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recently, he was chosen by the Allen Memorial Art Museum to helm the re-installation of its African collection with the help of the students in his seminar class. The permanent installation will open on Jan. 31. Professor Rarey sat down with the Review to discuss his perspective on interpreting African history, his vision for the new African collection and his upcoming book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you interpret African history in contrast to common conceptions of what is primitive or past?

I like these big, general questions. They get me thinking about my real motivations as a scholar.

I’m a specialist in what I call “black Atlantic” art history. My research, while based on the African continent, privileges trans-oceanic and trans-cultural exchanges. I investigate the movements of African arts to the Americas, as well as their movement back into Africa. To that end, one of the main points that all of my classes make is that “Africa” is not a given concept. Africa is an idea; one that has been carefully constructed, reified, and defined in certain ways over the past couple hundred years to give it meaning. Art has been intimately involved in producing those meanings. And unfortunately, implicit definitions of “Africa” put forth in a lot of public discourse are associated with words like “primitive,” “traditional,” “homogenous,” and maybe “culturally underdeveloped.”

While Africa has a billion people, fifty countries, and countless ethnic groups, emphasizing Africa’s diversity is just step one. More pressing, I think, is to get rid of the pervasive idea that African societies are somehow internally static and bounded. Not only is this not true of cultural production in Africa – it’s never been true anywhere. The way I think about African history, then, is to emphasize the deep complexities, contradictions, and dynamism of African lives. I try to emphasize that cultural production on the continent tackles questions of transnational and transcultural exchange; questions of colonialism and imperialism; questions of racial, class, and gendered hierarchies; and questions of modernity. All of these are as deeply pressing on the continent as elsewhere, and in many cases, African lives pose radically new ways of thinking about responses to these questions. The goal, then, is not just to “add” African history to a longstanding discourse, but to argue in some ways that Africa is part of the West. Africa is part of modernity.

How do you represent heterogeneity over the axis of time in a museum collection?

Part of the problem that a number of “Western” institutions and museums have when they create a display of African art is that they are inherently limited by the kinds of objects that are in their collections already. For most of the 20th century, the African objects collected by Western museums were collected not to represent the cultural realities of the African continent, but to represent what foreigners thought Africa should be. That created a particular kind of bias, one where locally-made African art objects were actually used to reinforce longstanding stereotypes. Usually, those objects were wooden sculptures and masks that were produced sometime between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. That’s true of most museum collections in the United States, and it is largely true at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. As such, we made a strong point in our installation of African art the AMAM to utilize objects and labels that both dialogue with that history of collecting, and also showcase the kinds of historical change and dynamism I was discussing earlier.

Through its display and labeling, we tried to have each of the objects in the installation make a larger historical or cultural point. For example, the oldest piece in the collection is an ivory salt cellar. It is attributed to a carver known to us only as “The Foliage Master,” who was running an ivory carving workshop in present-day Sierra Leone sometime around 1500 [CE]. At that time, Portuguese merchants were trading with local peoples – who they called “Sapi” – along this part of the West African coast, in the area between Senegal and Sierra Leone. The Portuguese weren’t colonists. They were merchants who were interested in trading gold and ivory and spices and things like that with local West African groups, and did so on relatively equal terms. So, first, we already need to ditch the idea that all European presence in Africa has always had to do with colonialism. The Portuguese became interested in the incredible work being done by Sapi ivory carvers, and they worked with them to commission a number of objects. One of these — this salt cellar we have on display — is the product of that. The general form was commissioned by the Portuguese, and then the finishing touches, including many iconographic flourishes, were decided by the Foliage Master. For example, on the base, there are images of four men who are actually of Portuguese descent, but they display Sapi scarifications on their chests, which indicates that they had been assimilated into local society. We should also point out that this saltcellar was made for export, for sale to the Portuguese. In other words, the oldest piece of African art that we have in the collection was actually produced to be sold to Europeans. In some ways it is a tourist piece. In others it is a product of cultural interactions between people who now live in areas that are called Europe and Africa, of a trans-cultural encounter that was on relatively equal terms. This saltcellar upends the idea that Africa was isolated and unchanging until the rise of the transatlantic slave trade or European colonialism, both of which post-date its production. In short, this object starts one of these big historical conversations we want to come through in the exhibition.

What was involved in getting this exhibit to happen?

Part of the answer to that is to talk about the history of African art history, and African art, at Oberlin. To the best of my knowledge, I am the first person to teach African art history at Oberlin College. I think, and many others on this campus thought, the creation of this position was long overdue, especially given the history of this campus. The Allen Memorial Art Museum has actually been collecting African art longer than most institutions in the United States. The earliest acquired African artwork in the museum, a carved ivory tusk from Angola donated in 1904, actually predates the museums’ founding by thirteen years. That is decades earlier than the arrival of most African objects into U.S.-based collections, which happened more in the ’20s and the ’30s. The AMAM never really collected African art systematically, but had a good core collection by the time some there were some rumblings that they were going to hire someone to the position that I now occupy.

