Ribicoff Lecture champions expanded view of African art

Curator of African Art at the High Museum in Atlanta Carol Thompson, this year’s Ribicoff Seminar professor, presented her curatorial inspirations in a talk last Thursday. / Courtesy of Vassar Art Department

“The future belongs to Africa, because it seems to have happened everywhere else already.”

These thought-provoking words by Nigerian writer, art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor and his optimistic attitude toward African art greatly inspire this year’s leader of the Ribicoff Seminar Carol Thompson, who spoke about her work this past Thursday, April 6.

Thompson, who became the first Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art at the High Museum in Atlanta after teaching at Vassar until 2001, is responsible for doubling the African art collection at the High.

This semester, she is leading the Art Department’s famed Ribicoff Seminar, a special opportunity funded by Vassar alumna Belle Ribicoff ’45 that brings students on weekly trips to New York City along with a curator for a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a major art exhibition.

Enwezor’s words were included in the show for which he served as consulting curator, “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design,” which was originally installed at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. The High Museum will become the first U.S. venue to host the show, which includes 120 works by a wide array of contemporary African artists.

In her talk, Thompson detailed her interest in African art and her admiration for many other curators’ work in bringing art of the African continent and diaspora to a more public light.

Examples included “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994” at MoMA PS1 in 2002; “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2015; and “African Explores: 20th Century African Art” in 1991 at the Center for African Art, where Thompson worked from 1987-1996.

Also mentioned was the Met’s hugely popular exhibit in 2015, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” notable for its exploration of Western fashion’s incorporation of Chinese aesthetics.

Thompson, whose specialty is art from Burkina Faso, is currently curating “Modern Days, Ancient Nights: African Art, Music, Cinema, and Fashion.” The exhibition, the early stages with which Ribicoff students get the chance to engage, was named after the first annual NYC African Film Festival from 1993, and it will aim to showcase a holistic view of African art.

“The exhibition tackles some of the many questions that arise when considering how to curate and exhibit African art,” expressed Matthew McCardwell ’17, an art history student enrolled in Thompson’s seminar. “What terminology should be used? How can we nuance and detail the culture of an entire continent? How does one create divisions among works: ancient and modern? East and West? Tribe to tribe? Pre-colonization/post-colonization?”

The art in the show will span major geographical regions of Africa and thousands of years of history up to the present day, with pieces ranging from Neolithic jewelry from Niger to masks from many cultures whose masquerade traditions persist in the 21st century to contemporary painting, photography and fashion.

“I was particularly impressed by Professor Thompson’s ability to invest her research in such a vast range of areas, time periods and culture milieu,” continued McCardwell. “I am learning very quickly that to curate ‘African’ art requires not only a vast range of knowledge, but also…a dedication to more accurately representing this region … [A] curator’s job is at once to exhibit work and to also invest in changing the assumptions around ‘Africa’ and its many communities and cultures.”

Toward the end of the lecture, Thompson showed a painting by renowned Congolese artist Chéri Samba bearing the words “Quel avenir pour notre art?” Meaning “what future for our art?,” this was a fitting summary for what Thompson and the curators, artists and thinkers she admires are all trying to do, to celebrate the rich history and vibrant cultures of the African continent.




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