May 2001

Betraying a Mission? Africa Museum Ventures into the Contemporary

The founder of Washington’s African art museum criticizes its new direction

Warren Robbins, the founder and director emeritus of the National Museum of African Art, surprised many people when he showed up at a colloquium at the Washington, D.C., institution to protest its move into contemporary art. Last year, the museum hired curator Elizabeth Harney to head this effort and devoted a large gallery to rotating shows of contemporary art. Robbins told the packed room that these works had essentially no place in the museum and that it was betraying its mission to advance awareness of traditional African cultures by buying and showing the new work. Contemporary African artists, he said, should be shown at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden along with contemporary artists from elsewhere.

“You have to keep in mind the founding mission of the museum, which was to reflect the total traditional culture of Africa, and you can’t do that with contemporary art,” Robbins said later [in an interview at his Washington townhouse]. “Contemporary African art is European art that happens to be made by Africans.”

Robbins, a former diplomat in Europe and coauthor of African Art in American Collections (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), founded the museum in 1964 in a Capitol Hill townhouse. In the late 1970s he successfully lobbied Congress to add the museum to the Smithsonian, which it officially joined in 1979. The museum, which became known for its exceptional collection of classical masks and archaeological pieces, moved into its current locale next to the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall in 1987. Robbins, now 77, ceased being actively involved in the museum in 1982. [Robbins died in December 2008.]

Despite Robbins’ opposition, Harney and museum director Roslyn Walker are proceeding with their plan to broaden the museum’s framework. “If the Smithsonian is claiming to be a space that represents international art heritage, then it also needs to reflect contemporary realities of Africa,” says Harney, who received a doctorate in art history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She is working to create a separate endowment to increase purchases of contemporary art. “This program creates a more interesting reflection on the classical arts, too,” she says. “You begin to reinterpret them through a different lens. So it shouldn’t be seen as a division between traditional and contemporary, but rather as a continuum, a dialogue.”

Harney says she aims to shake up people’s assumptions about African art. “Audiences come expecting to see masks, figures, maybe textiles. So they don’t know what to do with a digital print or even a painting.” The first solo exhibition she curated featured the work of Egyptian painter Chant Avedissian. “Encounters with the Contemporary,” a survey of African painting, sculpture and mixed-media pieces, runs through next January.

“I don’t want anyone to think for a second that we’re neglecting our main mission, which is traditional art,” Walker says. “But creativity has never stopped at some artificial date.”

–Roger Atwood