- African Art: a century at the Brooklyn Museum
This is an important book because it offers a fascinating insight into the historical development of the African collections in a museum which, as the author William C. Siegmann stresses, was ‘one of the first institutions in the United States to collect and exhibit African material culture as art’. It is divided into two distinct parts: (1) an introductory section with a foreword by Arnold Lehman, the museum’s director, and two essays: ‘A collection grows in Brooklyn’ by William C. Siegmann, curator of African and Oceanic Art, 1987–2007, and ‘African art: a transformation process’ by Joseph Adande, lecturer at the National University of Benin, Abomey-Calavi; and (2)130 individual works from Brooklyn’s collections, divided geographically into seven sub-sections: the Western Sudan, the Western Guinea Coast, the Eastern Guinea Coast, the Equatorial Forest, the Lower Congo Basin, the Southern Savanna and Eastern and Southern Africa.
Siegmann’s account is a tribute to his predecessors, in particular to Stewart Culin who came to Brooklyn in 1903 as the Museum’s first Curator of Ethnology. Culin energetically developed the African collections, so that by 1923 he could mount an exhibition entitled ‘Primitive negro art, chiefly from the Belgian Congo’. ‘With 1,454 works on view,’ Siegmann proudly states, ‘it was, and remains, the largest exhibition of African art ever assembled.’ Culin’s guiding principle was that ‘the entire collection . . . is shown under the classification of art; as representing a creative impulse, and not for the purposes of illustrating the customs of the African peoples’. The exhibition proved inspirational, not least to the African American writers, artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance in New York. Culin was also fascinated by African textiles, and his fostering of the collaboration between the Museum’s Design Laboratory and American textile designers is illustrated by pages from Women’s Wear magazine of 1923 depicting fashionable ladies wearing patterned dresses inspired by Kuba textiles.
Joseph Adande’s incisive essay reinforces the diverse and inclusive view of the arts of Africa which Culin championed, while at the same time outlining why such a view has sometimes been restricted in the intervening years: ‘Because of historical circumstances linked to the interest of past collectors and ethnographers, sculpture in wood dominates the perception of “traditional” African art today, still eclipsing other media. Yet mud, clay, and iron sculptures, in addition to textiles, body decoration, architecture, music and dance, all translate in visual and aural forms the imagination of African peoples.’ Adande also stresses the importance of including contemporary artists of African heritage, illustrating his point by posing a Kongo nkisi figure opposite another figure, also bristling with iron nails and blades, an extraordinarily powerful work by Michael Richards from the Tuskegee Airmen (1997) series.
It is therefore disappointing that the central section of the book does not give a sense of these diverse art forms, or of a collection ‘growing’ in Brooklyn, particularly as the jacket blurb proclaims that ‘This magnificent volume showcases some 130 highlights from Brooklyn’s world renowned collection of African textiles, ceramics, jewellery, masks and figures. . . .’ Only one textile and a handful of ceramics and jewellery are featured, thus sadly reinforcing [End Page 503] Adande’s assessment of the still dominant perception of African art today. The works featured are magnificent, but might have included some of the objects mentioned in the introductory essays – perhaps the Kuba textiles which Culin reported as being ‘my most useful and novel acquisitions so far as textiles are concerned’, or the Ethiopian, Zulu, Dinka and Maasai material which Siegmann highlighted and which would have given more weight to Eastern and Southern Africa – the one geographical section in the book outside Western and Central Africa – and would have helped create a more inclusive feel to Brooklyn’s collections, despite the insistence (still common in museums) that North Africa should not...