The Global Africa Project
of an Exhibition
Published on March 28, 2011
The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is an incredibly ambitious exhibition that attempts to survey a massive scale of African artistic production and influence. The exhibition displays almost every kind of creative production including fashion, jewelry, architecture, painting, ceramics, and furniture design. There is mix of artwork made by contemporary African artists and artists from all over the world that are influenced by African visual culture. Craft, design, and contemporary art are all meshed together throughout the exhibition, which erases the boundaries between artistic mediums and intention. Initially, this lack of coherence seemed confusing and disorienting but it quickly became clear that this deliberate integration of all types of art supported the overarching mission of the exhibition. According to the museum’s press release, this exhibition “actively challenges conventional notions of a singular African aesthetic or identity, and reflects the integration of African art and design without making the usual distinctions between “professional” and “artisan” (MAD website). Visitors are not supposed to leave the exhibit with a singular view of what African art is. Instead, the curators hope that visitors will leave with the notion that contemporary African art does not have a distinguishable aesthetic identity.
Initially, I was slightly uncomfortable with the message of this exhibition. Couldn’t a museum put anything together and say the point of this exhibit is that there is no point? However, after watching the video by the curators, Lowery Sims and Leslie King Hammond on MAD’s website, I understood that the overarching message is that in addition to investment and aid, the arts are a way for African communities across the world to find economic sustainability. They are showcasing the new African entrepreneurs in a way that they hope will extinguish any prior African art and design stereotypes. The curators are looking for dialogue among visitors and believe that “everyone has a place in this exhibition” (MAD website). It was helpful going into this exhibition knowing the designers purpose, as the lack of orientation and descriptive labels made more sense.
I visited this exhibition alone on a Saturday afternoon and the museum was bustling with a variety of characters, both young and old. There were multiple families with children ranging in age from toddlers to pre-teens, as well as older seniors who traveled alone. This exhibition covers three floors with no clear beginning and end, so I worked my way up from the bottom. The textual information displayed throughout the exhibition is insightful and straightforward. After reading each blurb, it became immediately clear what the theme of that section entails and how it relates to the larger message. The six thematic sections of the exhibition explore “the phenomenon of intersecting cultures and cultural fusion; the branding and co-opting of cultural references; how art and design is promoted in the international market and the creative global scene; the use of local materials; and the impact of art-making on the economic and social condition of local communities.” In the sections titled “Competing Globally” and “Intersecting Cultures”, there was an emphasis on overcoming stereotypes and transcending cultures without completely denying their African heritage. Some of the artwork in these rooms included furniture from award-winning African designers, as well as runway fashion by Italian designers who were greatly influenced by African art and culture.
One of the most interesting themes of the exhibit, “Sourcing Locally”, showed how African artists and craftsmen are creatively repurposing remnants of foreign cargo and, as a result, positively impacting the local economy. This ties into one of the main themes of the exhibition, which is that design, arts, and crafts are another way to stimulate and contribute to the world’s cultural economy. I left the exhibition with greater understanding of the influence of African visual culture but without a cohesive view of what African art is, which I think was precisely the curator’s intention.