American Art in Dialogue with Africa Symposium (8 videos)

  • BETSY BROUN: I’m Betsy Broun, I’m the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, officially closed, like all the Smithsonian Museums. I’m actually able to be with you because I’m not a federal employee so there are some benefits for that I guess. Anyway, I wanted to start by profoundly thanking our hosts today in the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Billy Holliday, Susan Sterling. When they saw this train wreck developing, they knew about our program and they called our organizer Amelia Goerlitz, and said “how can we help?” And so, we did not have to send horrible notices to everyone saying, “I’m sorry you have a non-refundable ticket to Washington.” Instead, we could say we’re on, it’s happening, it’s in a slightly smaller space but we want you here, and I cannot thank them often enough. This is true collegiality in the sort of universe of Washington museums and they are profoundly wonderful friends and colleagues, and we are grateful.

    I also want to thank Amelia Goerlitz, she is our academic programs coordinator, and she is a woman who knows how to roll with a punch. She not only has gotten well organized and had her plans all firmly in hand, and everything beautifully orchestrated, which positioned her a little better when we had to make a change, but she has done this before, and we’ll do it again.

    And I wanted to flag that this is the fourth in a series of five biannual conferences that is dedicated to looking at American art in a wider global context. You know, when I started school many decades ago, the field of American art was all about one question: what is American about American art? How are we distinctive? What is special about us? How do we do things that are different from anyone else? And I have lived long enough to see that entire philosophy turned inside out. And now the question is, how are Americans and American art connected to everyone else around the globe? How are those dynamic interchanges helping define and shape who we are as a people and as a country?

    And probably no one has made more of a difference in that sort of inversion of focus than the Terra Foundation, headquartered in Chicago. Going way back, began to understand that American art was in danger as sort of tunneling down and navel-gazing, and defining itself ever more narrowly as a subset of the world. And they began to encourage a focus on the broader connections, the interchanges, the cultural hybridity that we find in all cultures. And they’ve been consistent in supporting those kinds of programs. We are very proud that not only do they support fellowships, including some international programs at our museum, but they have supported this series of five symposiums. The past three looked at American art in the context of Asia, in the context of Europe, and in the context of Latin America and Latin cultures. And now today, it is about Africa and the African Diaspora. In a way, it’s about not just the cradle of humanity, but because of the enormous diaspora around the globe it is also the cradle of culture, and we are particularly honored to be able to do that. We are proud to have the largest African American collection in the world. But also, we know it is a broader topic than just African American art, it affects so many artists of all ethnic backgrounds and cultures, the interchange has been so rich and profound as we are learning more and will learn more in the next two days.

    So, hats off to the Terra Foundation, and big thanks to Ruth Fine who is on the Terra Foundation board and representing them today. She also is a superb colleague here in Washington. The long-time, special projects and modern art chair at the National Gallery of Art she has been intimately involved with these issues. She was the curator for the Romare Bearden show there and has deep experience with the questions we will be discussing in the next two days.

    So, with that, I want to now introduce our second welcomer, because we are partnering with this symposium with our great colleagues at the Smithsonian in the Museum of African Art, and their director Johnnetta Cole is with us today. She came to the Smithsonian in 2009, but when she arrived she was already an extremely prestigious, distinguished, recognized scholar and leader around the world. I’m always kind of odd because Johnnetta has fifty-five honorary degrees. Thank goodness she didn’t have to study for all of those. But she has been honored and offered more awards than almost anyone I know. Before the Smithsonian, she served as the president of both Spellman College and Bennett College for Women, so she has deep, deep experience in both culture and gender issues. How they play out across this country. She has been a consistent voice for diversity and equality, not only across the United States, but all around the globe. And it is with great pleasure that I introduce my colleague, Johnnetta.

    JOHNNETTA COLE: In the part of the African diaspora where I grew up, please excuse me, not only would I say, “good morning”, I would say “it is a great get up morning.” Now that is first of all because we’re simply here, but importantly because we are here despite the challenges. I want to follow my colleague and my sister friend, Betsy Broun, by offering some very sincere thanks. First to Besty herself, for reaching out and including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in this stunning, this sterling, this really, really meaningful project. And while the lioness, as opposed to lion, share of the work has been done by American Art. We’re more than happy to take as much credit as we possibly can.

    Now how in the world do we thank Amelia Goerlitz? I mean what do you say to someone who not only has a vision, but then the persistence to carry out that vision despite the circumstances. And all I can say to you, Amelia, and to the rest of us, who are suffering through this government shutdown, is, you know, like one hears all over the continent, it’s a wonderful proverb. No matter how dark the night, dawn will come. I just hope dawn hurries and gets here. I also want to express publicly, thanks to two of my colleagues, Christine Mullen-Kramer, who is deputy director and chief curator at the National Museum of African Art. And I want to thank Janet Stanley, who is our librarian, because those two colleagues did at least assist Amelia in looking at all of those fantastic project descriptions, and your ideas for presentations.

