A Desire for the Primitive: The Lasting “Othering” of African Art in Western Museums

Originally written in December of 2019.

Christa Clarke begins her article “From Theory to Practice: Exhibiting African Art in the Twenty-First Century” by considering the level to which visitors in the redesigned African gallery at the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York, which she curated, recognized the extent to which the museum gallery changes the story of an object: “The object’s displacement from its cultural origins is obvious to me and perhaps the viewer, but is its recontextualization from within the framework of an art museum as apparent?” A personal visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, in November of 2017 formed the inspiration for this essay, which will be a discussion of the ‘othering’ of African art objects in Western museum practices, as well as how this “othering” contributes to the continued view of African art objects as ‘primitive’ within the Western world through the ways Western museum visitors interact with and understand the art.

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has an encyclopedic collection, including art from Europe, the Americas, Asia, the ancient world, and Africa. The European, American, and ancient world galleries within the museum are well-thought-out in terms of design, with engaging, rich colors such as red, blue, and purple, and richly toned hardwood floors, all of which give galleries a more elevated appearance. However, in contrast, the African gallery deviates from this design structure; the walls are an uninviting yellow color and, instead of the rich hardwood flooring found in the other galleries, the floor is covered with dull, grey carpet. Instead of employing a varied display style for the pieces in the gallery, the room is cluttered with pedestals and shelves of entirely equal heights, with only five masks hung on the left wall in a small cluster. Out of the thirty-three pieces on display, twenty-eight pieces were placed at the same height on eighteen pedestals around the outer perimeter of the room, with two pedestals sitting in the exact center of the room. The space feels more like a storage closet than a thought out gallery space for art within the museum. If this were the design style of the other galleries within the museum, there would be less of an issue, considering all of the galleries would be actively visually cohesive and could be blamed on a general poor understanding of museum gallery design. However, by straying away from the design model used in the other galleries within the same museum, there is an implied sense of “other,” wherein the African gallery feels separate and different from the other galleries within the museum; this can be especially subconsciously apparent to a visitor that may be unfamiliar with art objects from Africa and might influence a visitor to the Museum of Fine Art, who, because of their location in St. Petersburg, Florida, might not have been previously exposed to art from the continent.

Susan Vogel elaborates on this idea in the introduction to her book Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, saying that the majority of visitors to art museums fail to realize the degree to which their understanding and experience with art within a gallery depends on the method of installation used by the museum: “The conditioning begins with the selection of what is to be displayed. Because today the forms and materials of art are frequently the same as those of non-art objects, the setting or context in which art is displayed may be its most evident defining characteristic.” This appears to be a consistent problem within the Western art museum; many Western visitors in Western art museums are far removed from the context of the majority of art pieces that fall into the non-Western category. There is an inherent unfamiliarity to these objects due to the physical distance between the native locations of the objects and the Western museums that house them. Additionally, many of the pieces do not fit the Western definition of art explicitly, due to the lack of a concept of “art” as understood in Western languages. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines “art” as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power,” Vogel asserts that Africa is one of many cultures around the world without a word with a similar definition. African languages had words that related to artistry and the aesthetics of objects, but they were often practical objects that were aesthetically ornate or decorated to match the desired qualities of the owner. Thus, many objects in African art collections in Western museums are typically objects with a context greater than its immediate aesthetic qualities — contexts that are often difficult to replicate within a museum setting but would greatly increase a Western visitor’s level of understanding regarding the purpose and use of the object. Without any visual aids to show the practical application or cultural context of African art objects, the design of the museum gallery is left to contextualize them: “The only context available to most Westerners is the museum. If the original African experience was variable and can be only imperfectly simulated outside its culture, then a museum presentation can only be arbitrary and incomplete.”

This lack of contextualization harkens back to the original method of display employed when African art was first introduced to the Western world in the late 1800s; this was the model of the “curiosity room,” wherein little to no cultural context was provided for the Western viewer and the objects were portrayed as “accidentally” aesthetically pleasing to the Western eye, as no aesthetic prowess or artistic ability on the part of the African artist was communicated through the display. This model has continued almost undisturbed into the current display model found within Western museums in regards to the display of no-Western art. There are two common problems of display within the museum today. On one hand, there are museums which continue to treat African art as something “other” than Western art, often framing them as artifacts, or something separate from the concept of art, rather than attempting to find a happy medium between the concepts of “art” and “artifact.” On the other, there are museums that attempt to liken African art as inherently similar to Western art by searching for similarities in technique and style, then classifying them in relation to Western cultural themes while also removing the objects’ cultural context and ignoring their colonial histories. The second problem of display tends to be the most common issue within museums in London, as many African art objects are found within museum galleries that are not predominantly African in nature, and are usually included in the gallery due to their relation to an aesthetic theme.

