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Thinker's Notebook

The Art of Imperialism, The Imperialism of Art

This week, the Brooklyn Museum appointed two new curators. Kristen Windmuller-Luna was appointed the Sills Family Consulting Curator of African Art, and Drew Sawyer was appointed the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Curator of Photography. As soon as the news hit social media, the choices were met by scrutiny and questions, specifically Windmuller-Luna’s appointment, because both appointees are white. On Facebook, people commented with the obligatory stance on the perception of white people appropriating all things Black. Couldn’t they find a suitable Black candidate? Do Blacks curate Euro-American art? Kristen Windmuller-Luna received her B.A. in the History of Art from Yale University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Art and Archeology from Princeton University. She met all of the qualifications as listed in the job posting found on the Call for Curators – minimum three years museum experience, well-versed in historical African Art, a Ph.D. in Art or Anthropology. Her main responsibility, according to the job posting, will be to “assess and rethink the museum’s extensive holdings of African Art and organize an innovative, freshly conceived temporary installation highlighting major works, to showcase the breadth and depth of the collection and encourage public engagement.” Doesn’t sound too hard, right? Move some pieces around, choose a theme and create a buzz necessary to ignite attention. I’ve handled similar responsibilities as a party promoter. Surely, they could have found a Black person to do this, right?

In 2015, according to the National Science Foundation, 54,909 people received Doctorate degrees. Of that number, 2,773 were Black people. That places us fourth, behind whites, Asians and Hispanics. Of all Doctorates completed in 2015, less than 10% of them were for Art or Anthropology, the Doctorate necessary to qualify for this position. And so, if the ratios hold true, that would mean that roughly 250 Black people received their Doctorates in Art or Anthropology three years ago, and if every one of them spent the last three years since receiving their Doctorate working in a museum, then that would mean that there were at least 250 qualified Black candidates for the job. There are currently 35,000 museums in America. Roughly 1% of them have an African or African-American art collection. That’s 350 museums.

Useless numbers aside, the concept of collecting and displaying African Art began in the late 19th century when Western expansion into Africa yielded many stolen artifacts which were taken to Europe and displayed. This wasn’t a case of African artists getting recognized for their great creations. This was European soldiers and explorers invading African territories and usurping these territories of anything that looked interesting. This was the spoils of colonial conquest. King Leopold II, known for chopping off the hands of tens of thousands of Congolese, created The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium in 1897 as a place to hold and display all of the great works of art his soldiers had stolen from the Congo. And yes, he did display a few chopped-off hands. Not long after the success of The Royal Museum of Central Africa made the entire museum industry stand at attention, a man named Stewart Culin became the founding curator of the Department of Ethnology at the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, now known as The Brooklyn Museum. He built the foundation for collecting and displaying African Art in the museum. He is known for being one of the first curators to display ethnological collections as art objects and not just specimens. His most well-known exhibition? It was called Primitive Negro Art, Chiefly from the Belgian Congo. My point? I’ve rambled so much, but I guess I have a few. I’ll start with this. Any anger or disappointment directed towards The Brooklyn Museum for appointing Ms. Windmuller-Luna as their curator of African Art is simply misdirected. She is obviously qualified for the position. However, if you wish to direct your ire at anything, there are plenty of places to direct it. Start with working on building up our children to achieve Doctorates in their educational journey. We need more Black Ph.D.s. Then you can begin to do some research about the origins of displaying African Art in museums. That should get you mad enough. Finally, appreciate the fact that even though removed through force, stolen without remorse and taken to a foreign place for the benefit of others, African Art, much like African culture, has influenced and continues to influence the entire world.

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