Research in Algiers, June 2019

Modern Art Gallery, Musée des Beaux Arts, Algiers

This summer I traveled to Algiers to seek out artworks dating from the 1960s and 70s in the capital’s national museums, galleries, art schools, and private collections. I conducted research on the history and collections of the National Museum of Fine Arts, which holds works by key participants in the development of Algeria’s post-independence national arts scene alongside an “encyclopedic” collection of European art amassed by the institution’s first colonial-era administration. Through my conversations with the director and staff members of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Algiers (opened in 2007), students of the National Fine Arts School, and private gallery owners, I also began to learn about the resonance of the artistic movements, institutions, and public events that distinguished Algeria’s post-independence and cold war era—including the 1969 Pan-African Festival of Algiers—for individuals shaping the country’s contemporary arts landscape.

Jeune fille au chien (Interrogation). Ismaïl Samson, 1969. Oil on canvas, approx. 100 x 70 cm

Ashley Miller
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Tanzania Research, July-August 2019

Art Gallery in the National Museum of Tanzania

Over the course of three weeks in July-August 2019, I pursued various leads in Tanzania concerning artists and curators who were active during the period 1957-1977. I began at the National Museum and House of Culture where I met with the director, Achilles Bufure, and the curator for art, Rehema Mfinanga. I also photographed artwork on display and in collection storage. Until 2012, the museum had focused almost exclusively on archaeology, marine biology and paleontology exhibits. In 2012, however, the then curator for art, Fabian Lyimo (who has authored a number of books and articles), advocated for and succeeded in securing permission to mount a permanent exhibit on contemporary Tanzanian art. I was able to interview Fabian Lyimo at his home and he connected me with a number of artists and collectors of interest, including the painter Elias Jengo, a student and collaborator of the famed Sam Ntiro, who we learned was funded in part by the Harmon Foundation participating in Harmon Foundation-sponsored exhibits in New York and a residency at Fisk University.

Playing Traditional Music
E. Jengo, 1980

Following this trail, I flew to Dodoma, Tanzania (the political capital of the country) to interview Elias Jengo, now a retired professor of fine art at the University of Dar es Salaam. Prof. Jengo was serving as an external evaluator at the University of Dodoma, but kindly took an entire evening to have dinner with me and answer many questions concerning his training in art, and his relationship with Ntiro (they completed a number of famous murals together). Additional conversations with Prof. Jengo back in Dar es Salaam introduced me to the East African Art Biennale (EASTAFAB), which was launched by Prof. Jengo and others in 2003, and which will take place again in November 2019. I also compiled a list of private collectors, who may have artworks of interest, including the publisher Walter Bgoya and the late businessman and philanthropist Hatim Karimjee, founder of the Karimjee Jivanjee Foundation.

Kelly Askew
Faculty Team Member

Archival Research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, February 19-21, 2019

In February, three members of our team. Laura De Becker, Traci Lombre and Sandra Nwogu worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, NY). For me, this was a first foray into archival research work and was a memorable learning experience. Our first day at the Schomburg Center had us in high spirits and with a lot of excitement for anticipated finds.

Sandra Nwogu, two boxes in!

The major focus of our research was the archives of the First World Festival of Black Arts (FESMAN), which was held in Dakar in April 1-24, 1966, under the auspices of UNESCO. We were on the hunt for information about how the festival was organized, the artists who were showcased, and about the delegates from different countries, especially the US. The Pan-African festivals held in the 1960s and 70s are a big part of our project and FESMAN was the first of them. These festivals provided an unprecedented platform for African artists and also artists of African descent to exhibit their work in a global context.

Traci digging into the catalogue

In the archives at Schomburg, some of the key finds included information about the US delegation to the festival, preparations and appeals for funding, as well as some of the types of art exhibited and how it was selected. Other interesting finds were correspondence from Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal and one of the key proponents of the concept of Negritude. We also located archived documents on the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC), including its publications and documents associated with activities during the1960s, and letters from Larry Neal who was a key contributor in the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

During our time in New York, two of our team members, Laura De Becker and Traci Lombre, took the opportunity to visit “Reflections of Weusi II.” an exhibition organized by the Dorsey Gallery on the Weusi Art Collective. The Weusi Art Collective was a major player in the African and African American art scene especially during the 1960s and 70s.

Excellent brunch at Sylvia’s!

A trip to Harlem is not complete without throwing diets out the window, so we did exactly! While soaking up the vibrancy of the city, we spotted this stunning door walking down 127th Street.

Carved wood door from Benin (Nigeria), 127th Street, Harlem.