Charlotte Joy, a lecturer of anthropology at Goldsmiths, the University of London, published an article in February of the current year, discussing the inherent problems with the choice, always consciously made, to present a piece of African art and material culture outside of its original cultural context.

“Objects taken from West Africa (the periphery) and brought back to the centre/ metropole were therefore conceptualised as part of the coloniser’s national identity. They were used in a series of Great Exhibitions and expos to gain support for the colonial project before entering national and private collections throughout Europe.”

Through the act of removing African art objects from the continent forcefully by raiding and looting, the Western colonizers responsible for this unwilling change in the physical location of the objects, the narrative for the objects changes from one of a cultural context to a colonial one.

Svetlana Alpers’ article, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” discusses the problem of the narrative change within Western museum display; while the article does not explicitly focus on purely African art, Alpers focuses her discussion in relation to objects being displayed outside of their country of origin. First, Alpers asserts that the Western museum functions by putting its objects — specifically ones that have been considered “primitive” in comparison to Western art — that are on display under what she calls “the pressure of a way of seeing.” By isolating what some people might see as purely mundane objects from their original cultural context, museums turn objects into visually interesting objects based on solely their aesthetics, which in turn artificially creates a way of seeing for the visitor that they might not have otherwise thought of themselves. This thought is echoed by Sally Price in Primitive Art in Civilized Places:

Once an art object leaves its original setting, however, intercultural dialogue is transformed into intracultural discourse. The criteria for evaluating interpretive claims are then drawn from the realm of related knowledge, as preserved in written form and in Westerners’ conceptual understandings.

The previously mentioned problems of display both find root in this idea; either African art is framed as too “other” in a way that seems to far removed from European art, thus further trapping it inside the ‘primitive’ category (a problematic issue of its own within this discussion because, as noted by Fred Meyers, “objects do not exist as ‘primitive art,’” as “primitive” is purely a categorical word ‘created for their circulation, exhibition and consumption outside their original habitats), or forcing African art to fit a more Western-centric mold within the contextual theme of a curated gallery space.

An example of the contextual isolation proposed by Alpers within a gallery was, until very recently, able to be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Within the Whitely Galleries, poetically titled ‘Sacred Silver & Stained Glass,’ was a gold crown, originally made in Ethiopia in 1740. The crown, made from gold alloyed with silver and copper, as well as glass beads and gilded copper, is comprised of three tiers that form an almost architectural structure, with the three tears appearing almost gate-like, with many tiny golden spherical shapes resting on tiny peaks at the top of each golden filigree band, culminating at the top of the crown with a dome shape to cover the skullcap of the wearer. Cylindrical in shape, the crown stands at 21.5 centimeters high and 23.5 centimeters in diameter, slightly larger than the average human head. Glass beads work as decorative pieces, adding extra dimension to the crown, both in large clusters at the base of the crown and singularly placed at the edges of the decorative imagery panels that make up the dome. The beads are attached to the crown using gilded copper bent into decorative, almost floral shapes, acting as a wiring system to keep them in place. Lastly, there are figures embossed into both the dome itself and each of the three tiers. The dome features four male figures, enclosed inside of individual circles, separated from each other. The tiers feature twelve male figures, alternating between a male figure and flowers to create space between the figures. The entire crown is embossed and therefore is entirely textured with delicate, raised lines of gold. A small amount of green fabric can be seen just under the top tier and the dome, adding a small amount of color variation to an otherwise entirely gold piece.

Unknown artist, Crown. 1740. Ethiopia. Gold alloyed with silver and copper with filigree work, glass beads, pigment, and gilded copper, 21.5 x 23.5 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum of Art, London, UK. From: Victoria & Albert Museum of Art, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/.

The Sacred Silver & Stained Glass gallery is comprised of objects which reflect the “complex history” of the Christian Church, according to the gallery literature. Overwhelmingly, the gallery consists of European, Christian-centric art, and upon first glance, the crown from Ethiopia did not seem unlike the pieces in terms of style and materials, as well as iconography; the figures decorating the crown are the Apostles and Evangelists from the biblical New Testament. However, in 1868, the crown was stolen from Ethiopia during the British Siege of Magdala and taken back to Europe, where it, along with other stolen objects, were housed at the present-day Victoria & Albert Museum. The history of the object became tainted through the violence of colonization, rather than having a purely cultural context. The crown has temporarily returned to Ethiopia as of mid-summer 2019 on a long-term loan, but Britain is refusing to return the object permanently.

