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bhm: why is the louvre hiding african art?

February 1, 2019
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“Why is Egyptian art located with the European art collections instead of the African art collection?”

I asked my wife rhetorically as we strolled The Louvre’s Art of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas collection. Detached from the other collections and relegated to a diminutive, windowless corner of arguably the world’s most famous art museum, the experience of the Art of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas collection was a stark contrast to rest of the museum’s sprawling halls where we were overwhelmed with a bounty of European sculptures and paintings, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and frantic tourist groups. This experience as a casual art fan was the first in a series of observations that indicated that renowned art museums in the United States and abroad are implementing structural barriers to engagement with black art.

As we continued our self-guided tour, The Louvre’s Art of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas collection was expectedly, yet regrettably, void of enthusiastic visitors. This vacancy appeared to be a product of the museum’s layout which segregates the collection and potentially confirms many narrow-minded visitors’ biases that people of color, nor their art, are worthy of time, space, or consideration.

Upon completion of our stroll of this “colored section” of the Louvre, I was reminded of Killmonger’s quote in Black Panther’s art museum scene, “So they say you’re the expert?”; questioning the institution’s competence in preserving and highlighting art from cultures that are often disregarded and exploited. This questioning is heightened when considering that the acquisition of some of the art may have been unethical.

Nevertheless, just as my hope for equity seemed to flee, my wife informed me of another museum we could visit which was specially made for art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas called Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. “Separate but equal?” I thought to myself. But we decided to suspend skepticism and visit.

As we walked toward the perimeter of Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, we did a double take as we saw bold posters, featuring what appeared to be a large African mask with a wide, flat nose and full lips, advertising a Pablo Picasso exhibit. The name of the exhibit was “Primitif” or “Primitive” when translated to English. Generally, the word primitive is not a positive adjective when associated with people of color. That is why using “Primitif” as the title of African-influenced art that was created by a white artist was startlingly ignorant and insensitive given the museum’s purpose. Despite the side-eye, we decided to enter with the hopes that it would get better: it got worse.

After entering the museum, we bypassed the crowd-favorite, “Primitif” exhibition and strolled the tourist-less collections in the rest of the museum. We eventually came upon a Moroccan quilt adorned with geometric shapes and patterns. A placard below the quilt described where it was made. The description on the placard went on to suggest that Moroccan artisans may have learned the patterns from Europeans. Although this may have been true, it was an unnecessary maneuver to take artistic credit away from artists historically and contemporarily considered inferior, or primitive.

What my wife and I experienced in Paris was not and is not a European phenomenon. The maps of several prominent American art museums feature layouts that make the accomplishments of one of the world’s most populous continents seem insignificant and difficult to approach; impeding the cultural exchange that should be taking place at museums. For example, according to its map, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York often referred to as The Met, shares some unfortunate similarities with the Louvre. The African art collection is relatively small and combined with Oceania and the Americas. Additionally, they also separate Egypt from Africa. In fact, if the map is to scale, the Egyptian collection is a larger area than their entire collection for Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

For years, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art relegated African art to the lowest level or basement of the Wieland Pavilion. This space was located below the main entrance and exit, almost as to guide visitors toward the majority of the museum and to exit before they view the African art section. However, a recent reorganization in 2018 relocated the African Art collection to the top floor of the Stent Family Wing. The Art Institute of Chicago’s floor plan indicates that their African collection is at the end of a long, dead-end hallway. This location is outside of the flow of the museum and might easily be overlooked, bypassed, or avoided by visitors.

And the map of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art indicates that there is no African collection at all. This is despite the museum’s mission statement stating its service in “…the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of significant works of art from a broad range of cultures…” The physical organization of these institutions that are supposed to expand our understanding do nothing but ensure we maintain a narrow worldview. It’s an opportunity missed. Moving forward, I hope art museums will rethink how they choose to provide access to African art.