    Now I want to join Betsy in thanking the Terra Foundation. If you do the kind of work that Betsy and I do, and to tell you the truth you gotta lean, and you gotta lean heavily on folk who share your vision and your mission. So, I’m looking directly at you Ruth Fine as I say for all of us collectively, not from the top, not from the middle, but from the bottom of our hearts we thank the Terra Foundation. And then I want to add, again, I find myself just repeating what Betsy has said, but you know what, when you’re talking about good things, repetition is good for the soul. And I do want to thank the director of this particular museum, Susan Fisher-Sterling, who just opened her house to us. I did see Susan as I walked in, and she asked that each of you not only a welcome, but please enjoy all of the works that are on exhibit and don’t you dare leave. This is my word; don’t you dare leave without seeing the Faith Ringgold exhibition.

    And of course, the greatest things go to you, the participants in this symposium. You’ve come from near and far to have a very, very serious conversation. Now clearly, the topic of this symposium is very important to those of us in the National Museum of African Art and that is because our work is centered in using the visual arts to help all of us rethink how we think about Africa, about her diaspora, and therefore really about the world. Over the course of the years of the National Museum of African Art, we have been privileged to present some exhibitions which very definitively speak to much of what will be discussed here over the course of these two days. Before my time, I just mention two very compelling exhibitions: “Transatlantic Dialogues,” organized by Michael Harris, and “Astonishment and Power”, that juxtaposed an exhibition of Congo power figures with extraordinarily compelling works of art by Washington-based artist and a member of my board, Renee Stout.

    Well, since I’ve been at the museum, we’ve also done two exhibitions which clearly seek to present the connectedness of Africa and her diaspora. “Mami Wata,” which was organized by The Fowler Museum at UCLA, and as many of you know, that exhibition looked at the influence of this African water spirit in various parts of the African continent as well as in Haiti, Brazil, and the United States. In the second, “Grassroots,” again organized by a sister museum, in this case the Museum for African Art in New York, that particular exhibition looked at transatlantic basketry traditions that link West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, with parts of the southern United States, and particularly traditions in South Carolina.

    And then finally, a few months before I arrived, chief curator deputy director Christine Mullen-Kramer came running. Excuse me, running into my office in a fit, saying that there was a particular work of art that was up for auction in Paris, and when looked at, simply a flat image of it on paper, I knew that yes we had to have on that work of art. And just was we imagine it has become our destination work, justice folk will get off the plane or off the bus or whatever, and say in Paris “Where is she? Where is the ‘Mona Lisa?’” We find that our visitors will come into the museum and say “Where is he? Where is ‘Toussaint Louverture?’” lifting up and an elderly enslaved woman, and it’s that particular iconic work of art that captures so amazingly, we think, what our museum is about. The artist is a contemporary African artist, Ousmane Sow from Senegal. The theme of his work is of course, Toussaint Louverture, the great liberator of Haiti. But the largest message is about something that connects human beings around the world, namely, a cry for freedom.

    Now we are looking forward to 2014. It will be our 50th anniversary and that gives me an opportunity just saying that, to remind you that we at the Smithsonian have three museums with a very focused mission that revolves Africa and the diaspora. The National Museum of African Art, the Anacostia Community Museum, and how extraordinarily excited we all are when we welcome onto the mall in 2015 the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But I have to say publicly that we are three with that focus, SAAM, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, has an extraordinary history and her-story of looking at helping us to value, to be inspired by, works of the African diaspora.

    Well, looking ahead to 2014, I simply want to share with you that this museum that began on Capitol Hill when a retired foreign service officer by the name of Warren Robbins, began to collect and to put the works of art in a townhouse on Capitol Hill in which, by the way, Fredrick Douglass once lived, when that, shall I call it, bodacious process began, Warren Robbins collected and presented not only African art, but American art, and encouraged dialogue between those two bodies of art. And so, in many ways, our participation in this symposium is simply to carry on the legacy of our founder. In 2014, as we celebrate fifty years, we will do an exhibition that we haven’t really announced it before now, Betsy, an exhibition that will indeed present a conversation and juxtapositions between master works from a particular private African American art collection and works from our permanent collection.

    So, let me bring closure now by simply saying what is obviously at the very core of what we will do over the next two days. And that is, we will be engaging in dialogue. We will be talking about collaboration; we will be lifting up the importance of exchange. We’ll be valuing conversations, and I thought I would leave you with two wonderful African proverbs. The first is Burundian, and says quite simply, life is all about exchange. And more broadly heard across the continent, a proverb that says, dialogue protects life. Thank you all for being here.

    This two-day symposium examines the role of Africa and its diaspora in the development of art of the United States, from nineteenth-century portraiture to American modernism; from the Harlem Renaissance to the contemporary art world.