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Art Matters

By Suzanne P. Blier

Last month, the Harvard Art Museums reopened, and with them another addition to Harvard’s museum landscape: the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, which will host rotating exhibitions of American, European, and other black art traditions. World-renowned architects Italian-born Renzo Piano and Tanzanian-born David Adjaye designed the respective spaces. These events took me back to a difficult 20-plus years fight to bring African art into equal footing at Harvard.

Like their visions, the exhibition spaces for the Harvard Art Museums and the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery are notably different (204,000 square feet versus 3,500 square feet). These distinctions become even greater if we add the sizable off-campus art museum storage and other facilities. Separate but hardly equal, one museum is in a prime campus setting, while the other comprises a pair of small storefronts on a busy thoroughfare several blocks from the yard.

But to focus on this feature is to miss other key aspects of Harvard’s historically problematic museum treatment of Africa and its arts. With the exception of Egyptian art, African art is not permanently exhibited anywhere on Harvard’s campus. This significantly outdated situation reflects a painful legacy, as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter ’70 writes in a recent review. For African, Pre-Columbian, and other works, Cotter observes that “you must go to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology down the street, where such art wasn't, at one time, art at all and was segregated from high art in a way that mirrored American racial politics. ” Cotter concludes that “unlike the Yale University Art Gallery, the Harvard Art Museums don't add up to an encyclopedic collection. … Harvard, art wise, has a lot of globalist thinking to catch up on.”

The Peabody Museum historically housed objects classified as “primitive” in the colonial era taxonomy of social Darwinism. Significantly, even in this setting, there are no African galleries—nor has there been one for over 35 years. Student engagement with the continent of Africa in this museum setting principally takes the form of fifth floor laboratories and offices for Archaeology and Human Evolutionary Biology. For students visiting the building, Africa serves mostly as evolutionary exemplar.

The recently opened Peabody exhibition “Art of War” reinforces this theme of cultural difference and separation, leaving the impression that African societies privilege war, while others value intellectual engagement. (Ironically, the Kongolese work featured in related publicity is an object of status (not a weapon or object of war.)

Alas, to my knowledge, with the exception of Egypt, neither the Peabody museum, nor any other at Harvard, has had an ongoing African area curator since World War I.

Harvard once was a leader in the curatorial engagement with Africa. In 1934, seven years after the Fogg Museum’s opening, the groundbreaking curator Paul Sachs supervised a student-led exhibition featuring African and Oceanic art. This, with similar exhibitions, left an imprint on museums elsewhere—most importantly the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose 1936 “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibition featured African art alongside modern works. In 1937, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a member of MOMA’s Board of Trustees, gifted Harvard a stunning sculpture from Benin, or modern-day Nigeria. A sixteenth century portrait-like casting in bronze, it was the perfect work to spur further art museum engagement with Africa.  But this did not happen.

Thirty years later during the Civil Rights movement, Alfred H. Barr implored Harvard University and its art museum to bring African works into the art collection. Harvard declined. What followed was a 1969 “African Masterpieces” exhibition at the Peabody Museum intended to showcase these works as “art.” Sadly, this event was accompanied by the removal of African works from the fifth floor Peabody African galleries and the transformation of this space into office and lab spaces. Fast forward to the 1990s, when the Harvard Art Museum turned down an important African and Oceanic collection with curatorial funding by William E. Teel ’49. In the interim years, African sculptures that came into the art museum (largely as bequests) were transferred to the Peabody.

It took Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his Yale classmate Ethelbert Cooper to provide the financial means to finally bring African and diaspora works to campus in a series of temporary exhibitions in a museum-like setting. Credit Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith also with giving the okay to a new art exhibition space near campus.  But for me, the museum and exhibition openings on campus represent a deeply bittersweet “victory.” I have fought through every means I could think of and at every level of the institution to bring African art on equal footing here.

Change will happen, but likely not in my lifetime. For me, the Harvard museum legacy with respect to African art represents the greatest failing of my career, one that has an impact on students and others now and into the future. No one individual or group bears blame. This reflects university history, structural differences, and the ways that race still affects life and intellectual engagement on campus.

The separate and notably unequal treatment of African art at Harvard reinforces a long and deep history of racial prejudice in this country that sadly is still present and, in some contexts, even growing today. Fortunately, institutions are not fixed: They can and do change, and room still can be made to address this problem in forthcoming university and museum decisions. Art matters. Museums matter. Harvard matters.

Suzanne P. Blier is the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies.

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