When We Write To You About Africa opened at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in 2021, it doubled the space dedicated to African art in the UMMA. In the exhibit, contemporary pieces by artists such as Masimba Hwati are featured alongside traditional sculptures, including a late 19th-century Power Figure sculpture from the Yombe people.
The exhibition displays plaques informing viewers on the history of UMMA’s African art collection, noting that little is known about the origins of many pieces displayed. The plaques describe how the collection’s original art curators emphasized the “otherness” of the pieces while failing to document important details, such as dates of creation. As a result, only an approximate date of creation is recorded for many of the exhibition’s pieces.
Ozi Uduma, co-curator of the exhibit and Assistant Curator of Global Contemporary Art at the UMMA, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that the gallery provides an incomplete and subjective picture of African art.
“For folks who go into African art galleries and museums, I think there’s sometimes an expectation that they’re going to see all of Africa represented, and that’s just not the case,” Uduma said. “A lot of the time how collections are built, it’s based on the likes and the interest of the curators … of the museum as a whole and the likes and the interests of the people who are donating the works to us.”
LSA senior Temi Yusuf, president of the African Student Association, said students should remember the pieces displayed in the exhibit don’t represent every part of the African continent.
“I think (students) should go see the exhibit, but also take it with a grain of salt; that one statue in one area of the continent is not going to be the same in another area,” Yusuf said. “I think the exhibit mostly covers the outskirts (of Africa) and they’ve barely dug into the other parts of the continent that could be explored.”
Yusuf said she appreciated the inclusion of African art in the UMMA but it’s important to consider the history of how the artwork got where it is today.
“I think whenever there is African art anywhere, you do have to wonder how it came to be,” Yusuf said. “I know the U.S. has put things out there about returning art to Nigeria and returning different things that they have that they shouldn’t have. While it’s nice to see different artifacts from African culture, I also think it’s really important to highlight how they were brought to the institution.”
In recent years, museums have received backlash for displaying and profiting off of stolen or unethically collected art. Some museums have begun to discuss processes for returning those artifacts. The British Museum has been involved in conversations of restitution regarding their display of the Benin bronzes, which were looted from Nigeria by British soldiers.
We Write To You About Africa showcases a variety of pieces collected in various ways. Although the exhibit features multiple pieces bought or commissioned directly from African artists, such as a sculpture of a bird and a chest drum commissioned directly by Allen Roberts, UCLA Professor and U-M postdoctoral fellow, it also includes Pwo Mask, a mask of a woman that was originally part of a full body costume. The mask was taken by German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, along with 8,000 other pieces, to sell to European museums and collectors.
Yusuf, who was raised in Houston, said she was used to experiencing African culture through her community rather than through art installations. She said art installations should ensure contemporary art from African artists is highlighted alongside traditional pieces.
“I think it’s definitely nice that (Africa is) being represented through ancient history and art … but I also think it’s necessary to look at art that’s currently coming out of the continent,” Yusuf said. “There’s so much more to art than its history, and I feel like when we talk about Africa, we tend to act as if it’s not currently existing in 2023.”
The UMMA exhibit includes older pieces from before the 19th century alongside newer contemporary works. As a series of postcards by artist Dawson Weber showcases life in Africa through photographs of factories, government buildings and cars, as opposed to images of villages and rural life. Visitors to the gallery are encouraged to take a copy of these postcards to use as decoration or correspondence.
Across from Weber’s postcards stands Ngoromera, a sound sculpture constructed from various brass instruments, bells, spearheads and golf balls. Created by Masimba Hwati, a Zimbabwean artist and School of Art & Design alum, the installation is fully functional, as Hwati performed on it during an event at the exhibit in April 2022.
While curating the exhibit, UMMA reached out to various student organizations, including the African Student Association and the African Graduate Student Association. The museum also developed programming opportunities for the exhibition, such as Hwati’s performance.
Rackham student Desnor Chigumba, president of the African Graduate Student Association, said she believes the UMMA does a good job of representing African art and working with the community.
“I think (the) UMMA makes such a great effort in terms of how they represent especially African art and African narratives,” Chigumba said. “There’s a lot of thought that went into (avoiding a) stereotypical representation of Africa. We had several conversations about what else they could do and how they could have other people or students participate in the exhibit.”
Chigumba said she’s excited about the potential for African students to visit the exhibit, as well as the museum’s commitment to decolonization.
“(The UMMA has) one of the exhibits downstairs in one of the rooms, pretty much dedicating it to these African narratives, and making sure they have some commitment to decolonization and sourcing the artwork in ethical ways,” Chigumba said. “Also in keeping up with modern representations of African art, showing … not only our cultures, but what different artists have to show.”
The exhibit Chigumba referred to was Wish You Were Here, a public display of the research and investigation into eleven works of African art in the museum’s collection.
Wish You Were Here was originally intended to be a part of We Write To You About Africa, but Uduma said the museum decided to establish the set of eleven works as its own exhibition due to interest from students and the overarching conversation around restitution.
“We were like, okay, there is something more that we want to do that we can’t just give it one tiny corner in the exhibition when so many people are interested in talking about restitution,” Uduma said. “We wanted to invite our audience into this process of … the history of repatriation and restitution and what we’re trying to do as a museum to figure out … how to make (our own collections) more ethical, how to be more responsible collectors.”
Uduma said after a scene in Black Panther raised questions about stolen African art at the British Museum, students became increasingly curious about African art at the UMMA and whether it was stolen.
“The students, whether they know it or not, have had a really big role in how we’re thinking about those two exhibitions,” Uduma said. “There is a genuine interest to learn more and want to see more.”
Uduma also said the UMMA is lucky to be able to curate an exhibition examining the ways they have obtained their African artworks. Uduma highlighted how a lot of curators at other museums would be unable to do this if the donors of the artwork felt as if they were being critiqued for their purchase.
“The movement of these works, when it comes to African art, we know that it can be obscured,” Uduma said. “So you might purchase something that you thought was a legitimate purchase … only to find out that maybe the work that you purchased was unethically given to you.”
Uduma said she hoped viewing the exhibit would make visitors more curious about Africa and the diaspora.
“There are two main pictures of the continent,” Uduma said. “Animals, because of The Lion King or the postcards that have tigers and lions … and poverty. And there is no nuance to how we think about the continent. And so (our goal is) allowing the space for folks to just get curious about the continent in a way that feels thoughtful and intentional.”
Daily Staff Reporters Joshua Nicholson and Astrid Code can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.