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  • Room to GrowRe-Installing the NCMA Permanent Collection
  • Elizabeth Perrill, with Katherine Mpeshi McKee, Carlee Forbes, and Laurel Kilgore
    all photos courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, except where otherwise noted

An ephemeral gesture: What better or more poetic way to open a permanent installation of African art? The conceptual complexity of African art cries out for subtle contradictions that engage the public in a dialogue, a reflection upon what has been erased and what remains.

In June 2017, Washington, DC-based, Nigerian-born artist Victor Ekpuk will install a 30 x 18 foot site-specific wall drawing in the North Carolina Museum of Art's new African art gallery. The installation will be documented during its creation and a year later when it is wiped off with a sponge and water. No lasting physical object will remain; rather a series of relationships and connections will begin. Ekpuk's work, positioned at a right angle to the 18 x 25 foot El Anatsui work Lines that Link Humanity, will bring together two generations of contemporary African artists. This commission has also been a catalyst for significant outreach and internal education at the NCMA.

Both new and old North Carolinian communities of African heritage will be reflecting on histories of global movement and memory in relation to this artwork and reinstallation. The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) has been providing tours for individuals and families settling in the state through the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants for several years. This connection is being built upon during the reinstallation. Focus groups designed to engage community leaders are being organized in conjunction with the Ekpuk installation. Simultaneously, students from several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will be coming in to consider how histories of global migration and slavery bring another perspective to the collections and this poetic installation piece.

These theoretical inquiries and connections emanate into the other curatorial zones of the African reinstallation and are impacting the way the museum conceives of itself as it moves towards the future. Films documenting ephemeral contemporary masquerades will be shown just upstairs from the contemporary film and new media exhibits. Introductory texts will direct visitors out to the NCMA's Egyptian Gallery and Modern and Contemporary Galleries in the East Building. The Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park featuring the work of Yinka Shonibare and Ledelle Moe, as well as upcoming temporary exhibits on contemporary African artists, all point to the presence of African art throughout the museum campus.


The NCMA collection of art began in earnest in 1968 with the donation of a Shona headrest (Fig. 1), followed quickly in the early 1970s by the granting of several works to the museum by the Hanes Family and Foundation. The collection has gone through several phases that have increased holdings in either geographic or chronological foci. As one might imagine, acquisitions of the 1970s were largely from Western and Central Africa. The wooden masks and sculptural acquisitions from this period created a strong base from which future curators would build. Additionally, the acquisition of some metal objects opened the door diversifying media represented in the collection (Fig. 2).

My work at the NCMA began in late 2012, when Joyce Youmans, previously of the Nelson-Atkins, and I were asked to fill a gap in the NCMA's curatorial team as Consulting Curators of African art. We were fortunate to inherit the hard work of two accomplished curators in the field of African art, Rebecca Nagy and Kinsey Katchka. From 2006-2011, Katchka ferried the African art collection through the reinstallation process in the new West [End Page 46] Building at the NCMA in 2010. The acquisitions she championed placed the NCMA well ahead of the curve in the collection of contemporary African art, including the monumental El Anatsui that anchors the new gallery (Fig. 3). Katchka's legacy has been maintained with yearly contemporary acquisitions, including works by artists such as Marcia Kure, Elias Sime, Kay Hassan, Zanele Muholi, Viye Diba, and Graeme Williams (Fig. 4).

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Headrest (mutsago) Central or Southern Shona artist, Zimbabwe, early 20th century...


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