Am I doing ‘Global Africa’ because I’m black? Well, probably,” says Lowery Stokes Sims. Sitting in her office overlooking Columbus Circle, the Charles Bronfman Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York is reflecting on her latest exhibition, “The Global Africa Project,” which opens on November 17. She’s been thinking about the topic for more than 40 years. Before coming to the museum, in 2007, she spent two and a half decades as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by six years as director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “It’s a culmination of things coming together,” she says.
The show explores the influence of African visual culture on contemporary art, craft, and design, through the work of more than 100 contemporary artists, among them Nick Cave, Yinka Shonibare, Kehinde Wiley, and the Wu-Tang Clan. The focus is on ceramics, basketry, textiles, jewelry, furniture, fashion, and architecture, with painting, sculpture, and photography playing a supporting role. Sims’s cocurator is Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I pulled her in. My strength is contemporary and hers is traditional and transatlantic African art,” Sims says.
Sims set out to examine “the black transatlantic esthetic, the transfer of esthetic values through object making. I also wanted to recognize what I had observed in a lot of careers of ‘African’ artists like Chris Ofili or Julie Mehretu—that their identities are not encumbered or enclosed by borders,” she explains. “This is the first show that’s really looking outside of Africa at how artists still carry on African culture.”
She points out Chakaia Booker’s visceral sculpture made from recycled remnants of black tires. “She’s using rubber for its very specific historical resonances, with Africans being exploited in Liberia and Sierra Leone by different tire companies.”
Another example is London-based artist Taslim Martin’s metal stool, modeled on a traditional African headrest used to preserve elaborate hairstyles while sleeping. “I want to close the gap between a high-art designer and a craftsman working in traditional ways,” Sims says.
The show also looks at what is going on in Africa right now. For one, artists are reviving traditional techniques. The collective Groupe Bogolan Kasobané is teaching clay-slip painting in Mali, not only preserving a cultural heritage but also creating economic opportunity for local artisans.
Fashion is a burgeoning industry in Kenya, South Africa, Congo, Nigeria, and Mali. The show includes the extravagant headwear of Ike Ude from Nigeria and the dramatically constructed dresses of the Black Coffee design studio in South Africa. Such design “not only reflects a natural elegance in Africans wearing their traditional dress but also people rising above their circumstance,” Sims says. “It’s about how people can maintain their dignity in the midst of whatever kind of chaos there is.”
Born in 1949, Sims grew up in New York in a “weird, culturally oriented family.” Her father was an architect and her mother, after the children grew up, was a librarian. “My mother was from Harlem, very poor, but learned how to take advantage of everything that was free in the city,” she says. “We grew up knowing that we could go to museums, which were then free. We had to have a library card, and if we wanted to go to the symphony or ballet or opera, there was always standing room.”
When Sims was 16, she used money she had earned from her part-time job at Woolworth’s to buy a membership to the Met, and regularly attended openings and lectures. “It was that experience of coming to the museum by myself in high school when I really understood that there were curators in charge of putting these things together,” she says.
After graduating from Queens College in 1970 with a degree in art history and spending two years in graduate school at Johns Hopkins studying African art, Sims got a job at the Met, first in the education department and then in the curatorial department for 20th-century art. She worked closely with department chair William Lieberman to develop the 20th-century wing, which opened in 1987. Of her many projects there, she is most proud of organizing the critically acclaimed 1991 show on Stuart Davis. “Today, it still may be the most complete survey of his career.”
In 2000 Sims took the helm at the Studio Museum. “This was after multiculturalism had taken hold and a generation of black artists like Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, and Carrie Mae Weems had really established their reputations in the art world,” she says. “The question became, What was the role of the Studio Museum and how were we defining our mission about black art? Was it global? Was it local? We took an open-ended approach.”
After six years there, feeling that she had found a new niche for the museum both internationally and in relation to the local community, Sims turned the reins over to curator Thelma Golden and reoriented herself through teaching and independent projects. The following year, as the MuÂseum of Arts and Design was gearing up to reopen in its new Columbus Circle building, its director, Holly Hotchner, asked Sims to suggest curators. Sims threw her own name in for consideration and got the job. “She cares tremendously about the African American community, being a mentor, and trying to make the field more diverse. That carries a lot of power for her personally and for this institution,” Hotchner says.
Sims educated herself in design and the museum’s interdisciplinary approach. With chief curator David McFadden, she co-organized the inaugural exhibition, “Second Lives,” showing art made from discarded or commonplace objects such as combs and pistol triggers, and the recent show “Dead or Alive,” which featured works made with organic materials such as insects and bones. The return to curatorial work has been a “distinct pleasure,” she says.
“I’m not sure I would have consciously thought this would be a museum for me,” she says. “But I thought I could learn something.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.