Western museums need to display African arts better —Galavu

Kenyan curator, Lydia Gatundu Galavu, appraises the inappropriate showcasing of African arts by Western museums in a presentation at the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation.

THOUGH Western museums profess love for African art and have spent time and money collecting them, the way most of the artworks are displayed leaves much to be desired. In fact, a number of the museums lack awareness about the context and history of the works, hence they showcase them inappropriately.

This was among the submissions of Kenyan curator, Lydia Gatundu Galavu, who concluded her fellowship recently at the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) in Lagos.

In a presentation entitled ‘Displaying Traditional Art in Contemporary African Time: A critical analysis on the best practices for contextualizing traditional art within its home environment’ last Wednesday at the OYASAF headquarters in Maryland, Lagos, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya made some interesting observations on how western museums are more interested in Africa’s tribal arts than contemporary arts.

Sadly, the tribal art they are more interested in, she noted, is “displayed outside its original cultural context thereby losing or distorting its full identity and meaning.”

Citing the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC as example, Galavu noted that it is “located in the underground galleries of the Smithsonian together with the Freer and Sackler galleries that hold art from non-Caucasian nations with history of collection put together by people in colonized contexts.

“As an African, it is a difficult collection history to face. On one hand, the works of art are very beautiful, and one can appreciate that history took them to Western museums. On the other hand, it is difficult to forget that this history was unpleasant and that because of it information about the art works has mostly been lost.”

Going to specifics, the curator whose study is part of a larger ongoing research for an upcoming permanent gallery of art in Kenya used three artworks to prove her point. The first, a carved wooden mask, has no useful information at all. “The formative information about this artwork is not provided on display at the museum; the name of the artist, or the culture and time period in which it originated, or what the intent behind its creation was,” she said. It’s the same with a commissioned piece clad with motifs illustrating European interaction and an early 20th century Efik mask from Nigeria attributed to a different country.

Shamefully, it is not only Western museums that are displaying African art tardily as Galavu found out at Kenya’s National Museum and Nigeria’s flagship museum at Onikan, Lagos.

She notes: “Just like the Nairobi National Museum, the displays of traditional artworks at the National Museum Lagos tended to be alienated from their cultural context; objects displayed in space without adequate information in much the same way as you would find them in a Western museum. Ironically, with training on best museum practice coming mainly from the West, African museums have tended to adapt similar display methods at home.”

But unlike the Western museums that have no information on artworks they exhibit, Galavus notes that: “The advantage in African museums is that the information for these objects is not lost. The problem is that only a little bit is provided such that in the absence of a guide one cannot interpret the object meaningfully.

Galavu’s presentation wasn’t all about criticisms, however. The curator also suggested ways of displaying traditional art in Africa to ensure that its full meaning is well understood. The Kenyan scholar recommended applying strategic cognitive attributes in the display; applying emotional/ affective attributes; apply behavioural attributes in the display and real life curatorial process. All these, she noted, are evident in the display of works in the OYASAF Garden.

Galavu also touched on how Africa can use her fast growing art establishments to reform current African art history. She highlighted the place of scholarship, patronage and museum donation (as exemplified by OYASAF) and education. But the most important factor, she stressed, is cooperation.

Contributing to the discussion, popular artist, Dr Kolade Oshinowo concurred that the West always tries to downplay the achievements of African artists. The issue, he noted, remains making the West realise that African artists are just as creative and endowed like their Western counterparts.

For the architect and blogger, Jess Castelotte, collaboration is the way forward. He noted that most artists and scholars don’t relate and that institutions in different nations have to embrace public-private-partnerships.

Shyllon, on his part advised: “We owe it a duty to incoming generation that our identity as Africans is not obliterated. We have comparative advantage in arts and culture and we need to invest and promote the African identity. African identities needs re-awakening but let’s forget about government. Whatever we can do individually, let’s do.”