In 2011, around fifty African objects were donated in honor of Alexandra Gould, who graduated from Oberlin that year. That basically doubled the size of the African collection in a single evening. But with that small number of objects, the museum has also never had a full-time curator of African art. Technically, the African works fall under the purview of the Modern and Contemporary curator at the museum, because most of the pieces were produced in the 20th century. Shortly after I was hired in fall 2015, the director of the museum, Andria Derstine, approached me, and she asked me if I would spearhead the new exhibit. It was really her initiative that made this happen. And she gave me complete freedom to create the exhibit I wanted, and has been very supportive and accommodating every step of the way. In turn, I am teaching an advanced seminar of fifteen students, all of whom are the real curators of this installation. They have worked closely with the rest of the museum’s staff as well, and have sought advice from a number of faculty members and student groups on campus. It’s been a communal effort.

Do you have control over the blurbs for the objects?

Yes! The museum was really great on this front. They gave me and my class complete creative control over the labels. And there was a lot of discussion amongst us about how those labels would be written specifically for the African objects, which we think have different considerations in terms of their labeling than maybe European works might.

What is the difference between approaching a European label and approaching an African label?

As an example: if you walk into – and this is a big generalization, but we can go with it – an exhibit of French impressionist paintings, you’re going to see a number of labels that label the artist’s name, nationality, and lifespan; something like “Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926.”

But only two of the twenty-something works that are going to go on display in the African gallery have a name of an artist attached to them. Both of these are by well known, trans-nationally visible contemporary African artists who have been producing work since the 1960s and onward. For every other object, especially those objects which were produced in the late 19th or early 20th century, we don’t have artists’ names attached to them. That’s for a number of different reasons. The most obvious one is that Europeans who collected — and in some cases, to be frank, stole — these objects had no interest in recording the names of the people who made them. In other cases, the lack of artist names is actually a product of the cultural milieu in which these objects were produced, where the idea of an individual artist, the way that we think of it, wasn’t even operational. There may be no conception that someone made something individually. We actually address this in the opening label to the installation.

For example, there’s one piece that’s going to go on display where, technically, the “artist” for it is a spiritual force. That spirit came to a spirit medium in a dream, and it told the medium what form this object should take. That spirit medium was then responsible for going to a carver who gave the piece its form. So, attributing it only to that carver actually obscures some of the cultural history of the subject. Given the wide diversity of approaches to the idea of artistic identity across the continent, we were faced with a real problem of, “So, what do we put on all the labels?” What we ended up going with was a conflation of both the cultural group and the word “artist.” We felt it was important to acknowledge that here in Ohio, we need to talk about these objects as art, since people may be coming into the museum and not thinking about them that way.

So, in the place of a specific name, if we have a Yoruba [a main ethnic group in Nigeria] object, credit it to “Yoruba artist.” We do the same for other groups: “Luba artist,” “Baule artist,” etc. Other museums are tackling this problem in other ways; some of them say things like “anonymous” or “unidentified” or “unknown” or “unrecorded artist.” Those are also valid approaches. But the thing that we didn’t want to do is say something like “Yoruba peoples,” which gets done a lot. The reason we didn’t want to do that is because it makes it seem like all 10 million Yoruba people made this one object. It also implies that all Yoruba people are the same, that they all have the same idea about what art is and should be. We really wanted to bear down on the idea of individual creativity and historical agency for African peoples. With that, we also insisted that the objects should all be labeled with their local African names and those names appear first on the labels. To the best of my knowledge, this is pretty unprecedented in a U.S. museum. Most museums will have a rough English translation of what the name of an object is first, and then in parentheses put the African name, if they do so. But the students and I decided we wanted the African name first, because that’s the name of the object. And then you put the translation in parentheses.

What are you working on now?

I have a book to write, and should get moving on that! Right now, it is both a history of, and a discussion of the cultural implications of, an artistic practice that has never really been addressed before in art historical scholarship.

In the 1730s, in Lisbon, Portugal, a number of enslaved African priests who were put on trial for sorcery and witchcraft. They were put on trial because they were manufacturing little tiny pouches that they would sell, basically to everyone in town — not only other Africans, but upper-class whites, too. They sold those pouches with the promise that they would protect from malevolent spiritual forces and dangers. Some of those pouches actually still survive, attached to their trial records in the National Archive in Lisbon, which makes them some of the oldest extant objects produced by enslaved Africans whose names we actually know, and whose biographies we can trace somewhat. And so, the history that I trace is that these pouches — which were called mandinga, which is the name of a West African ethnic group — were made by Africans, usually who were enslaved in Africa around present-day Benin in Nigeria, [who] were eventually taken to Brazil and then who finally had made their way to Portugal. They’re these amazing cross-Atlantic biographies and histories, emblematic of African creativity in the Atlantic world. But they equally address the everyday violence and difficulties of survival faced by enslaved Africans. In turn, as important as they are, these objects are small and ephemeral, and if you didn’t know what they were, you’d think they were trash. In fact that’s a word that is frequently taken up in the trial records by the people who were accusing them.

I think these mandingas pose some fundamental questions about the discipline of art history and African diaspora studies. They provide new ways of thinking about what African cultural continuity in the Atlantic world [means], and to who; they address how enslaved Africans were responding to, and thinking about, their own enslavement; and they also tell us about of the kind of artistic practices that Africans found really important in their own lives. Ironically, these are also the kinds of objects that have fallen outside the realm of most art historical research. That’s really exciting to me, because you’re not going to see a small fabric pouch from 1730 on display in a museum. And yet I think they were culturally and aesthetically really central to enslaved Africans in the Atlantic world. Right now, I am thinking about what the big implications of that are.