The role of curators—caretakers of art and cultural heritage housed within the walls of their institutions—is evolving. As Western museums grapple with what it means to decolonise their spaces, curators will play a pivotal role in reflecting these cultural shifts and reshaping the future direction of their collections, innovating the way artworks are seen and engaged with by the public.
With many museums still closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, curators have the time and space to reflect, research, and plan for their re-openings. In the 2020 instalment of the ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA Reading List, we had to give some love to these custodians. This summer, we ask seven curators to share the books they’re reading and that they recommend we all dig into, whether on the beach somewhere or like us, stuck in a 2-bedroom flat in central London day-dreaming about sunshine, sea, cocktails and… people?
Associate Curator for the Arts of Africa
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“As Covid 19 postponed Dak’Art, the Dakar Biennial, this year I turned to this newly published book to help me wait until the next edition. Déborder la négritude: Arts, politique et société à Dakar, edited by historian Mamadou Diouf (Columbia University) and art historian Maureen Murphy (Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne) is currently only available in French but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were translated into English soon.
“The result of a workshop and conference held in Paris in 2017, it is an ensemble of nine essays by American, French and Senegalese scholars. I found it extremely rich and especially enjoyed how it can be read from start to finish, providing the reader with a variety of perspectives while remaining thoroughly coherent. It is a sweeping look at Senegal’s rich artistic dynamics since the country’s Independence in 1960. The essays provide a deep historical perspective, ties Senegal’s history and politics with key artistic movements, and also provides an analysis of generative exhibitions over the past 60 years. The book ends with six artists’ interviews representing three different generations, giving the book a fresh and dynamic feel.
“I can’t wait to be able to go back to Dakar!”
Independent Curator/Scholar, Arts of Global Africa
Non-Resident Fellow, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University
“I recommend Visual Century: South African Art in Context (2011), an ambitious four-volume publication initiated by artist Gavin Jantjes and featuring contributions from 30 authors. I’ve been reading Volume One, which covers the years 1907-1948, for current research focusing on a collection formed by an African American woman in South Africa in the 1930s. But the whole series is really valuable in offering a revisionist overview of a century of art history in South Africa, inclusive of tradition-based, modernist, and contemporary arts as well as Afrikaaner nationalist art.
“Equally important is how the series is grounded in the socio-political contexts, considering how institutional frameworks and ideological biases impacted the work of both Black and white artists and its public reception. I think curious collectors will gain a greater appreciation for and historical understanding of the visual arts of South Africa, which remain somewhat off the radar in terms of both the market and museums.”
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
“I’d recommend Kifwebe: A Century of Songye and Luba Masks.
“It is the summer of masks—from the literal forms we wear personally, to protect ourselves and our communities, to the metaphorical masks that continue to drop from the faces of many of those currently in governing authority. In that spirit, why not spend some time with one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of one of the most iconic forms of mask from Africa—the arresting, striped, grooved, and inventively volumetric masks that have come to be known in the West as kifwebe (pl. bifwebe) masks by Songye and neighbouring Luba artists, of central Congo?
“The most powerful stop you right in your tracks. Even mounted on a wall—devoid of their original costume, performer, music, movement, and setting—their coruscating forms dazzle, demand and, more often than not, deceive. These masks are designed to convey the manifest power of secrecy, for good or for ill. They resist easy answers. How very #2020, no?”
Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art
New Orleans Museum of Art
“There are lots of books I could recommend, however, this one [ Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art ] is invigorating to read.
“With new scholarship from the leading experts around the world, this volume appears to be a comprehensive book that celebrates the NOMA African art collection. It is also the first book to document this very important collection. Among the numerous works of African art in the collection, the book features an 18th-century shrine figure of Onile, one of seven extant large copper alloys from the Osugbo Society. Other major strengths of the collection include artworks from the Djenne, Bamana, Dogon, Baule, Fang, Tabwa, Luba, and Bembe cultures.
“The essays in the book provide rich information on the history and function of each piece within its societal context, as well as full documentation of provenance. These characteristics will make this historic volume essential to all those interested in African art and culture.”
Pitt Rivers Museum
Professor of Contemporary Archaeology, University of Oxford
“One recommendation would be to pre-order The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. I’d love to do an online talk for your subscribers! The book is coming out on 5 November… Let’s set a date and a time! I’d also recommend Clémentine Deliss’s forthcoming book The Metabolic Museum.”
You heard it from Dan. If you’d like to join an exclusive virtual talk about his forthcoming book, The Brutish Museums, let us know. The book explores the many “spoils of Empire”—including the Benin Bronzes—currently housed in European museums and the need for “the urgent return of such objects, as part of a wider project of addressing the outstanding debt of colonialism.”
Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator
Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art
“[Here’s] what I am currently reading: Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and Future of the World by Gary Wilder and Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America by Huey Copeland.”
Curator of African Arts
The Cleveland Museum of Art
“My book recommendations are Acquiring Cultures: Histories of World Art on Western Markets edited by Bénédicte Savoy, Charlotte Guichard and Christine Howald and Treasures in Trusted Hands: Negotiating the Future of Colonial Cultural Objects by Jos van Beurden. Not your typical beach reading, but required texts for the ethically minded personal or institutional collector this summer. Both titles offer perspectives on how we got here and where are we going in the broader field of “non-Western arts.”
“Especially for ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA readers focused on African arts, highlights in Acquiring Cultures are Dr. Winani Thebele (Botswana National Museum) on the stark historic difference in the meaning that colonizers and communities of origin assigned to objects of heritage, and the compelling contemporary need for museums to interpret them with cultural nuance, respect, and community involvement; Dr. Jonathan Fine (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) on the trade networks in the Bamum Kingdom of Cameroon and their influence on the wider “traditional art” market; and Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie (U.C. Santa Barbara) on the late dealer Mathias Komor and the New York City market.”
“A wide-ranging look at centuries of one-way movement of objects to the West by colonial actors, Jos Van Beurden’s book ultimately presents a hypothetical adaptation of the Washington Conference Principles—the US’s 1998 guidelines for dealing with Nazi-looted objects—for colonial-era cultural and historical objects. It’s particularly intriguing as a potential framework for US institutions and collectors navigating complex and vital conversations about the future of cultural heritage and restitution.”