All in all, it was a fruitful research trip!

Sandra Nwogu
Graduate Student Researcher

Research Trip to Atlanta, February 5-7, 2019

On February 5, 2019, team members, Laura De Becker, Kelly Askew and Traci Lombre, traveled to Atlanta, to begin studying the African art collections at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as other arts institutions in the city. We were not only welcomed warmly by the staff at Spelman College, Clark-Atlanta University, the Hammonds House, Emory University and the High Museum of Art, but greeted with 70-degree temperatures in early February before returning the blustery Michigan winter!

Laura De Becker (l) and Kelly Askew (r) admire painting by Amy Sheard at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Our trip started with a visit to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, where its staff was feverishly preparing for two days of artist’s talks connected to its recently installed exhibition of works by artist Amy Sherald. Just a year before, Sherald rose to international prominence when her portrait of the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. Amy Sheard, an alumna of Clark-Atlanta University (CAU), took her painting classes at Spelman. After taking in the amazing works of the Sherald exhibit, we were welcomed by Makeba Dixon-Hill, the Museum’s Curator of Education. She shared valuable information about several works in the gallery, as well as the museum’s commitment to showcasing the art of women of the African diaspora, as an HBCU committed to educating women of African descent, since its founding in 1881.

Hale Woodruff’s “Art of the Negro” Mural-Oil on canvas, Clark-Atlanta University Galleries

We walked over to Clark-Atlanta University for a visit with Dr. Maurita Poole, the director of the Clark-Atlanta University Galleries. Right outside of her office, we reveled at the wonderful murals that were painted by the great educator and artist, Hale Woodruff. Hale Woodruff built the Art Department at Atlanta University in the 1930s and 1940s, incorporating African art as part of its curriculum, evident in these murals. In our meeting with Dr. Poole, she offered useful recommendations for our research and a wealth of information about Art education at HBCUs as a collective. Her parting recommendation was for us was to travel across campus to the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library Archives to review the Countee Cullen/Harold Jackman Collection. Consequently, we ended each day in Atlanta, researching at this archive.

Laura De Becker and Kelly Askew chat with Amanda Hellman, Curator for African Art, at Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

On Thursday we met Dr. Amanda Hellman, Curator for African Art, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. As we entered the gallery, we experienced “DO or DIE: Affect, Ritual, Resistance” an exhibition of works by Dr. Fahamu Pecou, an Emory Alumnus. This deeply engaging exhibit explores the intersections between African-based spiritual traditions and the political and societal violence against black male bodies in the US, as presented in Pecou’s paintings, drawings, fabric and short film, all centered on an Egungun mask designed by the artist. Dr. Hellman graciously guided us through the rest of the African Art gallery where we marveled at an Igbo mask on display, donated in 2015 by former Peace Corps volunteers.

Kelly Askew (l) and Laura De Becker (r) walking into Atlanta’ High Museum of Art

From Emory University, we traveled to the High Museum of Art to meet with Carol Thompson, the Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art. She guided us through the display of African art that included ancient pieces,15th century Congolese works and an Epa mask formerly belonging to Civil Rights activist, Bayard Rustin. After leaving the High Museum, we returned to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art to meet with Anne Collins Smith, Curator of Collections, who graciously found time for us in the midst of one of the museum’s busiest days of the year, with the Sherald talk that evening. Ms. Collins-Smith gave us the history of the Spelman Museum, its collections along with several useful recommendations and contacts for our research, which included making a quick trip to the Spelman College archives.

Traci Lombre
Graduate Student Researcher

Digging in . . . our first semester (Fall 2018)

Since the start of our project in September 2018, our group has been exploring the interplay of various historical events in the 1960s that influenced the transformation of the canon of African art and the establishment of African art history as an academic discipline. Conceptualized across three main strands of inquiry, our research has considered the largely unrecognized impact of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on the study of African art in the US; the presence of the Peace Corps and other US-backed organizations on the African continent; and the importance of cultural activities taking place across Africa following independence. Our research has identified twenty-six HBCU collections of African art, and has provided a more nuanced understanding concerning the Peace Corps and other diplomatic strategies associated with the Cold War in newly-independent African nations. During the fall semester, we placed particular emphasis on artistic developments across the African continent, investigating the importance of Pan-African festivals, and the founding of national museums and art schools in a number of African countries. We hosted three scholars of African art history, Professor Chris Steiner (Connecticut College), Professor Sylvester Ogbechie (University of California-Santa Barbara) and Curator Paul Davis (The Menil Collection), who helped us contextualize the ways in which art was deployed in the forging of national identities. A special topics course, jointly offered by the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies and History of Art, titled, “Inventing African Art: A Continent on Display,” was developed to offer students an opportunity to pursue a number of lines of inquiry associated with the project, alongside members of the team.