The question left to be asked is “why?” Alpers’ article was first published in 1991. Vogel’s article was published in 2006. Black Panther, the 2018 Marvel superhero film, even touched upon these issues within its set design of the “Museum of Great Britain,” a fictionalized version of the British Museum, found within a larger discussion of repatriation and ownership of cultural identity. The African art gallery in this fictional museum echoes the gallery design found in the basement of the British Museum, where its African collection lives: white walls, crowded glass cases, and no visual aids other than the pieces themselves left to do the heavy lifting. This is a movie featuring a museum not found in reality, yet the space feels familiar. After so many years of the same discussion, why is African art so poorly represented within Western museums? Why is this issue still prevalent in many Western museums?

A clue to an answer to these questions can be found within the writings of bell hooks, an African American feminist and social activist. In her book of essays Black Looks: Race and Representation, originally published in 1992, hooks dissects the staying power of the “other” in Western society:

Certainly, from the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the “primitive” or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and such exploitation will occur in a manner than reinscribes and maintains the status quo.

The narrative of the “other” or the “primitive” benefits the colonizer, as it not only places the Western world above these terms in an evolutionary context but also in the context of dominance and power. To Charlotte Joy, this can be seen through the manner in which the African art objects are “held and displayed in Western museums,” as explained above, because it illustrates “the legacy of colonialism and the West’s ambivalent relationship towards its former colonies.” The display of these African art objects and the context they are, or are not, given, often show the “mite” of colonizing Western countries, conjuring a contrast between the two, even if the wording is not explicit in this agenda.

Whilst nearing the conclusion of her introduction, Vogel discusses the display of a brass head, created using the repoussé technique, from the Abomey royal court; in this discussion, Vogel mentions that, despite the obvious problems of display regarding African art in Western museums, there exists no “correct” way for the art to be installed.

There is no single right way for us to exhibit the head from Abomey or any African object — only ways that are more or less illuminating, beautiful, instructive, arbitrary; faithful to this or that school of thought. We exhibit them for our own purposes in institutions that are deeply embedded in our own culture. There is nothing strange or wrong about that. It is simply a given.

Alpers offers a passing suggestion for resolving this issue leading up to her conclusion, as well, proposing a shift from focusing on the communication of artificial ideas regarding the objects to a focus on the “educational possibilities of installing objects,” in such a way that allows for a deeper understanding of the cultural context through active engagement with the context.

Lastly, a glimmer of hope: the Guggenheim in New York City announced on November 14, 2019, the hiring of Ashley James, who made history as the museum’s first black full-time curator. According to a recently released data report by the Arts Council England for the years 2017 and 2018, ten percent of permanent museum staff in National Portfolio Organisations were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (referred to as BME), while only five percent of permanent museum staff members at Major Partner Museums were from BME backgrounds. The museum industry is a slow-moving one, which means that the problem of diversity within the industry is constantly happening slowly, but adding more voices and perspectives, including professionals with both cultural background and familiarity, is a step towards lessening the continuation of a Western desire for the primitive.

Taylor K. Nugent is a medieval art historian specializing in death, religion, and monsters, with a special focus on “Otherness.” She holds an MA in art history from Richmond, the American International University in London.

Alpers, Svetlana. “The Museum as a Way of Seeing.” In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 25–32. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.

Art,’ In Lexico by Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/art.

Clarke, Christa. “From Theory to Practice: Exhibiting African Art in the Twenty-First Century.” In Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, edited by A. McClellan, 167–182. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

“Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data Report, 2017–2018.” Arts Council England, 12 February 2019. https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality- diversity-and-creative-case-data-report-2017–2018.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Joy, Charlotte. “African Art in Western Museums: It’s Patrimony Not Heritage.” Aeon, 20 February 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage.

Mercier, Jacques. “The Gold Crown of Magdala.” Apollo, December 2006.

Meyer, Fred. “‘Primitivism,’ Anthropology, and the Category of the Primitive.” In Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Mike Rowlands and Patricia Spyer, 267–284. London: SAGE Publications, 2017.

Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Ragbir, Lise. “What Black Panther Gets Right About the Politics of Museums.” Hyperallergic, 21 March 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/433650/black-panther-museum-politics.

“Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Appoints Ashley James Associate Curator, Contemporary Art.” Guggenheim, 14 November 2019. https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/solomon-r-guggenheim-museum-appoints-ashley-james-associate-curator.

Trilling, Daniel. “Britain Is Hoarding a Treasure No One Is Allowed to See,” The Atlantic, 9 July 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/07/why-britain- wont-return-ethiopias-sacred-treasures/593281.

Vogel, Susan. “Introduction to Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections.” In The Anthropology of Art: A Reader, edited by Howard Murphy and Morgan Perkins, 209– 18. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Art Historian. Classicist and Medievalist. Religion, Death, and Monster Scholar. She/her.