The history of art is complex, it reflects the interactions between cultures and the evolution of societies over time. A dark history of racism and colonization hangs over galleries featuring artifacts from Indigenous cultures from around the world; art museums are no exception.
Tucked away in a low-key corner of the University Arts Center on the Colorado State University campus is a vast collection of pottery from across Africa.
“Bright Perspectives: An Educational Collection of African Ceramics” is an exhibition that presents 141 ceramic vessels from 57 different African cultures, varying in size, shape, color and texture. Some coins are several feet wide, others are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand.
“(Shattering Perspectives) is a way of countering the idea that there is a singular, monolithic entity of Africa, drawing people’s attention to the fact that it is made up of many countries full of many different, diverse cultures. , specific and unique. “- David Riep, Associate Professor of Art History at CSU and Associate Curator at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art.
Lynn Boland, Director and Chief Curator of the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art, said the show is the museum’s most ambitious project, describing it as a blockbuster. He said the current exhibition highlights “a world-class collection of African ceramics of a scale and caliber that cannot be seen anywhere else in this part of the country.”
“Even here, where these jars live, having them collected and displayed in one place at the same time is a unique experience and a special opportunity,” said Boland.
The exhibit is on display at the Gregory Allicar Museum until April 10 and open to all CSU students and staff.
David riep, Associate Professor of Art History at CSU and Associate Curator of Grégory Allicar Museum, presented the exhibition with the students of its art history seminar last spring. Students were tasked with organizing, designing, writing about the plays, and providing context for viewers.
The students decided on the central theme of the exhibition on the basis of the seminar, which focused on the historical representation of African art in Western museums, and the complex relationship of colonization and imperialism that accompanies the art of the continent.
“The trend, until recently, was that you didn’t have the artist’s name, and he just said ‘Congolese culture “or ‘Yoruba culture, ”said Riep. “All of these things were linked to a culture rather than an individual. When you compare that to Western art in the same museum,… we know exactly who made them.
According to Riep, information on the artists of these pieces has been lost due to the biased views of Western collectors towards the very cultures from which they were collecting.
“They were seen as primitive, naïve and underdeveloped and as lacking the capacity for creative production – to make art, essentially,” said Riep. “And so no one bothered to ask who did this.”
This marginalization of art as a product of a culture rather than as something influenced by the individual who created it is something curators have tried to pull away from, paying homage to the artists who created exhibits presented even when they have been credited as “unknown”. or “unidentified” artist.
“We’re trying to get viewers back to the individual with all of this, without having this object that represents this monolithic culture,” Riep said.
While this distinction may seem small, it shows a shift in the art world towards how these pieces are viewed: individual masterpieces made by a skilled worker rather than the product of what was perceived to be. an inferior culture.
Poor media portrayal that paints a selective narrative of poverty, drought and disease can lead Western audiences to have an uninformed perspective of people living in the region as underdeveloped, similar to historical views of Westerners as Riep and his students try to dispel.
Another way the curators of “Shattering Perspectives” are trying to change the way viewers think about African art is in its diversity. In the West, Africa is often referred to as a single place rather than a collection of countries and people with distinct differences in ethnicity, language, culture and general way of life.
“(Shattering Perspectives) is one way of countering the idea that there is a singular, monolithic entity of Africa, by drawing people’s attention to the fact that it is made up of many countries full of many different, diverse cultures. , specific, unique, ”said Riep.
Seeing the show firsthand, the difference between the pieces is clear. Whether it is the size of the municipal beer brewing vessel a Bwa artist of Burkina Faso or the carved oblong-headed figures adorning the sides of a ritual vessel created by a Yoruba artist, each piece has distinct characteristics which show that none could be made by the same two hands.
“With art history, I always tell my students that art is an expression of yourself and the world you live in,” said Riep. “And so it makes perfect sense that when you walk into this particular exhibit, you’re going to see this wide range with a lot of diversity.”
The exhibit itself is a testament to how pottery has developed and changed in Africa, pushing back against the idea that cultures there have somehow remained stagnant. Riep said he wanted viewers “to be able to appreciate the richness of artistic production that can be found across the African continent and dispel any pre-existing biases of artists.”
For Riep, “Shattering Perspectives” is just the start of a conversation about the value of African culture and about changing our perception of the region.
EEditor Note: A previous version of this article contained photos for a different gallery. The photos have been deleted.
Max Hogan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @macnogan.