African Art: Beyond the Masks

As more museums collect works by contemporary artists from Africa, curators are divided about whether to exhibit them alongside traditional objects from the continent

Magdalene Odundo, Untitled (Anthropomorphic Sculpture), 1991.

Her work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in group shows at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Seattle Art Museum. Critics and curators are drawn to her innovative use of one of the oldest materials, clay.
Yet the Kenyan-born ceramic sculptor Magdalene Odundo still cringes when her creations are displayed alongside traditional African pottery.

“Sometimes they plunk me in without explanation with, say, traditional women potters,” says Odundo, who teaches at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, outside London. “Sometimes it works. But others, you throw your hands up and say, well, at least it’s publicity.” (Odundo is represented by Anthony Slayter-Ralph.)

Odundo’s dilemma is one faced by artists, curators, and museum directors all over the United States as they respond to the public’s growing interest in contemporary African art. Museums with well-established collections of classical African art are venturing into the contemporary realm and sparking lively debates about how to show classical and contemporary art together. Basic questions about where boundaries should be drawn between traditional and modern, between African and the African diaspora in the Americas and Europe, and between sub-Saharan and North African art are roiling the field. The debates, say curators, have made African art one of the most contentious and rapidly evolving fields in museums today.

“Everyone is wrestling with these questions. We go to symposia and forums, and that’s what we’re all talking about,” says Polly Nooter Roberts, who became the first consulting curator of African art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in December of 2011. “People used to think the traditional and the contemporary shouldn’t be mixed up, but now there’s a sense that if it’s done thoughtfully and not in a random way, it can work.”

At the same time, museums are increasingly splitting off Africa from other non-Western areas as a curatorial category. Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the indigenous Americas have been routinely lumped into a single department—at one time it was called “tribal art”—at encyclopedic museums. But now, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and the Newark Museum in New Jersey, as well as LACMA, have appointed curators exclusively for African art, and other museums are expanding their African holdings and programs.

LACMA director Michael Govan says that when he took over his post in 2006, he was surprised to discover that the museum did not have an exclusively African program. He wants the museum to “engage very much on the contemporary” side of African art. “There is a growing sense of the globalization of art and a sense that we need to look at African art as more than an inspiration for modernism,” Govan says. “We have to rethink the old hierarchies and look past the totally Eurocentric view.”

Collecting criteria have broadened since 2000, when the founder and director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the late Warren Robbins, publicly scolded the museum for collecting contemporary art and showing it alongside traditional masks and sculpture. “Contemporary African art is European art that happens to be made by Africans,” Robbins told a forum. The museum brushed aside the criticism and in 2005–06 mounted “African Art Now,” a groundbreaking survey drawn from the collection of the businessman and photographer Jean Pigozzi. It included work by key figures not yet widely known in America, such as the Kinshasa painter Chéri Samba and Malian photographer Seydou Keïta.

Much of the push into African contemporary art today comes from the Newark Museum, which plans to triple the size of its African galleries to over 8,000 square feet by 2015. One gallery will be devoted to contemporary art, one to a mix of modern and traditional African art, which the museum began collecting in 1915, and another to shows of contemporary art.

Newark’s curator of African art, Christa Clarke, has gradually shifted the museum’s focus toward the contemporary. In 2010, the museum opened its first gallery for contemporary African art, and, says Clarke, “we’re acquiring aggressively.” Yet even as the museum moves headlong into the field with ample resources and expertise, Clarke still negotiates the delicate question of what exactly constitutes an “African” artist. It can be a tough call, especially for a curator who is uncomfortable even with the reductionist term “African art.”

“It’s a question you never really solve,” says Clarke. “In a museum structure, we have collecting guidelines that we follow. On paper, we mean artists born in Africa or who lived and worked in Africa for an important part of their careers.” Thus Kehinde Wiley, born and raised mostly in the United States, with a Nigerian father and an American mother, would probably not qualify. Yinka Shonibare, born in London of Nigerian parents and raised in Lagos, probably would.

“We let viewers know that these boundaries are necessary but, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary,” says Clarke. The artist’s biography comes into play but, paradoxically, not so much the art itself. “The art we’re collecting doesn’t have to look ‘African’ or even have anything African in the subject matter” to be included in the museum’s African program, she says.

The depth of Newark’s collection allows the museum to experiment with juxtapositions beyond familiar combinations of African masks with the early modernist paintings they inspired, most famously Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. “We’re looking beyond African art as an influence on the West,” says Clarke, to explore universal themes. She plans to place Gabon reliquary figures next to American colonial portraits to highlight ancestor worship.

