Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Amanda S. Wall (page 2 of 7)

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: The Main Complaint

In my last and final post for this series we will be exploring the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa and their attempt to address earlier criticism through the exhibit “The Main Complaint.”

The Tufts Museum Studies Blog has previously written the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) last year when Editor Kelsey Peterson addressed issues of diversity among the Museum’s staff. The privately funded art museum, often referred to as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” is the continent largest museum in the world dedicated to African art. In the two years since it’s grand opening the museum has faced many debates and controversies including the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Mark Coetzee over allegations of racial and sexual misconduct and criticism regarding how accessible the museum is for the general public. MOCAA is in fact quite expensive at 190 rand approximately $14 USD. This may not seem exorbitant for museums in the U.S., but when compared to other costs in Cape Town, for example a Wagyu Steak Tartare dinner at a nearby posh waterfront restaurant is slightly less, it is an understandably unaffordable price for a city rife with economic and racial segregation.

From its onset, regardless of controversy, the museum has billed itself as an institution for all with a responsibility to represent everyone including audiences “who have often felt excluded from cultural institutions.” In fact, the opening exhibition, still on view today,  entitled All Things Being Equal asks visitors to questions “How will I be represented in the museum?” On its website the museum makes it clear that representation is an ongoing process for the institution, answering the question of “Is the Museum an accurate portrayal and representation of the African Continent?” with this statement:

“This museum is at the start of a journey to participate in the conversation of what it means to be African, and then begin representing the continent. This will be a process over many years to fully understand and represent such a huge continent with so many traditions, languages and cultural groups. No collection can represent an entire continent but Zeitz MOCAA hopes its collection will make a significant impact on how Africa and the world view and has access to works of art from Africa and its Diaspora.”

As I found out on my recent visit to Zeitz MOCAA, the institution does its best work when it is being self-reflective through grappling with these thoughts and ideas of representation, accessibility and institutional power. These ideas are best represented in the exhibition The Main Complaint, which opened to the public in November of last year and will be closing at the end of this week.

The Main Complaint is an infiltrating exhibition highlighting systematic, institutional failures, in an attempt to contextualise, recognise and repair. The exhibition exists as an ongoing series of interventions by museum staff and invited artists.

The Main Complaint is not confined to this exhibition space. The project exists as an infiltrating and sprawling series of interventions, workshops, talks and off-site programs – all of which will, in some form, end up in here. It’s unclear what this space will become. It may become claustrophobic and unaccommodating. Or perhaps it will generously harbour a collection of beautifully synchronised works and a range of alternative ideas.

The role of technology is an integral theme throughout, as an indicator of intergenerational communication, memory, modes of representation, accessibility, agency, and ultimately, a facilitator of collaborative, responsive change.

How much time are you willing to invest in the process?

According to Zeitz MOCAA Assistant Curator Michaela Limberis, the idea for The Main Complaint came from the idea of wanting to respond to the conversations surrounding the institution. The title is adapted from William Kentridge’s 1996 film, The History of the Main Complaint, which looks at white capital, power, and responsibility through the protagonist’s self-reflection while questioning what progress has been made. In an interview with ART AFRICA, Limberis described the importance of this exhibition for the young institution “some people perceived that there was a lack of communication between the museum and voices in the arts community, and believed that there wasn’t a sense of collaboration in the approach. As an institution that aims to be a representative of the African continent at large, there was an opportunity to being open to dialogue.” The artists explore many common themes of “access, value, representation, and ownership” within an institution.

The exhibition is in the in the Museum’s Centre for the Moving Image space, and as such relies heavily on film. Upon entering the space you are greeted by a foreboding security gate complete with a soundscape to set the scene. The piece, entitled “Right of Admission Reserved,” by Gaelen Pinnoch appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The piece is a physical barrier at the entrance to the exhibition space, access to which is only granted through pressing the “request access” button. The artists aim is to make viewers feel intimidated by the gate and/or the access control procedure. According to the label, the piece is an attempt to “distill the sense of exclusion, usually imparted by covert expressions of power, control or authoritarianism in the built environment, into something physical and explicit.” The work manifests into physical form the feelings many have towards cultural institutions. By having this piece at the entrance to the exhibition space, it helps to set the tone to complaints of access and power within cultural institutions.