As our project progresses, we continue to discover synergies among the various research strands. For instance, at the same time that HBCUs were building an important knowledge base for African art, African-American artists traveled to exhibit their work in Africa. Research focused on the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) in 1966 has revealed some of the political motivations for American and European involvement in the cultural affairs of Africa. In examining the geopolitical factors associated with the creation and early years of the Peace Corps, we have learned more about precursor organizations such as the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) and Operations Crossroads Africa (OCA).

As we discover more narratives and trajectories to explore, we continue to navigate the exciting challenge of synthesizing our discoveries and thinking about how they might be represented in a publication and exhibition. To further enhance the collaborative nature of our project, we have developed several questionnaires and a project website to communicate any updates and to encourage requests from interested scholars and institutions.

We look forward to collection visits and archival research, as well as meetings with colleagues, during a February site visit to the museums at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College. Also in February, we plan to consult the archives dealing with the First World Festival of Negro Art (FESMAN) at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We anticipate future conversations with scholars connected to HBCUs and the Peace Corps over the course of the winter semester. Our team also plans to conduct research visits to consult with individuals and institutions in a number of African countries during the summer of 2019.

The Making African Art Team. From left to right: Traci Lombre (Graduate student, American Culture); Evan Binkley (Undergraduate student, History of Art and Museum Studies); Laura De Becker (Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator, UM Museum of Art); Raymond Silverman (Professor, History of Art, African Studies and Museum Studies); Kelly Askew (Professor, Anthropology and African Studies); and Sandra Nwogu (Graduate Student, Statistics). Not pictured: Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo (Professor, Art and Design).

Evan Binkley
Undergraduate Researcher

Lenae Jefferson, Learning about Africa, art and the 1960s

While I had come to the University of Michigan intent upon a STEM major, coursework connected to African art provided me with an opportunity to explore something new. I soon found that there was a wide array of opportunities and career paths related to visual culture that I had not seen before. Now, as a junior majoring in Art History, I had the opportunity to participate in Professor Silverman’s fall course, “Inventing African Art: A Continent on Display,” connected to the “Making African Art” project. Over the course of the semester, our class contributed to research on the Peace Corps, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and developments on the African continent. It was incredibly rewarding to learn more about these underrepresented narratives in the field of African art history. I particularly enjoyed our discussion of Pan-African festivals and the trips taken to Africa the trumpeter Louis Armstrong as a United States representative. Class visits from scholars such as Sylvester Ogbechie (University of California-Santa Barbara) and Chris Steiner (Connecticut College) allowed me to link my own inquiries to ongoing project research. I found that involving undergraduate students in this process was a valuable and rewarding experience. I look forward to learning more about the history behind “Making African Art” as I continue in my undergraduate studies.

Meet Evan Binkley, Undergraduate Researcher

During the initial phase of funding for the “Making African Art” project in the summer of 2018, I conducted extensive archival research on the influence of the Peace Corps in the development of the field of African art history. In particular, I reviewed the holdings at in the Washington, D.C. area: the Peace Corps Community Archive at American University and National Archives in College Park, Maryland. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to compare the personal experiences of African Peace Corps volunteers at the Community Archive to official, government documents at the National Archives. My summer research was particularly rewarding in that I was able to explore both unofficial and official domains of exposure to African art many of the first Peace Corps volunteers encountered in the 1960s. Research practices which I developed during archival research were incredibly helpful in my summer position as an Education Department Intern at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I am excited to conduct future research visits as the project evolves over the coming years.

Meet James Denison, Graduate Researcher

I first became involved in ‘Making African Art’ at the beginning of the summer of 2018, when our project was a different and more modest one than it is now. In the time since I have enjoyed watching it develop into an ambitious and potentially paradigm-shifting intervention in the history of African art history. My contributions to the project have primarily been research-based, as I have worked to advance our understanding of the impact of the Peace Corps and other Cold War and post-independence programs and contexts on the making, display, and study of African art in the 1960s and ’70s. In addition to researching these topics and writing up my findings, my work has included reaching out to returned Peace Corps volunteers to learn about their involvement with African art and talking with scholars who have visited with us to consult on the project. However, my favorite part of my involvement with the project has been not just “working on” but also “thinking on” our topic by contributing to ongoing conversations about the scope and orientation of our research. I am excited to see how the project will continue to change as it develops over the next few years.