This is the first post in a monthly series about my work on the African Art collection. I came to the IMA in October to complete a nine-month fellowship that will serve as the final requirement for my master’s degree in art conservation from New York University’s Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts.
My first weeks at the museum have been filled with introductions. In addition to meeting new coworkers, there were plenty of new places to get to know as part of the job. Work-related travel has included a day trip to the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana to examine furniture in storage, condition checking the Mary Miss installation FLOW: Can You See The River? in 100 Acres, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the historic Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens.
My introduction to the museum’s collection of African Art, however, is proving to be the most complicated. One of my main responsibilities at the IMA is to help prepare that collection for reinstallation early next year. This will involve months of surveying, testing and treating objects in that collection, as well as consulting on matters of storage and display. To begin to tackle this project, I wanted to assemble a list of the objects in the IMA’s collection of African Art, in order to ensure that my survey is thorough.
That practical, seemingly simple, request led me straight into questions of how African Art is defined at the IMA. If the answer seems apparent–that African Art is defined as art that comes from Africa–then consider the following example. The IMA owns two works by the living artist El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and currently works in Nigeria. One work, Sacred Comb, is on display in the Eiteljorg suite of African Art. However, the other piece, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is displayed in the museum’s Contemporary Art galleries.
Which artwork by El Anatsui is classified as African Art at the IMA?
Because these two curatorial departments use different criteria to define their collections (geography vs. time period), both can claim either work. Furthermore, the IMA’s department of Textiles and Fashion Arts uses still different parameters for defining their collection–those of medium and use. As a work that references traditional West African strip-woven textiles, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is actually catalogued as part of the Textiles and Fashion Arts collection.
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