When I arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art in August 2017, I was under no illusion that it was important to expand the scope of the African collection to include contemporary works by African artists. Three objects were acquired to inaugurate this new direction: Totem 01/01-18 (Baga-Batcham-Alunga-Kota) (2018), a lofty combination of three distinct canonical forms in African art by Hervé Youmbi; Twilight of the Idols (Fetish) 3 (2005), an enwrapped Kongo nkisi nkondi power figure by Kendell Geers; and Sauveteur 3 (2014), a translucent sculpture that draws its visual qualities from Central Africa’s power figures by Pascale Marthine Tayou. The works demonstrate how contemporary artists seek inspiration from canonical styles and forms. These two contexts of African art—historical (an area of strength of the CMA) and contemporary—are addressed in Second Careers.
The exhibition’s premise is twofold. It explores the role of historical African art in the Western museum context: how the objects made their way into the museum and the expectations placed on them to educate, to act as vectors of cultural memory and history, and, ultimately, to accumulate value to the institution. Historical African artworks in the museum are stripped-down versions of their former corporeal selves. The CMA’s Songye Male Figure, for example, appears without bishimba, a powerful bundle prepared by the nganga (spiritual healer) and placed on the object or in its cavity to transform the object into a power figure. Similarly, the CMA’s elaborately carved Yaka “Ndeemba” mask and the Chokwe “Mwana Pwo” mask, with thick raffia and knotted fiber collars, lack the rest of the costumes worn by performers during a Yaka n-khanda initiation ceremony and by itinerant Chokwe dance performers, respectively.
Displaced from their cultures of origin, these objects and others in Second Careers—the CMA’s Baule Male Figure, Babanki Prestige Chair, Yombe Mother and Child Figures, and Kuba Belt, along with Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum’s Malinke Hunter’s Tunic and the Brooklyn Museum’s Egúngún Masquerade Dance Costume—are bereft of their former capacity to be potent or functional. They are no longer able to command attention, whether as devotional objects beseeched upon to guide, protect, cure, or provide a path into the cosmic world or as masquerades in motion in the public arena. The nine historical artworks featured in this exhibition—all visually compelling and excellent examples of their types—followed different pathways into museum collections. The objects are not complete in the way they were imagined by their artists or expected to function in their communities in Africa. Instead, they have become entangled in a new set of relationships, transformed from active to sedentary agents, now to be encountered in contemplative proximity in the museum—their second career.
The exhibition’s second focus is the relationship between historical arts of Africa and modern and contemporary artistic practices. Often, the connections are muted or treated as irrelevant, especially when the emphasis becomes either on international references of contemporary art or on how a set of new practices reflect postcolonial conditions, hewing to arguments about how artistic modernism and modernity insist on a radical departure from tradition. Yet, with regard to the works of postcolonial African artists, the recuperation of indigenous artistic traditions was fundamental in the imagining of the modern. The exhibition explores tactics and strategies deployed by contemporary African artists that demonstrate their indebtedness to these traditions.
Second Careers features the work of six leading African artists of different generations—El Anatsui (Ghana), Tahir Carl Karmali (Kenya), Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique), Nnenna Okore (Nigeria), Zohra Opoku (Ghana), and Elias Sime (Ethiopia). These contemporary practitioners draw on long-standing artistic principles and visual conventions. They employ a range of humble or found materials as artistic media, transforming them into compelling large-scale installations, sculptures, textiles, and photographs that address contemporary experiences in Africa and the world. Their materials—including electronic motherboards, jute sacks, discarded bottle caps, decommissioned weapons, and archival photographs—are emblematic of modern life in many African countries: they have symbolic and metaphorical resonance, and carry memories of previous use, which the artists extract and highlight, recalling similar strategies deployed by artists in traditional African societies in times past.
In the hands of the six artists featured in this exhibition, repurposed objects reflect conceptual strategies that connect historical and contemporary African art. They utilize such creative approaches as material accumulation and assemblage—techniques that are noticeable in the historical artworks included in Second Careers. Arguably, two established principles of African art, past and present, are that it mirrors the reality of its environment and it emphasizes the bricolage of the indigenous and the foreign to make points about timeless natural cycles (transience, decay, death, birth, rebirth), as well as fleeting political, economic, and social change. The historical artworks in the exhibition were created with a range of locally sourced and foreign materials including wood, raffia, textile, metal pins, cowrie shells, beads, and burlap, as well as vegetal, animal, and mineral substances. They are a complex representation of sociocultural norms, philosophies, artistic forms, creative processes, and material objects that the featured contemporary artists draw on in multifarious ways.