The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is profoundly misguided
The recent decision taken by New York’s Brooklyn Museum to appoint a white woman, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, as its new Consulting Curator of African Art, has revealed fault-lines cutting across American society and its art world. Despite the fact that Windmuller-Luna is a historian of African arts and architecture with a Ph.D. from Princeton University (where I supervised her thesis) and a lectureship at Columbia University, among other credentials, many people took to social media to criticize the appointment, arguing that the role should have gone to a person of colour. And given how depressingly white US art institutions remain, in spite of the growth of the country’s non-white population, the outrage about lack of diversity in professional museum jobs is certainly warranted.
Consider the 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study which found that only four percent of curators in US museums are black – confirmation of an indefensible status quo. And you need only look to a long history of racial discrimination and marginalization in all spheres of American society to see that the necessary work of overcoming its devastating impact on African American art and artists is far from complete.
Yet, the most vehement outrage over the Brooklyn Museum appointment was not really about diversification. Rather, it was about ownership of African art, which, at best, is misguided. What do I mean?
Besides Windmuller-Luna, in the same announcement at the end of last month, the Brooklyn Museum hired another curator – Drew Sawyer, a white male – for its photography department. No one asked why Sawyer was hired to curate photography. A few mentioned him only to highlight the overwhelming whiteness of recent appointments across US museums. We might conclude that most of the Brooklyn Museum bashers saw little problem with Sawyer’s appointment because photography is white people’s domain. The curator, you might say, is at home with photography. But not so with Windmuller-Luna, who could not make any ancestral claims to Africa or African art. She was seen as illegitimate, an interloper, or worse. And that shows us everything that is wrong with the criticism.
A reasonable diversity campaign against the Brooklyn Museum ought to have focused equally on the two hires, if the point was to argue that the museum needed to make its curatorial staff less white (note, however, that nearly half of the Brooklyn Museum’s curatorial staff are non-white). But, once the argument congealed around the question of a white woman being appointed to tell the story of African people, it ceased to be about curatorial diversity, and turned into a battle for African heritage, about ancestral claims. And this is where one might blame the blockbuster film, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), or rather a misreading of its infamous museum scene.
As part of the film’s heist plot, set in the ‘Museum of Great Britain’, Killmonger, the film’s black villain, confronts a curator, a white woman, about European colonial expropriation of African art and material cultures that now fill museums like hers. Killmonger and his accomplices go on to ‘liberate’ one of the museum’s objects. The scene has been invoked ad nauseam by the Brooklyn Museum’s detractors in order to galvanize outrage against the appointment.
To its critics, the Brooklyn Museum missed Black Panther’s teachable moment. It repeated the fictional museum’s mistake by hiring its own white female curator, an ill-fitted, haughty expert who cannot truly understand Africa and African art. Yet the crucial lesson of that scene is not about the curator’s race; were she black, would Killmonger have given her a fist bump and thanked the museum for keeping his ancestor’s looted hammer? The power of that scene in Black Panther lies in its critique of Western museums as symbols and products of colonialism and repositories of empire’s loot.
The outrage over the Brooklyn Museum’s appointment only makes sense in the context of claims to cultural ownership and protests over cultural appropriation; that is, who can legitimately claim the heritage embodied in the museum’s African art objects? Deeply felt and meaningful as these issues might be to people of colour and marginalized groups, they must not be conflated with the question of who could or should curate, teach and study African art.
To argue, as many have, that a person of colour, by dint of her ancestry, would naturally grasp the intricate histories, and complex aesthetics of historical African art is to misunderstand the work of the curator or scholar. It is to ignore or belittle the rigorous professional training, research and scholarship expected of museum curators – work that comes from acquired knowledge and experience. Work that anyone, black or white, that is so driven, capable and duly trained could aspire to. The Brooklyn Museum has defended Windmuller-Luna as qualified for the job and they are right to do so.
The controversy points to a much more fundamental problem. Like the art industry, art history has not done enough to diversify its student and faculty demography. Few students of colour earn the doctoral degrees now expected by most museums for entry-level curatorial positions. More sobering still, far fewer people of colour study the historical African art that still forms the core of museums’ African collections. If we wish to diversify curatorial positions in African art, graduate programmes must overcome old bad habits of overlooking non-white applicants; and young people of colour must be recruited and given the support to pursue this field of study.
Main image: Kuba (Bushoong subgroup), Mwaash aMbooy Mask, late 19th or early 20th century, hide, paint, plant fibres, textile, shell, glass, wood, hair, feathers, 56 x 51 x 46 cm. Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund; Creative Commons