First Permanent Exhibit of African Art Opens at Allen

Lucy Haskell

The first permanent exhibit of African art awaits returning students at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in the new year, one of six new installations. Matthew Rarey, assistant professor of the arts of Africa of the black Atlantic, assembled the exhibit with his seminar students last semester.

“The Allen has had pieces of African art in its collection since 1904,” Rarey said, which makes it one of the oldest college collections in the U.S. In 2015, a donation of African art made in honor of Alexandra Gould, OC ’12, approximately doubled the museum’s collection and was “the impetus to get these pieces on display,” Rarey said. Andria Derstine, director of the AMAM, approached Rarey to put together a permanent exhibit.

Rarey taught a seminar last fall to “make the decisions [about how to display the art] communally.” The students emphasized the importance of honoring the original context of the objects, a process Rarey describes as “thinking about what time means as spirituality and ritual,” which resulted in two large glass-fronted cases in the East Ambulatory.

The left-hand case includes pieces from different cultures and periods of history.

“[It emphasizes the] dynamics of change in African societies from the earliest points of global contact up through the present,” Rarey explained. “[We wanted] to undercut the stereotype of the [African] continent as a place out of time.”

The right-hand case takes objects with a more focused cultural and geographic origin, which come from the Yorùbá tradition in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.

Lines of Descent: Masters and Students in the Utagawa School, curated by Kevin Greenwood, the Joan L. Danforth curator of Asian art, makes use of the AMAM’s extensive collection of Japanese prints. It illustrates the history of the Utagawa school, an important group of Japanese woodblock printmakers from the 18th century to the 20th. The exhibit traces almost 200 years of masters and students, examining how they influenced each other and how the medium changed with trade and technology. Master printmakers taught apprentices in their studios. Those apprentices often became masters themselves, inheriting a name, as well as an artistic tradition, from their teacher.

“I tried to find pieces that could show visually the connections between the printmakers in the school,” Greenwood said.

Around the corner from Lines of Descent is The Archaic Character of Seal Script exhibit. This smaller exhibit uses the theme of time to go back to the beginning of script in China. As Greenwood explained, Western script is rooted in accounting, but seal script came about first through divination. “It was carved into animal bones,” he said, a tradition still evident in the regular modulation of the line. The stiff tools carving into hard material — the bone and bronze of ritual vessels — lent itself well to stone seals used well into the 20th century for official documents. Greenwood, who lived in China for many years, remembers having to buy his own seal for banking purposes.

“The script seems pictorial,” Greenwood noted. “It has this wonderful almost cartoon-like element.”

The show includes pieces from both China and Japan, among them a new acquisition by Maki Haku, a Japanese printmaker working in the latter half of the 20th century, who incorporates Seal script as figures.

Both exhibits tie into the Allen’s theme of time, which has guided the shows for this year. The East Gallery exhibit Conversations: Past and Present in Asia and America, which has been display since in the fall, now includes an entirely new set of prints, paintings and photographs, which are rotated out of display frequently to prevent light damage. The same ceramic objects remain, but within a different context.

Joining Greenwood’s exhibits upstairs in the Ripin Gallery are Exploring Reciprocity: The Power of Animals in Non-Western Art and Form and Light: Brett Weston Photographs. Chie Sakakibara, assistant professor of Environmental Studies, with assistance from Curator of Academic Programs Liliana Milkova and College junior Sam Tunick, curated Exploring Reciprocity in relation with her courses this semester about indigenous environmentalism and the interpretation of nature and culture.

Sakakibara is an environmental humanist in her second year teaching with the Environmental Studies department. She has spent 14 years collaborating with the Iñupiat people in the city of Utqiagvik, formerly called Barrow, at the northernmost tip of Alaska and specializes in Native American studies.

“[There are] many overlapping themes between Japanese art and Native American art, especially in terms of human-animal relations,” said Sakakibara, who is Japanese.

The theme of the exhibition is reciprocity between humans and animals, which she says is “universal in non-Western art.”

She also explained her desire “to frame this exhibit as a notion of counter-mapping,” which she explained as the efforts of non-Western groups to “re-map the world using their own values to claim their own sovereignty … in their own voices.”

“Animals give inspiration for counter-mapping,” Sakakibara continued, as non-Western traditions celebrate “how animals enrich people’s lives by giving their bodies to people” and “make [human] existence possible.” She highlighted Emily Pangnerk Illuitok’s “Bear Skull Sculpture,” on view in the exhibit, as an example of a “synthetic being that is capturing a human spirit with the animal parts.” The piece, which displays carved human and animal figures on a bear skull, incorporates parts from a walrus and bowhead whale in a demonstration of cooperation between humans and non-humans.

Edward Hummingbird, a Cherokee artist and art historian from Albuquerque’s Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, will be giving a special lecture in conjunction with the exhibit Wednesday, March 8 at 4:30 p.m. in the Art Building. There will also be a First Thursday panel discussion about the exhibit March 2 at 5 p.m.

The fifth exhibition, Form and Light, curated by the Denise Birkhofer, former Ellen Johnson ’33 curator of modern and contemporary art, displays the AMAM’s 2015 acquisition of photographs. Brett Weston, a 20th-century American photographer, looked at the details of his subjects to focus on form and contrasts between light and dark.

Images in Black and White, tucked in the Education Hallway, prompts visitors to consider photography as a medium. Mir Finkelman, OC ’16, assembled the exhibit in her capacity as curatorial assistant in the Office of Academic Programs.

“Our over-saturation of images influences how we see those images,” Finkelman said. With five carefully selected photographs, Images seeks to refute a “history of belief in photographic objectivity,” she said.

Finkelman questions assumptions of whom art is about and for, adding that she wanted her exhibit to “dialogue productively” with themes of art, viewership and museum narratives present in Fred Wilson’s exhibition, Wildfire Test Pit.

“I wanted my show to be one voice in that conversation,” Finkelman said.

Also on display in the ambulatory are a number of recent acquisitions of Asian art, including “Takasago,” a calligraphy scroll and minimalist painting by Yamaoka Tesshū, four lithographs by Roger Shimomura and two ceramic works by contemporary Japanese artists: Wada Akira’s “Sun and Moon” and Shio Kusaka’s “(stripe 99).”

These new offerings will be on display until the end of the spring semester.