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  • A History Shaped by Futures PastArt, Artists, and the Dialogic Turn at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
  • Karen E. Milbourne (bio)

The year 2016 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first work of art by an identified African artist to be accessioned into the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, an untitled study by Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi (Fig. 1).1 Just two years after the museum was founded, the accessioning of El-Salahi's ink drawing suggests the diverse and inclusive representation of Africa's arts that would become characteristic of this institution. It also gives insight into the increased interest of the times in more accurate and in depth understanding of African creativity—as evidenced by the launching of this journal, African Arts, within just twelve months—and reveals the fierce intellectualism and creativity in the modernist experiments of El-Salahi and his contemporaries during this era of independence movements across the continent. In addition, the acquisition foreshadowed the future of a museum that would be both proactive in collecting works of art across time period, medium, and geography, and forward looking in its approach to exhibitions, programs, scholarship, and artist and audience engagement. Understanding the arrival of such works of art into the National Museum of African Art's collections and exhibitions allows us to understand and imagine not only the stories this museum has told, but has yet to tell. For as theorist Reinhart Koselleck reminds us (2004), we must understand "futures past" to understand historical time—and in the case of this essay, look to the past to understand the futures to come.


On June 3, 1964, when Warren Robbins, a retired US Foreign Service Officer, opened the doors of the Museum of African Art, located in the home of former slave, abolitionist, and statesman Frederick Douglass, it was one year after he had founded the Center for Cross Cultural Communication of which it was to be a part, and the height of the Civil Rights movement. Robbins had returned from service in Germany and Austria—where he had been introduced to and fallen in love with African art—to an America in which Africa's arts and accomplishments were not being represented.2 Robbins imagined a different future, one in which the history of Frederick Douglass would be represented in the same building as a print by Wilfredo Lam, and information demonstrating the impact of Africa's arts on Picasso and other European modernists would be viewed alongside African art objects.3 He envisioned a building and a collection that would grow over time and contribute to the dynamic of change taking hold in America. The nature of the collection and its displays have evolved as the center Robbins created became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 by an act of Congress, but its responsibility towards countering negative racial and geographic stereotypes and its endeavors to create meaningful engagements with African diversity and creativity has not.4 What has been underrecognized in this history, however, is the role of artists and the museum's collection practices in reimagining representations of Africa and African art moving forward.

Ibrahim El Salahi's Untitled (1962) joined the museum's then small collection as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bjorn Ahlander of Washington, DC. Leslie Judd Ahlander was an art critic with a particular passion for Latin American arts who wrote for the Washington Post for thirteen years of her illustrious career. On April 14, 1963, Ahlander published in her regular column, "Art in Washington," a review of multiple exhibitions—including a solo showing of works by Ibrahim El Salahi at the Middle East House. She wrote:

At Middle East House, a young artist from Sudan, Ibrahim El Salahi [End Page 62] sophisticated and clever. He uses line magnificently, combines images with the fertility of a surrealist, draws on African art and Islamic calligraphy with equal ease to create his personal idiom. The paintings recall Wilfredo Lam in their use of totemic fetish figures, but the color is rich and subtle, with dark shadowy areas from which looming figures emerge...


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pp. 62-73
Launched on MUSE
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