African Art Lecture Reveals Gaps in Contextual Knowledge

Matthew Sprung

Constantine Petridis, curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, visited Oberlin on Monday to give the first in a series of lectures titled “Fragments, Pathways, and New Geographies” that are being held in tandem with Oberlin’s search for a new Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora professor. In his talk, “Fragments of Life: African Art In and Out of Context,” Petridis focused on the 34-piece African art collection of Belgian couple René and Odette Delenne acquired by the museum in 2010. The CMA is set to give the collection of sculptures, masks, and other objects its American debut in an exhibition opening in October.

Addressing the audience “mainly as a museum curator,” Petridis said he wished to “shed light on the fragmentary status of our knowledge in African art.” When Western institutions first began acquiring and exhibiting African art, it was often with little or no understanding of historical context. The first exhibition of African art was presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art. Masks and sculptures stood against stark white walls without any text, presented for their figurative aesthetic value. Petridis said that by providing a clearer picture of the objects’ original meaning, the CMA’s exhibition would stand in contrast to its predecessors and not be “art for art’s sake, but art for life’s sake.”

Increased accessibility to new technologies such as specifically purposed X-ray machines that allow museums to add useful information from underneath an object’s surface to primary material like video and photography. This represents a move from a broad, uninformed display to a more focused contextual offering. However, the damaging aspect of handling these objects, let alone the initial acquisition from their countries of origin, is still a hotly debated issue.

Many sculptures and masks served as only one piece of a larger performance or purpose, often serving as an intermediary to the spiritual world. Wood carvers of the Songye tribe from the Democratic Republic of the Congo made sculptures for ceremonial purposes. While the pieces’ spiritual significance was tied to ceremonial dress and costume, these articles were often discarded by collectors who saw the additional decorations as damaging to the figurative and structural integrity of the piece. Petridis said that in situ, the formal aspects of these objects could have been completely insignificant compared to their contextual purpose as a part of a greater whole, raising the question of how this can be presented most transparently.

The second half of the lecture saw Petridis shift his focus to this unavoidable issue of transparency, both ethical and physical, in African art. Having been introduced by Department Co-Chair and Associate Professor of Art History Bonnie Cheng, who teaches a seminar on cultural property, Petridis defended museums in their acquisition of African art. When asked by a student how he could justify displaying art outside of and without its original context, Petridis spoke of the complicated reality of the field.

“I don’t think we should lament African art outside of context,” he said. “[Museums] acknowledge we don’t have all the information and details to be as specific as we would like to be, but we must try to reconstruct the history of these objects to the best of our abilities.”

The October exhibition of the Delenne collection, titled “Fragments of the Invisible,” will have iPads in front of some displays so that people can explore primary and secondary information on the objects. Petridis said he hopes they will help shed light on the fact that the object seen is only a fragment of a broader reality where “experience is central.”

The experience of art extraction — some call it theft — from many African countries has been a difficult one. Many Congolese pieces in America have Belgian roots due to the country’s colonial history. Petridis said that since “we are dealing with the earlier research from a colonial context, we cannot separate these ties to Belgian works. It is unfortunately part of the story.”

While insisting that he and other museums stay legally within the international regulations, the question of who owns cultural property continues to exist as a gray area. However, as countries do have the right to claim any piece of art discovered for their national museums, the effort to reclaim cultural property has increased over the past two decades.

In 2012, for example, the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments demanded that 32 bronze and ivory sculptures that had been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston be given back after being taken by the British military in the late 19th century. The demand was made as an internet statement and has not been answered, supporting Petridis’s supposition that these government claims are usually theoretical and rarely recognized. “Governmental claims often do not have the means to prevent [claimed pieces] from being sold,” he said.

Above all, Petridis’s talk indicated that many Western institutions now appear ready to delve more deeply into history in order to bring the complex intricacies of African art — and its appropriation — to light.