“Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art," On View Now at The Cleveland Museum of Art, Juxtaposes Ancient and Contemporary African Art


  • Untitled by Tahir Carl Karmali from Jua Kali Portrait Series

Highlighting pieces from nine cultures in Central and West Africa which are juxtaposed against contemporary installations, sculptures and photographs, the "Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art" exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art will be on display through March 14, 2021.

“The exhibition’s premise is twofold,” said Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, the exhibition's curator and former curator of African Art at the CMA. “Second Careers explores the role of historical African art in the Western museum context: how the objects made their way into the museum and the expectations placed on them to educate, to act as vectors of cultural memory and history and, ultimately, to add value to the institution in their second careers. The exhibition’s secondary focus is the relationship between historical arts of Africa and contemporary practices.”

Nzewi is presently the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he spoke briefly by phone about the show.

He said that "Second Careers" builds on three pieces he acquired for the museum in 2017 by exploring the lineage between historical artworks in the African Gallery and contemporary art by African artists. Nzewi said this exhibition took about 3 years from concept to realization.

I was struck by the vividness of pieces, such as the clear centerpiece of the exhibition, “Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume (paka egúngún),” which is constructed from cotton, wool, wood, silk, synthetic textiles (including viscose rayon and acetate), indigo, and aluminum. Created some time between 1920 and 1948, it vibrates with intensity and is displayed in a way which appears as if the artifact was caught in stop-motion and transported forward in time.

While traditional African societies paid close attention to their natural environment, using it as a source of both inspiration and materials, the six contemporary artists in this exhibition use found objects that carry everyday experiences. A piece in the exhibition titled “Tightrope: Nonessential Speed” (2017) by Elias Sime is composed of from reclaimed electronic components and wire on pane. When the viewer steps away from the piece it resembles an aerial view of the Okavango Delta or some other part of the giant African continent.

“Objects such as electronics, bottle caps, etc., are industrially manufactured and in Africa their lives are extended when they are transformed into artworks by Elias Sime and El Anatsui, for example," explained Nzewi. “It is important to highlight this salient point because it demonstrates a certain approach to the use of materials found in the environment historically in Africa and by contemporary artists today.”

The 1987 piece from the Jua Kali Portrait Series by Tahir Carl Karmali called “Untitled” combines photographs of Kenyan creatives (artists, fashion designers, and writers) with sculpture and fashion in ‘surrealist mash-ups’ as the exhibition description states.

Some of the images were taken in Ethiopia and some in the artistically flourishing Nairobi. The subjects appear part cyborg, part sentient being, making the viewer do a double take before getting lost in the digital manipulation of these subjects who are encompassed in electronics and car engine parts siting majestically in the foreground of the Nairobi and East African skyline. The exhibition puts into perspective the ever-evolving and transcending connections between contemporary African Artists and their ancestry.

“I hope that our visitors understand that contemporary art is alive in Africa as is the case in other geographical locations," concluded Nzewi. “I want them to learn the various strategies that contemporary artists deploy in their practices and which reflect their historical memory, lived experience and contemporary reality in and out of Africa, and how those strategies might be understood as a continuum in modes of artistic practices in Africa from bygone eras to the present. Finally, it is important that our audience gain a critical insight on the relationship between African objects and the museum. This is particularly crucial in light of issues around restitution and repatriation of nonwestern objects acquired in unsavory circumstances."

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