Other works look directly at the relationships between artists and institutions such as Hhanya Mashabela’s “Ode to Institutional Critique” and Mitchel Messina’s “Lil Slugger Goes to Zeitz MOCAA.” Messina’s animated short was by far my favorite piece on view and made specifically for this exhibition. The film follows Lil Slugger to a slumber party at Zeitz MOCAA. From my understanding Lil Slugger represents smaller artists and the struggles they face while navigating institutions and systems of power. Throughout the film Lil Slugger is intimidated by security guards, rules, and other works of art before realizing that they may be struggling as well. The label description is written in Lil Slugger’s voice as he grapples with feeling hurt by “big systems’ while still trying to fix them:

And sometimes I wonder if these big systems broken and hurting also, and maybe they want to get better but only way how they can get attention is by acting out and doing things we wish they won’t.

If I ignore them maybe they will fall in with a bad crowd and get worse, maybe they will be pressured into being a badder system. But if I try to hug them they will push me away so hard I tumble and break my heart and never want to go back.

I was interested to see how many artists were willing to have their voices included in the exhibition and even more so in the institutions willingness to present narratives in which the Museum and cultural institutions as a whole were not always depicted in a positive light. I think overall Zeitz MOCAA excelled most in their exhibits that provided more self-reflective, meta looks at cultural institutions and the art world. I am curious to see how the Zeitz MOCAA will continue to progress with attempting to break down power structures and barriers to access and representation. As Limberis mentioned, as a young museum, Zeitz MOCAA has a lot of room for experimentation and that could bring the museum to the forefront as a leader in the museum world. I look forward to keeping an eye out for what they do next.

If you ever find yourself in Cape Town head to the V & A Waterfront for a visit to Zeitz MOCAA.

Iziko South African Museum: |Qe: The Power of Rock Art

This week I will be exploring the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the Museum’s attempt at decolonizing a controversial and culturally damaging exhibit space in the post-apartheid period.

The Iziko South African Museum (SAM) is one of an amalgamation of eleven national museums in the  Cape Town area.  The cluster of museums were founded in 1998 with legislation to break down the power structures in the existing museums. The Izizko Museums of South Africa include the South African National Gallery, the Bo-Kaap Museum, and even the interpretive areas of a local winery. Iziko means hearth in isiXhosa, one of the eleven national languages in South Africa. In the isiXhosa tradition the hearth is the social center of a home and is the space associated with warmth, kinship, and shared stories. In naming the national heritage institution after the hearth they are declaring them “centers of cultural interactions where knowledge is shared, stories told, and experiences enjoyed.”

Although SAM is part of the Iziko Museums, it has a longer history as the first museum in South Africa founded in 1825. The museum focused on natural history. Like many 19th century natural history museums, SAM included material culture from local indigenous groups while reserving cultural history museums for the display of settler culture. The practice of displaying cultural”others” next to animals in Natural History museums has long been opposed. This practice was exemplified with “Bushman” Diorama which had been on display in the museum since 1960. The display was controversial not just for its racial stereotyping and inaccurate representation of Khoe-San culture, but for the use of body casts that were taken from 1907 and 1924 which had been painful and humiliating for the participants.

The diorama was closed in 2001 and was replaced with |Qe: The Power of Rock Art. At the entrance to the exhibit space,  SAM acknowledges the harmful history of the space with a message Jatti Bredekamp, Iziko CEO.

|Qe- The Power of Rock Art is a milestone in the history of this Museum, the oldest on the African sub-continent. For almost a century the South African Museum housed some of the most significant examples of rock art produced by San artists, however it was better known for displays of plaster body casts that emphasized the physical features of san people rather that their history and culture.

The Tragic history of dispossession, brutality, and cultural loss that befell the San people at the hands of the colonial settlers was overlooked in favour of idealized displays that reinforced stereotypes. In 2001 the so-called Bushmen Diorama was closed to allow for a process of consultation with descendant communities. In planning the rock art exhibition we initiated a conversation with Khoe-San communities regarding the ways Iziko presents their cultural heritage. This has enriched the exhibition immensely and the dialogue will continue.

