Monday, 3 November 2014

REFLECTING ON “OF AFRICA"

MUSEUM MONDAYS

BY: MADELINE SMOLARZ


Last month, the museum world buzzed with anticipation. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) project entitled “Of Africa” was launched with an evening keynote speaker and five panel presentations over a two-day symposium that took place October 23-25. 2014 marks twenty-five years since the opening of the ROM’s controversial exhibition “Into the Heart of Africa” in November 1989. When a museum exhibition incites a negative reaction as “Into the Heart of Africa” did, the wider community can be left with more questions than answers, feelings of confusion and anger, and a lingering mistrust for the museum. “Of Africa” is the ROM’s response to the events that followed the exhibition’s opening, which included large protests and an outpouring of emotion. Part of the “Of Africa” brochure reads:

“Of Africa interrogates monolithic representations of Africa, collections, and colonial histories by broadening the discussion and presentation of what constitutes Africa and African art. Our goal is to present stories and perspectives, and introduces audiences to historical and contemporary expressions, both cultural and artistic. Crucial to these initiatives is the ROM’s engagement with members of the African and African diasporic communities in Toronto and Canada… Through its various activities and engagements, Of Africa wants to affect change in the ways Canadian audiences view Africa and its diaspora.

Promotional poster for “Of Africa." Source.

The following are the personal responses of four Masters of Museum Studies (MMSt) students who attended either Day 1 (October 24) or Day 2 (October 25) of the event. It is my hope to inspire ongoing conversation amongst museum professionals and throughout the wider community about the issues that “Into the Heart of Africa” and “Of Africa” raise via the presentation of multiple perspectives. Just because the main event is over does not mean that we should stop discussing it – quite the opposite in this case.

Holly Durawa, second year MMSt
In our program, we often talk about museum exhibits that have “shaped” us or “impacted” us. Generally in such discussions we mean “for the better.” “Learning from Into the Heart of Africa” illuminated how exhibits can have a detrimental effect on people’s lives and their relationship with an institution. Panelists and audience members alike spoke passionately about how the mishandling of the exhibit broke their trust in the ROM, creating 25 years of anger and resentment. I am hopeful that this symposium created inroads to begin healing those long-suffering wounds. However, based on the fact that ROM senior managers and board members chose not to attend this panel, the sole one to focus on their own institution, I will keep my expectations low.

Members of Panel Two “Africa and the Diaspora in Western Institutions" gathering for discussion following their presentations on Day 1. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

Sarah Spotowski, first year MMSt
Panel One for the Of Africa" symposium, “Learning from Into the Heart of Africa,” was a heartbreakingly passionate and illuminating narrative for both speakers and audience members, most of whom were involved in the original Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA).  As someone who was too young to understand the controversial “Into the Heart of Africa" exhibition during its time, this panel helpfully outlined the incidents. I found journalist Geraldine Moriba’s speech to be the most captivating part of this panel, as she provided news clippings demonstrating the media’s complicit role in perpetuating myths about the protestors.  Many of the news releases found online or in archives portray the members of the CFTA as ignorant terrorists, and it was necessary for Moriba to reclaim and reiterate the purpose of the group.  Panel One was the “must-see” portion of the entire symposium, as it provided essential context for the rest of the panels.

Journalist Geraldine Moriba. Source

Madeline Smolarz, first year MMSt and Musings Contributing Editor
Less than a third of the seats were taken when I entered the ROM’s Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre during Panel Two of Day 1. I was disappointed with the attendance, but I wondered then, and still wonder now, whether it was due to a dearth of publicity, the apprehension to reopen old wounds, or something else. The speaker that stood out for me was Ato Quayson of Panel Three, who brought a welcome approach that was relaxed but also respectful and academic. Another student had commented during a break that Panel One had been more serious and emotionally charged. However, Quayson both lightened the mood to be more optimistic overall and enlightened the audience on “Modernity and the African City,” the title and focus of his talk. He poignantly challenged a belief he feels is pervasive in our society - that impoverished African people have no dreams - by highlighting the creative energy of the continent and the potential innately within each individual.

Scholar Ato Quayson. Source.

Rowena McGowan, first year MMSt
My experience was probably different from everyone else’s in that I went to Day 2 of the panels, as I was really interested in the talk about the White Saviour complex. From a purely Museum Studies scholar point of view, the highlight was seeing Ciraj Rassool speak in person about his experiences with museums in Cape Town. However, personally speaking, my favourite talk was Christa Clarke’s, entitled “Collecting Beyond the Canon". In it, she discussed her research into the donor of one of the Newark Museum of Art’s collections of African artefacts. What I really loved was the way this narrative flipped the whole ‘collector’ paradigm on its head. Mostly when we speak about museum collectors, they’re white, male and upper class. Clarke’s subject was black, female and worked as both a domestic servant and a hairdresser to pay for her trip. It was a subversion that I found really powerful and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about how she had constructed her journey.

Christa Clarke of the Newark Museum of Art. Source.

I invite anyone who attended any part of the “Of Africa" launch to comment below with reflections on their experience. Did a particular presentation speak to you or did the event as a whole leave you with a lasting impression?

For more information on "Of Africa," please visit the project's website.

A special thank you to Holly, Sarah, and Rowena for sharing their thoughts on “Of Africa" for the purposes of this article.

2 comments:

  1. Madeline, thank you for a thoughtful introduction and a great round-up of perspectives for those of us who were not able to attend "Of Africa."

    Based on your experience and the materials provided at the event, did the ROM indicate explicitly how they would continue this conversation beyond the weekend's symposium? I've noted the current exhibition "Maps, Borders & Mobility In Africa," though I found it excessively difficult to navigate to its page on the ROM website (there appears to be little internal linking to this page). Given this difficulty and the "dearth of publicity" mentioned above, do you think that the ROM's efforts will be publicized enough to make a significant impact in and outside of the museum community?

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  2. I am glad to hear that you found the article helpful, Katherine.

    The first paragraph of the brochure provided to attendees of the symposium states that "Of Africa" is "a three year multi-disciplinary program" and that it will feature (the following was presented as a bulleted list) "lectures, live performances, exhibits, workshops, film screenings, residencies, educational programs, selected partnerships with other cultural institutions." The brochure accompanied information on ROM membership, "ROM Speaks" (a new speaker series), and a booklet of biographies of the speakers who presented at "Of Africa" on Day 1 and Day 2, all of which were distributed together in pre-assembled folders. Outside of this package and the website, I have not found more details on how "Of Africa" will proceed.

    I believe that if the ROM does not improve its efforts to publicize "Of Africa" and the accessibility of the project's website, it will fail to have the impact it has the potential to have. In addition, Holly noted that senior ROM staff did not attend the event and others have echoed this observation online. If the very people who run the ROM are not seen to stand behind "Of Africa," what message does this send the community?

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