When entering a museum or gallery, viewers hold certain expectations for encountering art. The museum is well-suited to display a particular kind of object that often seems, in some sense, made for a museum (like much contemporary painting). So, when museums have set out to display different kinds of objects, they have often encountered considerable growing pains. This has certainly been apparent in the display of African art, and an influential (if infamous) exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984 is a case in point.
“Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief,” Thomas McEvilley’s November 1984 Artforum review of MoMA’s ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art, takes issue with the ahistorical isolation of works of African and Oceanic art placed next to modernist paintings and sculptures. He argues that this estheticizing of the works led to “the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which, isolated from one another in the vitrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power, which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far away.”
While McEvilly’s rhetoric suffers from many of the same faults for which he criticizes MoMA, he makes an important point: The “primitive” works in the MoMA exhibition were unmoored from the life they were meant to have and, in that particular exhibition, were set to work serving an ideological agenda wholly foreign to their production and role in society.
Art and Life in Africa attempts to do precisely the thing that MoMA’s ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art did not: to make accessible the history and role in the life and culture of the objects being displayed, and to provide the tools necessary to get a feel for the life of the object before it entered the museum. The idea behind Art and Life in Africa is that the objects that form the UI Museum of Art’s collection belong to a way of life, and understanding their role in that life is critical to making sense of their presence in the museum as objects.
It’s a difficult undertaking, and the UIMA has pulled out all of the technological stops to make progress to this end. The exhibition itself is actually quite spare: The works are presented with very little description, arranged on two walls of the gallery. But each work is accompanied by a QR code, which can be scanned either by the viewer’s smart phone or one of the iPads available at the show. The QR code directs the device to the Art and Life in Africa website, where the individual works are placed in context geographically by country and people as well as culturally in terms of the way that the object fits into the broader life of the society from which it has been extracted.
The virtual component of the exhibition is an ambitious project itself. Growing out of a CD-ROM project led by UI professor Christopher Roy, the website supporting the show has been redesigned and made publicly available through the UIMA’s website. The site offers a wealth of information for exploration outside the exhibition, and, as a resource, it will profit in its current form in many of the ways that the CD-ROM found success—as a tool for teaching African art in classrooms, from grade schools to colleges.
The critical question for the show is whether it works—a question for which I don’t have an easy answer. The show feels a bit schizophrenic, with the objects presented in a clean, well-lit and sanitary setting and the story about the life of the object presented in a different realm altogether—in the virtual space. But my hunch is that this contradiction is something that cannot be avoided, and that the problems with the real objects versus the virtual context are endemic to the encounter of objects from another place.
We place these objects in a museum in part because they are incredible to look at; even placed against a plain white wall, they have a vitality that reaches through time and space, becoming palpable even as the objects are isolated from the site of their creation. Yet there is more room for understanding these objects by placing them within the story of a time, place and culture at some remove from where we encounter them. And the best way I can think of to encounter the object is in a clean space with this story already alive in one’s mind—a task to which the virtual information bank, with essays, links to maps, histories of the peoples who made the objects and photographs of the objects in situ, is in a unique position to provide.
Brian Prugh will graduate with his MFA in Painting from UI this spring (God willing), and will be moving onto a boat parked outside of Miami, Fla. You can follow his adventures on his blog at brianprugh.com/the-floating-bear.