The exhibit opened for permanent display in 2003 with the aim of acknowledging the spiritual power rock art had for the indigenous people of southern Africa.  The exhibit title was developed with consultation of modern day speakers of N/u, a language related to /Xam, the now extinct language of the souther San. The use of the word “|Qe” is meant to convey the pervasive sense of power of the art.

When I visited in January of 2019, the exhibit had been updated slightly to reflect the recent finds from the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These finds have been used to show the earliest signs of art in Anatomically Modern Humans, previously designated to European rock art, with the discovery of carved ochre and what may have been the production of ochre pigments dating back 70,000 years. The exhibit itself was laid out over two rooms telling, in my opinion, three connecting stories: 1) The history of rock art in South Africa and the rest of the world 2) The production of rock art by San people prehistorically through modern day and its significance culturally and spiritually, and 3) The work of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the 1870’s to record the oral literature of the /Xam.

While the third story gave context to the interpretation of the rock art using the now extinct /Xam language, I felt its inclusion did a disservice to the exhibits intent of decolonizing the space. The Bleek and Lloyd story line exposed the “White Saviorism” the museum was still representing. For a more in depth critique of the exhibit and its disingenuous attempts at representation I recommend reading Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa by Hendricks Mona D. Additionally, although the exhibit boasts its consultation with San communities, it is still displaying a historically “othered” group in a natural history museum. This point becomes complicated as often human material culture of the Pleistocene is relegated to Natural History Museums. However, the strength of this exhibit is in how it connects the early, prehistoric rock art to the modern-day San, as the continuation of a rich culture.

It is through the connection of the first and second storyline that the exhibit was most successful. When colonizers first found rock art in southern Africa they believed the art was too complex for the “primitive” San. The Khoe-San were racialized as being the lowest on the evolutionary time-scale. The connection between modern San rock art and prehistoric rock art turns that narrative around by showing the depth of San culture and tracing them back to the earliest Anatomically Modern Humans in South Africa. Furthermore, through the interpretation of recent rock art by descendants of /Xam speakers we can better understand the why? behind the rock art of South Africa.

While I think the Iziko South African Museum  has much work to do to decolonize its practices, |Qe: The Power of Rock Art, is an interesting exhibit in its telling of South African rock art. My hope is that the museum will continue to hold conversations with the Khoe-San communities and to break down the power structures upheld through colonialism and apartheid.

Further reading:

Remaking /Xam Narratives  in Post-Apartheid South Africa 

Limitations of Labels: Interpreting Rock Art at the South African Museum

The Politics and Poetics of the Bushman Diorama at the South African Museum

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Hello job seekers! Please find below the national jobs roundup for the week of February 5th!

Northeast

Director, Division of Education [Marine Biological Laboratory- Woods Hole, MA]

Executive Director [Connecticut River Museum- Essex, CT]

Membership Assistant [Brooklyn Museum- Brooklyn, NY]

Education Specialist [Heritage Museum and Gardens- Sandwich, MA]

Project Manager for Community Archiving Grant [UMass Boston- Boston, MA]

Director of Museum Experience [Discovery Museum- Acton, MA]

STEAM Programs Supervisor [Providence Children’s Museum- Providence, RI]

Mid-Atlantic

Campaign Director [National Museum of African American History and Culture- Washington, D.C.]

Associate Director of Education [Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum- Washington, D.C.]

Education Specialist [Friends of the National Zoo- Washington, D.C.]

Processing Archivist [The Phillips Collection- Washington, D.C.]

Museum Educator [Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution- Washington, D.C.]

Museum/Historic Site Interpreter [Delaware State Museums- Lewes, DE]

Southeast

Manager of Family Program [High Museum of Art Atlanta- Atlanta, GA]

Museum Assistant [Rogers Historical Museum- Rogers, AR]

Associate Museum Educator [Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art- Bentonville, AR]

Audience Research and Evaluation Associate [Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art- Bentonville, AR]

Manager of Interpretation [North Carolina Museum of Art- Raleigh, NC]

Assistant Museum Curator [City of Portsmouth- Portsmouth, VA]

Midwest

Director of Curatorial Affairs [Allen County Museum and Historical Society- Lima, OH]

Exhibition Assistant General Manager [Hamilton Exhibition, LLC- Chicago, IL]

West

Curator [Draper Natural History Museum- Cody, WY]

Museum Education Assistant [Hands On Children’s Museum- Olympia, WA]

Director K-College Programs [Lucas Museum of Narrative Art- Los Angeles, CA]

 

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

New Year, New Jobs!

