An exhibition displaying around 100 objects from the V&A’s collections looks at the V&A’s engagement with and changing view of art and design from Africa since the earliest days of the Museum in the 1850s to the present.
Tabwa Female ancestor figure, early 20th century. V&A Museum no. Circ.290-1950
It is the first of a series of displays to highlight the V&A’s significant holdings of art and design from Africa, and the first time many of these objects will be shown.
V&A Africa: Exploring Hidden Histories London 15 November 2012 – 3 February 2013 ( more details and images in the members area )
Exploring Hidden Histories will reveal some of the …
V&A Museum London – Rooms 17a and 18a – Admission free-Cromwell Gardens-
London SW7 2RL
Building on Museum-wide research (originally supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund), Exploring Hidden Histories presents a fascinating account of the V&A’s collections of art and design from Africa. Many of the exhibits – including jewellery, textiles and sculpture – have never been on public view before, and the stories behind them chart the Museum’s changing attitudes to African cultures from the 1850s to the present day.
Sowo Mask, 1900-1940, Possibly Sierra Leone © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Glass, amber and silver necklace, 19th Century, Possibly Zanzibar © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photograph of Prince Alamayou, 1868, Julia Margaret Cameron © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Spoon with Legs, Walker Evans, Ivory Coast © With thanks to the Walker Evans Estate 2012
Traditional distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘ethnography’, and between North Africa and sub-Saharan regions, led to many African objects being represented only in anthropological collections in Britain. Where the V&A has collected sub-Saharan African objects it was because they demonstrated excellence in a particular material or technique. To highlight these historic distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘ethnography’, the display opens with 36 black and white photographs by Walker Evans commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1935 to document its first ever exhibition of African art. Some are framed as fine art photographs and others are shown as they originally appeared bearing ethnographic labels detailing the object type and place of origin.
The V&A has an extensive collection of North African jewellery because culturally North Africa was viewed as part of the Middle East and its decorative arts were highly prized and actively collected. A number of these pieces will be shown alongside jewellery created in Ethiopia in the 19th-century and Asante gold ornaments from Ghana.
The display will reflect the growing interest in African art and culture of the 1950s and 60s as many African countries were gaining independence. Metalware, sculpture and textiles collected and toured to colleges and museums all over Britain during this period will be shown.
Contemporary African works including a film of excerpts from Athol Fugard’s landmark play The Island (2000) and photographs by Zanele Muholi and Santu Mofokeng acquired in 2010 following the V&A’s exhibition of photographs by contemporary South African artists will illustrate the Museum’s continuing commitment to representing and collecting art and design from Africa.
The V&A does not have a gallery dedicated to African art and design, but there are many objects on display throughout the Museum that were either made in Africa or have a connection with Africa.
You can read more about this project it’s aims and financing in this document www.hlf.org.uk/ourproject/Documents/VAM%20Capacity.doc
- Uncover and explore the hidden histories of the V&A’s collections (in particular those of relevance to the African Diaspora) and their connections with contemporary culture and faiths
The stories behind the V&A’s African Collection: Exploring Hidden Histories
This is an interesting small exhibition by the V&A – however, it seems to be more of an exploration of ideas than a completed vision. Its premise is to take a fresh look at the museum’s collections of art and design from Africa. According to their panel text, this is due to the musem’s shift from seeing itself as the National Museum of Design and Decorative Arts to the world’s greatest museum of arts and design and therefore, one assumes, it needs to present a global perspective on art and design rather than simply a local one. What surprised me, however, is that its African holdings are very small in comparison to the size of the museum – although they claim that more items will be displayed as the collection grows.
The exhibition starts with a display of photographs taken by Walker Evans to document the first exhibition of African Art held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935. The panel text explains that Evans’ photography privileged his interest in the aesthetic nature of the objects on display, and that this approach loads the viewer’s perception of the object. I do agree with this, but I also question whether placing the images in identical frames in a grid pattern simply homogenises the photographs further. Not only does Evans’ hand affect our perception, but our ability to view the objects themselves has been overlaid by the museum’s curation in an aesthetic, regularised display. I’d have liked to have seen some discussion of the original exhibition, and perhaps an examination of where some of these objects are now, and how they continue to be contextualised within the museum environment.
However, credit must be given to the museum in acknowledging and revealing the difficult and complex histories behind some of these objects. Regarding the display cabinet on Ethiopia, we are told about the orphaning of Prince Alamayou after the Battle of Maqdala against the British in 1868, including photographs of the prince who was brought to England to be educated but who sadly died at eighteen. The exhibition also acknowledges the ransacking of the palace of Kofi Karikari in Kumasi, Ghana by the British in 1874, when Kumasi was attacked following a struggle for control of the region. In a display relating to Ghana and Asante Gold, we are told that a fine of 50,000 ounces of gold was placed on Ghana, which was paid for by gold beads and worked jewellery. The display shows some of this gold work and also includes finely worked bronze weights used to measure out gold.
The next section contains a display of items from North Africa, including jewellery from Egypt and linens from Algeria. I was drawn to a linen and lace headscarf from Algeria – a beniqa–presumably worn to give shelter from the sun. With a head cap and embroidered lace scarf, it is very beautiful and is clearly an object of high value, since it is so carefully worked. Behind this display on the far wall of the exhibition, a film recording of the play The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is shown on a constant loop, bringing issues of apartheid to the viewer’s attention.
This exhibition is a brave attempt by the V&A to confront the often painful histories associated with certain objects that, as the title indicates, can remain hidden by their display in museums when attention is given to their more formal, aesthetic values. Here, the viewer is taken through a historical view of changing attitudes towards African art and design, but the discussions it throws up do have a tendency to remain on the surface. The individual objects on view are discussed in no greater depth than would be conveyed by a conventional display. Perhaps this is due to the size of the exhibition and the availability of objects –nevertheless, it is an incisive step in the right direction for the V&A to build upon.
The V&A takes an incisive step in the right direction with Exploring Hidden Histories, and confronts the hidden and sometimes painful histories that lie behind its African art and design collection.
Read more on the Victoria and Albert Museum site:
- A Tabwa ancestor figure
- Treasures from Ethiopia
- Encounters: European Merchants and West Africa
- Arm Ring of an African Leader
- Connections/Disconnections – International conference
- History of Black Dance: The Origins of Black Dance
- Two African Gentlemen in London
- Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: Duke Alessandro de’ Medici
- Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: The Three Kings
- Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art Reading List
- Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: The Moor’s Head
- Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: Servant and Attendant
- Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography
- Slavery & the African diaspora reading list