In mid-October, Bard Graduate Center collaborated with Brooklyn Museum to host a historic two-day symposium: Exhibiting Africa: State of the Field in African Art and the Diaspora in conjunction with our fall 2023 exhibition, SIGHTLINES on Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa. Drew Thompson, SIGHTLINES curator and associate professor of visual culture and Black studies at BGC, and Annissa Malvoisin, the Bard Graduate Center / Brooklyn Museum Postdoctoral Fellow in the Arts of Africa and a co-organizer of the exhibition Africa Fashion at the Brooklyn Museum, convened the symposium to explore current perspectives on the display of the arts and material culture of Africa and the diaspora, examining its historiography in Western cultural institutions and considering directions for its future.

The first day of the symposium took place at BGC and featured two panels: one discussing modes of design and display and the other on classical and contemporary perspectives. The second day, at Brooklyn Museum, began with a panel on ancient and medieval Africa followed by a panel on representations and consumption. In conjunction with each theme, speakers were asked to evaluate a particular display moment they found impactful. Thompson clarified, “As conveners of this exhibition, we didn’t want to see the conversation as representative of the field of African art and material culture. Rather, we had two aims: to illuminate the diversity of approaches and perspectives on exhibition design, display, and curating practices within the field of African art, and to bring African art and material culture into a larger conversation about design, display, and collecting.”

BGC founder and director Susan Weber opened the symposium and welcomed its participants by noting, “This is part of a pivotal moment in approaches to the display, curation, and study of African arts. BGC prides itself as being a home for discussions, big ideas, and pressing questions of our time, so I’m very proud to host this conversation today, and I hope it will have an impact on this field in the years ahead.”

In the first session, Design and Display, Mpho Matsipa, a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and an associate curator for the Lubumbashi Biennale 2024 (DRC), spoke about her interest in African urbanism, cities as spaces of refuge, and how the “creative ecosystems” of downtown Johannesburg influenced her curation of a 2018 exhibition in Munich called African Mobilities: This is Not a Refugee Camp. Nontsikelelo Mutiti, a Zimbabwe-born graphic designer, artist and educator who is the director of graduate studies in graphic design at Yale School of Art focused on the provocative displays in a collective 2017 exhibition, Orderly/Disorderly, at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra, Ghana, where the space allowed for public engagement with works of art on display. Following their presentations, independent curator and cultural policies specialist N’Goné Fall facilitated a conversation in which the three discussed the organized chaos of cities, what it means to put on an exhibition in an African context, presenting objects as meaningful within a variety of contexts, and bringing together creative and intellectual communities.

In the second panel, Classical/Contemporary, Sandrine Colard, assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University, Newark and associate curator at the Kanal-Pompidou Museum in Brussels, reflected on the importance of IncarNations: African Art as Philosophy, which opened in 2019 at the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussel. She explained that the exhibition, curated by the South African conceptual artist Kendell Geers, countered colonial displays of African art by presenting classical, modern, and contemporary works from the collection of Sindika Dokolo together. Kevin D. Dumouchelle, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, spoke about his own curatorial practice at the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian, including his most recent exhibition, Heroes: Principles of African Greatness. He strives to present African art as continually evolving and to communicate a rejection of the perceived split between traditional and modern/contemporary art. Alisa LaGamma, the Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moderated a follow-up panel where she asked the curators to speak about the criteria used to select and display contemporary works of African art.

On day two at the Brooklyn Museum, Andrea Myers Achi, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art in the Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, focused on the inclusion of northern and eastern African art in Byzantine exhibitions from 1977 to today, including her recent exhibition, Africa & Byzantium, which opened in November 2023 at the Met. Solange Ashby, assistant professor of Egyptology and Nubian studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA began her talk, “Hidden Treasures of Nubia,” by pointing out that museum spaces devoted to the art of Africa and the African diaspora are limited or hidden from view because of the lack of wealthy donors from these communities. She then pointed to the success of MFA Boston’s 2020 exhibition, Ancient Nubia Now, and called for the permanent display of Nubian objects in the museum’s collection and at other institutions so that the material culture of ancient Nubia could receive the attention it deserves. Ashby also thanked the organizers of the symposium for bringing African and North African studies together, as they are often treated as separate entities. Geoff Emberling, a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and lecturer in Mesopotamian and Nubian archaeology in the Department of Middle East Studies at University of Michigan facilitated a conversation with Achi and Ashby that explored complex subjects like structural racism, decolonizing museums, the future of the field of African art history, and questions surrounding partage agreements.

In the final panel of the symposium, Antawan I. Byrd, PhD, assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University and associate curator of photography and media at the Art Institute of Chicago gave a talk entitled “Human Display: Africa at the World’s Columbian Exposition,” in which he discussed his research on Pan-Africanism and complicated reactions from those who visited an ethnographic village populated by Fon tribe members at an 1893 Chicago world fair. Tobias Wofford, associate professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, spoke about the diasporic networks created through the HBCU Hampton University’s collection of African art. The current display and labeling of the collection highlights stories of acquisition to create connections between viewers and the objects’ original Bakuba owners or makers, informing African American identity and culture. Byrd and Wofford then joined Dr. Silvia Forni, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum, for a discussion in which Forni pointed to the connections and tension in their papers, with Byrd’s presentation addressing the objectification of human bodies and Wofford’s discussing the humanization of objects and how objects are often used to facilitate human connections and encounters.

Both days of the symposium were well-attended, drawing a mix of students, scholars, and curators from far and wide. Participants and audience members reacted with overwhelming positivity. Ashby said she found taking part in the symposium to be intellectually stimulating and that she was grateful to have learned from curators about African art from various parts of the continent. N’Goné Fall also expressed how pleased she was to be part of the conversation: “These kinds of programs are a necessity, in this time, in America, and wherever they are possible,” she said. “I hope it’s the beginning of a series of conversations involving different protagonists from different institutions, different generations, and different contexts to share and to transcend together.” Dumouchelle commented on the timing of the symposium as well: “As Drew and Annissa noted, we are at a sort of inflection point in thinking through the way in which we interpret African art, the way we show it, and the audiences that we’re speaking with. I think stepping back and having the conversation is wonderful. It’s an important opportunity, and it doesn’t happen that often in this field.”

Audience member Catherine McKinley, an independent curator, also noted the lack of lectures on this topic and expressed gratitude to BGC for convening the symposium. One member of the audience, a Congolese civil engineer named Tatu, happened to be visiting New York City from Brussels and felt fortunate to be able to attend. He was attracted to the symposium’s subject matter as a self-identifying member of the diaspora and expressed, “I was happy that I was able to follow the presentations even though I don’t work in the field. I didn’t expect colonialism to be addressed this way in the United States, and it’s great to see that there are people interested in this subject.” The presentations also made an impression on Kinaya, a PhD candidate at NYU, who said, “As an art historian, it’s exciting to hear from scholars or practitioners from different disciplines and to absorb their mind-bending modes of thinking that aren’t typical to art history.” BGC MA student Vega Shaw (MA ’25) reflected, “From what I have learned from visiting the SIGHTLINES exhibition, working at the gallery, and hearing from Drew and others, there’s a specific way that a lot of institutions approach exhibiting African art, and I feel like it’s important to consider a more dynamic and less Western perspective and what that means.”