Fowler Museum exhibit sheds new light on African objects collected during colonial times – Mirage News | Candle Made Easy

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Unknown Artist (Dahomey, Republic of Benin), Group of Figures, before 1931; brass, wood. Gift of the Wellcome Trust.

As museums around the world ask themselves and visiting audiences to consider the origins of the pieces on display, the Fowler Museum at UCLA presents Special Stories: Provenance Research in African Art.

The exhibition features artwork and archival material from a subset of early 20th-century African objects that came to the Fowler in 1965 from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). These materials are the subject of a three-year initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation. Curated by Mellon Curatorial Fellow Carlee Forbes, the exhibition is on view now through November 13.

‘Featured Stories’ includes case studies highlighting: a Nigerian helmet mask, a brass figural group by a Dahomey Court artist, a carved wooden throne from Cameroon, a set of gold weights from West Africa and a carved wooden house post. These will be installed alongside archives, letters, auction records and photographs from the Wellcome Collection. Each vignette draws visitors into the process of tracing the story of a work, a journey that reflects shifting cultural contexts and sheds light on shifting perceptions around a work’s worth.

“Particular Histories invites audiences to experience the challenge of reconstructing an object’s provenance when its history has been lost or even erased from previous records,” said Forbes. “It’s an exciting moment to reinvent conversations about collections and collecting.”

Using a combination of conservation, materials science, archival research, and curatorial methods, the Fowler research team seeks to unravel the history of African works in the Fowler, reckoning with the legacy of European colonization and its impact on the objects’ perceived use and development of notions of value. The works on display invite the public to reflect on the materiality and history of collections, and to consider a variety of larger issues that arise from provenance, beyond a range of owners.

The five case studies

In the first case study, a visual analysis of structural breaks and lettering inside a carved wooden mask provides contextual clues to the mask’s movement and possible acquisition by military personnel. In the absence of other archival evidence, this example underscores the difficulty in determining whether works were looted, acquired under duress, bought on the open market, or a combination of factors.

The second and third studies question the classifications of authenticity and value (or monetary, cultural, or their meaning in art history). By examining auction and acquisition records, we see how classifications oscillate between rare, authentic, valuable, mundane, counterfeit, or cheap, and how such interpretations change over time. Using the Brass Figures Procession as an example, the research team looks at a piece that used to be considered “tourist art” – intended for a non-African audience – to discuss artistic options in the form of sculptural innovations specifically aimed at European markets. In the case of a wooden throne from Cameroon, an unlikely provenance story was partially fabricated to enhance value and invoke a rare and “authentic” family tree.

The fourth and fifth modules look for details in the myriad markets through which an object has passed. African objects frequently moved within their communities on the continent and then abroad, their meaning shifting between commissions, religious objects, souvenirs, spoils of war, scientific specimens, curiosities or works of art. The function of the West African goldweights in this section changed over time due to new colonial policies, shifts in audiences, and changing aesthetic tastes. The “opo” or carved house post in this section contains several references to its collectors, but is ultimately representative of thousands of works that left Africa as a result of European expeditions and whose history was lost in the process.

Provenance research is the critical first step in contextualizing the circumstances under which possessions and ancestral remains entered the Fowler collection. When materials can be linked to the communities that created and used them, those connections can open doors to conversation, collaboration, and possible returns. The Fowler sees this ongoing initiative as a commitment and an opportunity to share provenance finds with the public and other institutions. Extensive research on each object in the exhibition is also available online via StoryMaps.

/Public release. This material from the original organization/author(s) may be post-date in nature and may be edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).

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