Northeast

Children and Family Learning Program Assistant [AMNH- NY, NY]

Marketing Manager [Fitchburg Art Museum- Fitchburg, MA]

Museum Teacher [Tsongas Industrial History Center- Fitchburg, MA]

Director of Programs and Education [Fairfield Museum- Fairfield, CT]

Museum Education Teaching Assistant [Phillips Academy- Andover, MA]

Internships [Canterbury Shaker Village- Canterbury, NH]

Sonja Novak Koerner Senior Curator of Collections and Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs [The Davis Museum- Wellesley, MA]

Deputy Director of Education [Museum of Arts and Design- NY, NY]

Fellow [The Preservation Society of Newport County- Newport, RI]

Assistant/Associate Curator [Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum- Boston, MA]

Senior Archivist [Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography- Boston, MA]

Head of Public Programs [Clark Art Institute- Williamstown, MA]

Museum Education Fellowship Program [Brooklyn Museum- Brooklyn, NY]

 

Mid-Atlantic

Manager of School Programs [Walter Art Museum- Baltimore, MD]

Manager of Audience Engagement [Montclair History Center- Montclair, NJ]

Art Museum Donor Relations Officer [Princeton University- Princeton, NJ]

Director of Annual Giving and Membership [National Museum of Women in the Arts- Washington, D.C.]

Director of Visitor Engagement [Winterthur Museum- Wilmington,  DE]

 

Southeast

Associate Curator of Education [Norton Museum of Art- West Palm Beach, FL]

Summer 2019 Mellon Foundation Curatorial Internship in Native American Art [University of Oklahoma- Norman, OK]

 

Midwest

Simmons Graduate Internship Program [The Henry Ford- Dearborn, MI]

Manager of Collection and Exhibition Programs [Cleveland Art Museum- Cleveland, OH]

Curator of African Art [Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art- Kansas City, MO]

Chief Development Officer [The Milwaukee Art Museum- Milwaukee, WI] 

 

West

Senior Director of Customer Experience [The Health Museum- Houston, TX]

Program Evaluation Specialist [Space Center Houston- Houston, TX]

 

The Kigali Genocide Memorial: Remembrance and Learning

As an emerging museum professional I find it very important to visit museums whenever I am traveling. This allows me the opportunity to see common trends and innovative ideas within the museum field. I find this additionally valuable when traveling internationally to see how museums across the globe are presenting their materials. Over my next four posts I will be writing about four different museums in Rwanda, Zanzibar, and South Africa to see how these museums have handled difficult topics, dealt with controversy, and presented their collections in innovative and interesting ways.

This week I will be looking at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. The memorial is unique because it is not just a memorial, nor a museum, but the final resting place of over 250,000 Tutsi murdered during the 1994 genocide. It is a place of both remembrance and of learning and prevention. The memorial was opened in 2004 on the 10th commemoration of the genocide and was made possible by a 1999 land grant by the City of Kigali, and funding from Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide and Aegis Trust, a British NGO which campaigns to fight genocide worldwide. Today, the memorial has five primary objective:

  1. To provide a dignified place of burial for victims of the genocide against the Tutsi
  2. To inform and educate visitors about the causes, implementation, and consequences of the genocide, and other genocides throughout history.
  3. To teach visitors what we can do to prevent future genocides.
  4. To provide a documentation center to record evidence of the genocide, testimonies of genocide survivors, and details of genocide victims.
  5. To provide support for survivors, in particular orphans and widows.

The memorial has three permanent exhibitions. The first, The 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, details the causes of the genocide, the horrors of the planned genocide, and the restorative justice and reconciliation of the post-genocide era. The second exhibit space, entitled Wasted Lives, documents the other genocides around the world. The third, The Children’s Room, is a memorial to the children murdered during the genocide and the futures lost with them. In addition to the exhibition space is the Burial Place and the Gardens of Reflection. The memorial has made a point of being a welcoming space for survivors and the families of victims.

