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How not to display, market African arts

By Japhet Alakam

For the much desired  development and marketing of African arts to be actualised, there is need for African artists, curators and art collectors to focus more on displaying traditional art in contemporary African form, as the current way most of the artworks are displayed in most museums especially in western countries leaves much to be desired.  This was the submission of Lydia Gatundu Galavu, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya during her presentation at the OYASAF Centre, Maryland, Lagos.

•Lydia Galavu, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya during her presentation at OYASAF
•Lydia Galavu, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya during her presentation at OYASAF

In her presentation entitled ‘Displaying Traditional Art in Contemporary African Time: A critical analysis on the best practices for contextualizing traditional art within its home environment’ she pointed out that proper display of the works will make them attractive for potential big business, arts connoisseurs and enthusiasts as well as novice to appreciate the aesthetics, thematic relevance of such works.

She also urged curators to focus on creating understanding and engendering interpretation of such arts, noting that Western arts and natural history museums are not compatible with the contexts from which most of the traditional African arts emerged.

The Kenyan curator, Lydia Gatundu Galavu, who concluded her fellowship recently at the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) in Lagos however stated that most of the traditional African arts in museums and galleries in the West, are displayed outside their original cultural context making it lose or distort its full identity and meaning.

Lydia  however urged curators and artists to avoid similar display methods for most traditional African works, as it is done in Europe. The widely traveled curator who was in Nigeria to conduct a pre study programme at OYASAF, in respect of Kenya’s first permanent art gallery, Nairobi National Museum, citing the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC as example, noted that it is “located in the underground galleries of the Smithsonian together with the Freer and Sackler galleries that hold art from non-Caucasian nations with history of collection put together by people in colonized contexts.

“As an African, it is a difficult collection history to face. On one hand, the works of art are very beautiful, and one can appreciate that history took them to Western museums. On the other hand, it is difficult to forget that this history was unpleasant and that because of it information about the art works has mostly been lost.” Regrettably, Galavu pointed out that it is not only Western museums that are displaying African art tardily as found out at Kenya’s National Museum and National museum at Onikan, Lagos.

She notes: “Just like the Nairobi National Museum, the displays of traditional artworks at the National Museum Lagos tended to be alienated from their cultural context; objects displayed in space without adequate information in much the same way as you would find them in a Western museum.”

But unlike the Western museums that have no information on artworks they exhibit, Galavu notes that: “The advantage in African museums is that the information for these objects is not lost. The problem is that only a little bit is provided such that in the absence of a guide one cannot interpret the object meaningfully.

Continuing, the curator  used some artworks , a carved wooden mask, a commissioned piece clad with motifs illustrating European interaction and an early 20th century Efik mask from Nigeria with no useful information at all to prove her point.

In describing how Africa can use her fast growing art establishments to reform the current African art history, she disclosed that this can be facilitated through scholarship: sponsoring of students, artists, historians and curators from all over the world. T

In their contributions, renowned artist, Dr Kolade Oshinowo  agreed with the presenter, saying that the West always tries to downplay the achievements of African artists as they see African artists as being creative and endowed like their Western counterparts.

On his part, Jess Castelotte, said that the only way forward is through collaboration, noting that most artists and scholars don’t relate and that institutions in different nations have to embrace public-private-partnerships. Shyllon, on his part advised to invest and promote the African identity  as we owe it a duty to incoming generation that our identity as Africans is not obliterated.



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