Friday, November 11, 2011

Scavenger Hunt Fail: A thought about African Artwork, Stereotyping, and Museums

After two failed attempts in the last two days to look at the artwork in the Waterloo Center for the Arts, I have decided to write my blog on something else. (They were in the process of taking down the work for the holiday art events and were closed according to the ladies at the front desk.) I have decided to write about African art and museums in place of the Haitian artwork in Waterloo.

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with the Waterloo Center for the Arts or the Scavenger Hunt at all. It's my reflection on African art in museums and the reasons it's often displayed improperly.

Museums are often thought of as places to view objects that you don't see everyday. They provide educational entertainment to the public. The key word in the previous sentence is entertainment. Museums wouldn't be able to stay open if they didn't contain things people wanted to see. Artwork, oddities, and other things are entertainment objects for the people outside the realm from which they were created. We often find things outside the everyday spectrum to be amusing because it's not what we are used to seeing and don't fully understand it.

 Many times throughout the semester we have discussed how African art is often viewed out of context and how white people can tend to over-generalize Africans as one. One of the common things from last week's discussions that stuck with me is how Africans considered the objects they made not to be art, but functional objects for specific purposes. To Americans and Europeans, these objects can often be seen as art objects. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the novelty of the objects in our caucasian eyes.

Africa is on a completely different continent from Europe or North America. In fact, Africa is a continent. It's a continent made up of almost as many countries as their are states in the United States.  But the major problem with this is unfamiliarity. That is the unfamiliarity of Africa in Western Eyes. As Americans, we as a whole see Africa as one country and one people. And by that, I mean exotic black people not born in a Western country.

This over-generalization among the whole of Americans and Europeans is mentioned by me because it ties in to how African artwork is treated in museums. The exoticness of Africa is why its objects are found in museums. People aren't typically entertained by the sight of cigarette butts and Dr. Pepper cans, but objects from another continent are novel and we pay to see novelty. But since we tend to view Africans as one, their works often end up in a museum together because whites don't distinguish between the Bamana or the Yoruba. They are all still works created by a exotic people typically considered to be primitive.(Egyptian art is the one African art exception however. There work is often viewed on its own and not considered primitive.)

The major question I have pondered this semester regarding African art, is whether or not the over-generalization and stereotyping of Africa in museums is good or bad or somewhere in between. I think that the clumping of Africa as a whole is often necessary in many museums because their collections in African art probably aren't as vast as their other collections. It would be especially hard to gather a large amount of objects from each different culture located in Africa. It's just too expensive, and many of the people coming to visit museums wouldn't be able to tell the difference between African peoples by the end of the day.

I think that any exposure to African art or non-Western art is good, even if it's not presented in the proper way. After all, it's at least being presented. I think that instead of constantly challenging how African art is presented, we should be happy that it's even being presented at all. I think that even in the "incorrect" presentation of the artwork, people can still acknowledge how beautiful something is. If it wasn't being presented at all, people probably wouldn't be studying it and this class probably wouldn't exist.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting essay on your thoughts, which here are pretty well developed--there's actually quite a lot of scholarship precisely on this issue--Annie Coombes and Gonzalez ( for eg