The memorial is donation based and allows for a variety of different experiences. Through my research prior to arrival I had already decided I would be taking an audio tour. I decided on this experience for two reasons. One, because I knew the audio tours were a huge support for the memorial, and two, because I had never taken an audio tour before and after spending a fair amount of class time looking at them I felt I should experience one. I have always shied away from audio tours and saw them (unfairly, I’m sure) as an amateur way to experience a museum. However, I am very glad I chose to take an audio tour for the Kigali Genocide Memorial as it provided much more than supplemental materials but rather drove the intended narrative. Included in the (high by Rwandan standards) price of the audio tour was a rose to place upon the mass tombs and “Ubumuntu” pin.

The audio tour leads visitors through the gardens and Burial Place first. However, because we worried about time we chose to skip ahead and enter the museum space first. The first exhibition on the 1994 genocide occupies the entirety of the first floor, and is fashioned in a way that visitors will move around the outside of a central room containing a memorial sculpture. At three intervals visitors will encounter an opening in the exhibit materials that both allows them to look into the central room and out towards a flight of stairs leading to a stained glass window but no exit. The stained glass pieces are meant to represent the different ways in which the genocide could have been prevented or stopped but weren’t. Finally, the last flight of stairs at the end of the exhibit is unblocked and represents the future for Rwandans. The memorial uses not just the written and digital aspects of the exhibit but the actual physical space itself to tell the story.

This first exhibit was the largest and told the story of the 1994 genocide by first describing pre-colonial Rwandan society and the affects of colonization. As someone who grew up in the Western world I am so used to hearing histories told from the colonists view. I was most impressed by how the memorial made it very clear that the genocide was directly the result of colonial influences going back over a century. I was shocked to learn that the designation of Tutsis and Hutus were not tribal affiliations but social classes created by Belgians based on arbitrary differences such as the size and shape of your nose and the amount of cows you own. Additionally, the exhibit made clear the ways in which the internationally community failed Rwanda prior to and during the genocide. While much of the exhibit focused on the causes of the genocide, the memorial did not shy away from showing the horrors and atrocities of April to July 1994, particularly those acted upon women and children. Sections of the exhibit were beyond difficult and at one point I had to stop to take time to compose myself. It was hard to understand how anyone, let alone friends and neighbors, could commit these violent crimes. But, this reality is another fact the memorial attempts to drive home, by the end of the genocide it was estimated that over one million people, or 1/5 of the remaining population were potentially culpable. Instead of condemning those that took part, the memorial attempted to show what conditions could lead to a neighbor killing their neighbor.

The two exhibits in the second floor of the inside space were much smaller than the first. However, The Children’s Room, was likely the hardest and most moving section of the whole memorial. The space started with a small sign, a message for the child victims, “children, you might have been our national heroes…” Inside the rooms were large pictures of children, the labels juxtaposed personal details like their age and favorite foods with their last words (cries for help,) last memories (watching their mothered murdered,) and ways in which they were murdered. At the end were cloths lines along which survivors could post photos of their lost loved ones. It was a painful room. It was particularly hard knowing those children would have been around my age now. When I was enjoying my idyllic childhood, a child just like me was facing genocide.

The final section of the memorial looked at post-genocide reconstruction. After such a difficult topic this section was inspiring and uplifting in its depiction of how Rwandans were able to use restorative justice as a form of reconciliation through their Gacaca Courts. Gacaca, meaning “justice amongst the grass,” in a traditional communal justice system that was adapted to try more than 1.9 million cases. The courts are meant to promote communal healing and present opportunities for truth-telling that allowed many survivors to find the bodies of their loved ones. The exhibit depicts Gacaca as a success that has paved the way for peace in Rwanda. And as an outsider, I was struck by how at piece Rwanda seems, and what a huge capacity for forgiveness and healing Rwandans have. But, as we all know, museums are not neutral and oftentimes have an agenda in the stories they choose to tell. Although the memorial presents a very positive image of post-genocide Rwanda, conversations with others paints a less rose-colored view. Regardless, the memorial pushed their story of forgiveness and healing through the rest of the exhibit spaces as well. I left feeling drained but also positive and in awe of the Rwandan people. I would hope that the forgiveness and community healing is real but struggle to see how it could be.

 

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