Christopher Steiner took his audience in and out of Africa during his discussion Friday evening in the Wilbur Cross Building’s North Reading Room. Steiner, a professor of art history and anthropology at Connecticut College, guest-curated the Benton Museum’s exhibit “Souvenirs D’Afrique: Arts of Africa from the Collection of Janine and Josef Gugler” and explained some of the thought behind collecting and exhibiting African art in his lecture.
Steiner made it clear that much of what people think of as African “art” often has broader religious or practical meanings behind the fine craftsmanship. He explained that what the West views as African art isn’t necessarily thought of as art in Africa. Rather, it is the power of museums and the art market that elevates objects into works of high art.
Furthermore, museums can even take different approaches in how they exhibit African art. According to Steiner, the different manners in which museum’s exhibit African art affect how viewers perceive the objects.
“The context in which we see objects influences the way that we classify them,” Steiner said. “Whether we classify them by art, whether we classify them in this case as ethnographic specimens, … scientific objects and so on.”
The professor compared the exhibits of similar African art objects in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). Whereas display cases in AMNH are crowded with many items and are poorly lit, art objects at the Met each have their own pedestal within a shared case and are brightly lit to allow museum goers to study the craftsmanship. AMNH organizes items of a similar type together (for example, all “spirit objects” in one case), whereas the Met organizes items by style or culture of origin.
AMNH presents objects as artifacts, props or specimens, but the Met presents objects as art, treasures or masterpieces.
Though the two museum’s presentations differ, neither gets it quite right. Steiner said that museums elevate but misrepresent these objects. He focused on traditional masks to illustrate his point.
“If you exhibit masks on these pedestals, with this beautiful lighting on them, does it really reflect the way masks are used in Africa?” Steiner asked. “And the answer is no. In African cultures, masks are part of a living performance …. Among the Dan people … they would say that what they’re seeing in the Met is really not the mask, they’re just showing the carving. The mask is the entire performance.”
Steiner said that curators’ focus on exhibiting these objects as art might be wrong for reasons like these.
While museums can elevate certain objects into art pieces or display them as ethnographic specimens, the art market also influences people’s perception of African art objects.
As Steiner noted, context often determines someone’s appraisal of art. Art collectors seek “real” and “authentic” pieces and are willing to pay a lot of money for them. Because of market demand for “traditional” items, artists will also often repeat designs instead of coming up with something new. Moreover, an object’s provenance is usually thought to guarantee its authenticity, to the point that objects with established provenance garner more money at auction than those without a clear history.
“Truly sometimes it’s not even the object that makes it worthy … it’s really the people that have had their hands on it,” Aries Peralta, a fifth-semester art history major, said about the idea of provenance. “As he said, if you can trick people into wanting whatever, that’s what makes it worthy to people … ‘I saw this somewhere and now I want it’ really plays into the commodification and the consumption … versus actual art.”
By the end of his discussion, Steiner had given the audience a lot to think about for the next time they viewed African art. From art objects’ function in their cultures of origin to how museum displays influence people’s perception of them, Steiner demonstrated that there’s more than meets the eye to African art.
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.