Major museums are also looking at African art collecting in America. The Met will mount a show in November on African art connoisseurship in New York in the 1920s and its still underappreciated impact on American modernism. The exhibition, “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde,” will feature some 40 African wood sculptures acquired by top collectors of that era, alongside works by artists they influenced.

The Newark Museum explored a similar vein last year, adding a traditional mask from Côte d’Ivoire to its Stieglitz Gallery, a room meant to evoke the famed dealer’s Gallery 291 and including works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. “Stieglitz held one of the first gallery exhibitions devoted to African art in the U.S., so I thought it was an apt addition to the gallery,” says Clarke.

The Met also uses its growing African collection to reach across time and space. The museum’s curator of the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Alisa LaGamma, placed a Dogon carving of a mother and child together with a wood sculpture of a woman holding twin sons, by South African sculptor Claudette Schreuders, who studied traditional woodcarving techniques in Kenya. Near Schreuders’s sculpture hangs a work by El Anatsui, who uses cloth, bottle caps, metal scraps, and other materials to create richly textured hangings that recall kente textiles, of which his father was a master weaver in Ghana. (Both artists are represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.)
The Met remains focused on traditional African art. A sprawling show last year, called “Heroic Africans,” explored depictions of power and rank in classical societies. “But in the last ten years we’ve been looking at the place for contemporary art,” says LaGamma, who makes the rounds of African biennials and contemporary art fairs, such as the Dakar, Senegal, biennial known as Dak’Art, and—before the recent turmoil in Mali—the photography biennial in Bamako.

But do contemporary artists want their works to be displayed alongside traditional, ethnographic African art? Plenty of curators say the answer is no.

“Contemporary African art strives for international recognition. It has a very different purpose from that of masks or traditional sculpture, which are made for local people and are very culture-specific,” says Enid Schildkrout, curator emerita at the American Museum of Natural History and chief curator emerita at the Museum for African Art in New York, who organized the international traveling show “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” last year. She says that mixing contemporary and traditional art from Africa can look patronizing and simplistic.

“The resonances between them are curatorially driven, so you are left with a geographic focus that is finding a lot of resistance from artists,” Schildkrout says.

How the art of the African continent will be seen by the interested American public may become clearer when the Museum for African Art opens its new building on Manhattan’s Museum Mile next year.

With a substantial African collection, the Nelson-Atkins Museum announced in January that it will share the services of Detroit Institute of Arts curator Nii Quarcoopome, who will devote a quarter of his time to Kansas City’s African holdings. Quarcoopome’s title in Detroit (Curator of Africa, Oceania, and the Indigenous Americas) reflects the era when African art was stuck in a broader, non-Western context. Quarcoopome, who studied archeology in his native Ghana before earning a Ph.D. in art history from UCLA, says that “the traditional is much more my strength than contemporary.” But the museum’s contemporary collection already includes major works by Anatsui and Odundo, and part of Quarcoopome’s task will be to expand in that area, mainly by working with private collectors willing to make donations or long-term loans.

“There is more interest in the contemporary than in traditional right now,” Quarcoopome says, “but they can be combined. With Anatsui’s work, the connection to traditional crafts is so obvious, and he himself acknowledges this, so it’s quite natural to look back. It’s not like you’re imposing a particular reading of his work onto the viewer.”

Nelson-Atkins director Julián Zugazagoitia, sees the emphasis on the contemporary as part of a continuum from the traditional. The museum does not have a dedicated fund for acquiring African art, he says. “Given what we have in classical [African] art, we want to give a sense of stylistic reaches and traditions and then show how that jumps into the contemporary.”

Perhaps inevitably, the melding of the contemporary and the traditional has started to challenge people’s notions about the latter. The boundaries between them are not as clear as some might assume, and Western ideas about what classical African art should look like are often wrong, says Schildkrout. Dogon masks from the Niger basin, for example, often feature patches of bright paint and bits of plastic. Some dealers actually remove such touches because they think collectors won’t like them.

“The so-called traditional arts are constantly changing,” Schildkrout adds. “To call it ‘traditional art’ makes it sound like it’s stuck in time, and it’s not. We’re talking about lines that are very fluid.”

Roger Atwood has been a reporter and critic for ARTnews since 1999. Some of his articles can be read at

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[add_to_cart item="111-09" showprice="no" ]