Race, Gender, and the “Decorative” in 20th-Century African Art: Reimagining Boundaries
Developed in conversation with Civic Leader and Art Collector: Sallie Casey Thayer and an Art Museum for KU, this exhibition explores institutional frameworks for African art in U.S. museums throughout the 20th century using a historiographic approach that critiques history, historians, and historical paradigms. This exhibit aims to contextualize why the Spencer Museum of Art’s founding gift of 1917 largely excluded African art from its otherwise expansive geographic and cultural scope. Such a significant omission was hardly unique for a North American art museum in the early 1900s. Although historically black institutions regarded African art with esteem, predominantly white venues displayed African objects as ethnographic specimens or “primitive” curiosities—if their collections included them at all. It was not until the 1972 traveling exhibition African Textiles and Decorative Arts, curated by Dr. Roy Sieber, that Sub-Saharan African objects other than wooden sculptures and masks were presented as “art” to the wider museum-going public.
Race, Gender, and the “Decorative” in 20th-Century African Art seeks to provide a supplementary narrative to this one of exclusion and marginalization. Using both loans and works from the Spencer Museum’s now-extensive collection of African art, the exhibition questions problematic but persistent categories in scholarship and includes three sections that explore how diverse artistic practices and objects were grouped. “Decorative art” and “craft” were terms that shifted with colonial and derogatory ideas about race and gender. It then illustrates the diversity and vibrancy of Islamic art in Africa—a reality that is often oversimplified and overlooked in contemporary scholarship and curatorial practice. Finally, a diverse grouping of arts in the exhibition reveals that modernism is an inherently transnational movement by focusing on how African modernists sought to ennoble the arts and negotiated art forms, materials, and histories.