Does the Frame Fit?

When future visitors to the Yale University Art Gallery enter the lobby, they will turn to the left after checking their coats and see the new occupant of the museum’s coveted first-floor space: the African art collection.

The Gallery is moving the collection from its current location upstairs to the first floor, one of the most prominent gallery spaces in the building. In the old exhibit, statues stood on island-like platforms around the room, masks hung from the walls, and artifacts rested in glass cases. Works made centuries apart sat close together: pieces like a twentieth-century Ode-Lay mask from Sierra Leone appeared near small terracotta heads made by the Nok people of Nigeria in 900 BCE. They were united only continentally, with no indication of the massive shifts in time, space, and cultural conditions that occurred between the points of their creation.

The pieces themselves were clustered haphazardly, and other elements of the display exacerbated the experience. According to Curator of Education Ryan Hill, the old African gallery was designed to make visitors feel as if they were “in Africa,” recreating an ambiance intended to convey the atmosphere in which the works originally existed: the walls were painted purple and covered with maps and big photographs of people and landscapes. Yet very little was done to contextualize the collection.

How do you honor something in a museum, outside its native time and space, without exoticizing it? Is it possible?

Barbara Plankensteiner, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Curator of African Art at the YUAG, took umbrage with the hodgepodge nature of the African collection and its contrived presentation. The new space—her first project at the Gallery since being hired last yearwill be much like those of the modern galleries, with no extra maps or photographic adornment. The transformation requires YUAG curators to wrestle with questions inherent to museum work and unique to the challenge of presenting African art in a Western museum. Take, for example, a squat wooden figure in the collection from the Songye culture in the Congo. The sculpture measures about four feet tall, its face peppered with metal studs, its head adorned with dark brown feathers. It’s called a “community power figure,” and it is an example of a nkishi, an object inhabited by a spirit, considered by art historians to be a form of “process art.” Process art is only complete in a set of specific circumstances. The community power figure, while considered powerful even when unused, is only able to reach its full potential when used for a ceremony. It can never be complete in a gallery space; it is impossible for the YUAG, or any traditional museum, to fully do the work justice. By contrast, most artwork displayed in the YUAG, and art museums generally, can be considered “statement art”—intended for viewing as-is, completed once the artist has put their final touches on the work.

How do you honor something in a museum, outside its native time and space, without exoticizing it? Is it possible? Unlike the African gallery, the Asian and European galleries were not laid out to make anyone feel as if they were “in Asia” or “in Europe.” This approach, Plankensteiner said, made the African collection “other.” “These are works of art,” Plankensteiner said. “Once they enter the museum space, they enter a different world, and we do not need to recreate an ambiance.”

Now, Plankensteiner will display the art of the African collection in a loosely chronological order, grouping pieces to highlight specific themes: original function, spirituality, and materiality, the latter including empowered objects (like nkishi) which hold direct ties to religion. Plankensteiner wants to go digital, too, using videos of dances and ceremonies to simulate how works were utilized and seen in their original environments. She also wants to curate comprehensive exhibits dedicated to African contemporary art, which would be a first for the YUAG.

Plankensteiner hopes that the ritual figures and masks from Central and West Africa— what Picasso would have termed “primitive” and what were all the rage for collectors in the early- to mid-twentieth century—will not be the sole image people think of when they picture an entire continent’s art history. But there are still limitations within the collection itself that cannot be fixed with a new arrangement.

“These are works of art,” Plankensteiner said. “Once they enter the museum space, they enter a different world, and we do not need to recreate an ambiance.”

The YUAG’s African Art collection comes almost entirely from three sources: the 1954 donation of the Linton collection, a gift of Mr. and Mrs. James M. Osborn, the 2004 gift of nearly six hundred objects from the personal collection of Charles B. Benenson, and the gift of roughly two hundred pieces from SusAnna and Joel B. Grae in 2010. The collection, then, is not encyclopedic but rather an index of its donors’ personal tastes. That is not unusual for the YUAG; most collections in the Gallery come from a handful of donors. When it comes to the collection of non-Western art, the tastes of the donors conform to what is popular in Western eyes. In the African Art collection, this means a very limited scope of masks and ritual figures from West and Central Africa. Other departments also have funds made up of alumni donations for purchasing new works and expanding their collections; the African Art department does not.

These limitations are present in most Western museum collections of African art, said Daniel Magaziner, an associate professor of twentieth-century African history at Yale. There is a long period of time in African art history that we know very little about, for Western collectors were not interested in the work, and so very little research has been done on the subject. As a result, contemporary African art in the gallery seems to come out of nowhere, although generations of artists and evolving art forms occurred in between. Plankensteiner hopes that more will be added to the collection in this respect, but for now, she said, this is what the YUAG has. And so long as the YUAG’s donors are not interested in African work beyond what’s already here, it will not be represented in the collection.

The possibility of increasing the museum’s holdings of contemporary African art brings up a question about the YUAG’s division of its holdings: When should artwork be included in the Modern and Contemporary section instead of a geographic collection? What, in this case, makes a recent work distinctly “African” enough to be included in the African collection? Is it based on the nationality of the artist, or the subject of their work? Magaziner pointed out that last fall, when the YUAG presented a large exhibit of the work of William Kentridge, a prominent white South African artist whose work deals explicitly with social and racial politics of South Africa, the exhibit was not billed as “African” or linked to the African collection. Kentridge’s artwork is clearly African, so why was it excluded from the African collection? Since Plankensteiner plans to display contemporary work in the new gallery space and hopes to expand and diversify the collection, these are questions that need to be asked—and answered consistently—as the collection moves forward.

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