125 Stanford Stories

NO. 78
Student Life

Reimagining an African gallery

Stanford students bring new insight to a Cantor Arts Center space

I wanted to show visitors that contemporary African art is incredibly diverse in its formal and conceptual goals.

—Tabitha Walker, ’18

Museums foster conversations between the work on display and its audience. To keep the conversation going, museums must change over time.

Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center advanced the artistic conversation this spring when 12 undergraduates reimagined part of its African galleries in a class taught by Catherine Hale, the Phyllis Wattis Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas from 2014 to 2016.

The exhibition, African Artists as Innovators, opened in spring 2016. It focuses on the artist as maker, an individual with universal and relatable concerns about society, the environment and his or her artistic inheritance. It prefaced the Cantor’s major reinstallation of many other galleries around Stanford’s art history curriculum.

Taking a closer look at everything from the language of the labels to the paint color, our class attempted to create a more welcoming African gallery … relevant to the Stanford community and reflective of the vibrant art scene in Africa today.

—Katherine Evers, ’16

It’s rare for undergraduates to redesign a permanent museum exhibition, even at Stanford, a leader in experiential learning.

Still, Hale believes that giving such responsibility to young people of the diverse backgrounds, majors and aspirations as took the class is key to making museums more relevant to more people today.

“I wanted to start a conversation with the Stanford community on how we exhibit African art,” said Hale, who now builds interdisciplinary arts programs as curator of the Creative Campus Galleries at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

In the Stanford course Art History 278: Curating Africa: Anatomy of an Exhibition, Hale assigned pairings of art works and asked students to tease out the parallels between them. She asked them to plan all aspects of the new exhibition: researching the works and writing the labels, choosing the wall colors, the typefaces, even the design of the cases.

In so doing, the students replaced an installation that they thought represented Africa in stereotypical ways. They swapped adobe-colored walls for white and light gray that make the art easier to see and spotlight its formal brilliance. They gave the space a graphic identity congruent with that of the Cantor’s other galleries.

The stark color contrast to the rest of the galleries was a problem for us – we didn’t want African artists to be isolated or worse, patronized, for something as seemingly insignificant as paint color.

—Tabitha Walker

By juxtaposing works made as early as 4500 BCE and as recently as 2012 – from across the continent as well as its diasporas – the new exhibition highlights the rich history of innovation in African art.

Art history major Tabitha Walker, ’18, researched contemporary Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover’s Red Townscape II. It hangs in juxtaposition with a Ghanaian kente cloth, a traditional, labor-intensive textile. Walker invites the viewer to see how Glover invokes the industry, vibrancy and symbolic weight of kente in his depiction of a busy Ghanaian market.

The [old] labels had a tendency to tell stories of the cultural significance surrounding some of these objects, often overshadowing the fact that creative and innovative artists were behind them.

—Akua Oduma Nyarko-Odoom, ’18

One case in the new exhibition pairs a predynastic Egyptian black-topped redware vessel, more than 6,000 years old, with a piece by contemporary Kenyan ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, who had visited the museum in 1976 and been inspired by these ancient vessels. A new take on an ancient technology, Odundo’s work, with its faintly anthropomorphic shape, also invites speculation on the nature of beauty and womanhood.

Premed student Akua Oduma Nyarko-Odoom, ’18, who researched the ceramic pairing, went on to study ceramic techniques in Ghana under a Chappell-Lougee Scholarship, awarded to fund full-time immersive projects in the humanities, creative arts or qualitative social sciences in the summer after sophomore year.

“I’d grown up seeing African art in my home and in the homes of relatives, but never really knew where to begin talking about it,” Nyarko-Odoom said. “Though this class does not align with my primary course of study, I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take it because I learned so much.”

The gallery’s centerpiece is a monumental installation, Uwa, by Ghanaian-born El Anatsui in 2012 and on extended loan to the Cantor. Anchored by a sphere made largely of bottle caps and other discards of industrialized society, it invites contemplation on the creation and destruction of the world.

What does it mean to be an African artist? Do you have to have been born on the continent? Do you need to at least be a member of and reflect the diaspora? Or do you have to be influenced by it? Is there authenticity to tourist art, art that can easily be reproduced?

There are so many questions this exhibit has the potential to trigger, and I’m excited to see how, in the coming year, people react and engage.

—Akua Oduma Nyarko-Odoom

African Artists as Innovators is on extended display in the Thomas K. Seligman Gallery on the museum’s first floor.

Learn more about the deep collaborations the Cantor Arts Center offers to Stanford students, including the Cantor Scholars program.

Learn about past Cantor Arts Center exhibitions curated by Stanford students, including Oasis of Glass and Contemporary Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Big Horn.