- An Interview with Alvia Wardlaw
This interview was conducted on August 10, 2005, in Alvia Wardlaw’s office at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in Houston, Texas.
ROWELL: A few days ago, you returned from traveling to Tanzania in East Africa. What was the purpose of your trip?
WARDLAW: This was my fourth trip to Tanzania and it was part of the African Studies Abroad program for Texas Southern University, sponsored by the Department of History and the Mickey Leland Center. Each year we take students and faculty and this year we had 18 participants. It was a wonderful group and it was probably one of the best trips that we’ve had. I go to absorb the culture. I have met many artists in Tanzania. In fact, one of the artists that I met last summer was included in the exhibition that we organized at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston [MFAH], African Art Now: Masterworks from the Jean Pigozzi Collection. I was able to interview Georges Lilanga last summer with Leamon Green and part of that interview became the basis of my essay for the catalogue.
The travel to Tanzania always culminates in a wonderful combination of work, personal exploration and reflection. This year, I returned to visit Mr. Lilanga and his family. Unfortunately, I learned just before arriving there, that Georges Lilanga had passed just a week before the group arrived in Tanzania. When he was in Houston the year before for the exhibition, Mr. Lilanga had a very severe bout with diabetes and, during the opening weekend in Houston, we had to rush the artist to St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital. While in Houston, he did get to see his art on view in the museum’s beautiful Upper Brown Pavilion with his grandson, who wheeled him around in his wheelchair. He was also able to see the video that one of the artists had done on a number of the artists throughout Africa, so that was wonderful to witness. I’m looking forward to working closely in the future with museums and artists from the region so that our community will be able to witness the richness of the culture in East Africa.
ROWELL: I consider getting to know you at this time to be an extraordinary privilege. Our first exchange was during the early 1980s, when you wrote an essay on John Biggers for the fifth issue of Callaloo. You and I never met face to face until summer, when you allowed us to use your museum at Texas Southern University as the site for a Callaloo reading. It was the faculty reading of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. You are Director/Curator of Texas Southern’s University Museum and you are also a curator of [End Page 261] modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. How do you manage to negotiate your many responsibilities? Being a curator alone is a fulltime position.
WARDLAW: This is a full-time job at the MFAH.
ROWELL: And directing the museum at Texas Southern is a full-time job?
WARDLAW: Yes, it most definitely is, but I should say that they’re both flexible positions. I’m blessed to work with a museum director and a university president who are both supportive and understanding and really are bottom-line individuals. If I’m doing the work and bringing positive attention to the institution and consistently doing interesting things, it doesn’t matter to them if I work on weekends, or at night, or away—as long as I’m producing. I am able to do this because of God’s grace and geography. Because the two institutions are so close together, I can move in between them several times a day.
ROWELL: How do you maintain such a hectic schedule and keep all of your projects separate and on target?
WARDLAW: Well, first of all, I am able to keep my spirits up by staying focused on the end result and impact of the project, so that the daily busy pace and the phone calls—you know how you can be inundated with calls and emails and minutia—don...