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Slaves to Sculpture:
A Response to Patricia Penn Hilden
What is called African art covers a wide range of objects introduced into a historicizing perspective of European values since the eighteenth century. These various "objects" which, perhaps, were not "art" at all, became art by being given, simultaneously, an aesthetic character and a potentiality for producing and possibly reproducing artistic forms. One could wonder whether, understood in their initial form and significance, they would not have created a radical "mise en perspective" of Western culture.
--V.Y. Mudimbe (1986:4)
Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself--could not even exist. [...] The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time--everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.
In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more--always more--even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the "haves."
--Paulo Freire ( 1993:40)
Despite massive efforts to define it strictly as carved figures and masks, African art operates in excess of wood. While powerful forces might struggle to forever fix its meaning, narrowly delimiting its terms, African art, as a category, is not easily contained. 1
While the purported subject of museum exhibitions of African art is "African art"--not an innocuous category in and of itself (as many have noted)--exhibitions of African art, like all exhibits, are also "exhibits of those who make them" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:2). All exhibitions of African art are [End Page 37] at once at least a twofold display. Due in part to this twofold nature, African art exhibitions are fraught spaces, riven with competing forces.
Even though paint of a so-called "neutral" reddish-brown earth tone provided the wall color most commonly used in African art exhibits--before the Center for African Art, now the Museum for African Art, began to challenge this and other paradigms--no exhibition of African art is ever neutral. All African art exhibits are ideologically charged.
For viewers who share the same assumptions and resources as the makers of an exhibit, an exhibition may seem "transparently correct--obviously right," as Steven Lavine observes (1989:37). Alternatively, for visitors who do not share the same assumptions and resources, an exhibition may convey dramatically different meanings, entirely unintended by the exhibition's creators and beyond their control.
Museum exhibits, as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes of heritage productions, "tend to conflate their effects with the instruments for producing them" (1998:157). But, no matter how hard museum display techniques strive to make the exhibition of African art seem natural, normal, habitual, and customary, [End Page 38] the very foreignness of these objects to a museum context is often profoundly self-evident. Further, the overwhelming sense of the estrangement of the object from its former environment--placing sculptures on pedestals under bright spotlights--can produce an alienating effect that "makes the interface a critical site for the production of meanings" (157).
Museum exhibitions are "powerful engines of meaning" (157). Looking at how particular exhibitions of African art constitute their subject provides clues regarding the museum's "agency of display" (128). As Stuart Hall points out, while an exhibition provides a "framework for interpretation" using "objects on display to create meanings about the subject matter of the exhibition," which in turn also reflects its creators, every exhibition participates, knowingly or unknowingly, in larger discourses (1997:3, 5). Following Foucault (1980), Hall explains that discourses both rule in and rule out "how a...