It is more than a century since African traditional art became a global field of study, but it is displayed in the Western part of the world in a way that does not promote its rich heritage in terms of exhibition, thematic presentation and reference collections. Western museums and galleries are guilty of this crime as many traditional African artefacts are, deliberately, poorly displayed or not even given prominence to showcase their rich values.
Lydia Gatundu Galavu, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Museums of Kenya, disclosed this in a paper entitled:Displaying Traditional Art in Contemporary African Time: A critical Analysis of the Best Practices for Contextualising Traditional Art within its Home Environment she delivered recently at the Omoba Yemisi Shyllon Adedoyin Art Foundation (OYSAAF) Maryland, Lagos.
Lydia said that Western art and natural history museums tend to be incompatible with the contexts from which most traditional African art emerged. According to her, the traditional African art is always displayed outside its original cultural context in Western museums, thereby, losing or distorting its full identity and meaning.
Lydia who was in Nigerian to conduct a pre‐study programme at OYASAF, in respect of Kenya’s first permanent art gallery, Nairobi National Museum, however, gave kudos to Nigeria’s creative industry, noting that its art, film, literature and visual art are booming and have taken the front seat in Africa. The visiting art scholar further urged curators and artists to avoid similar display methods for most traditional African works, as it is done in Europe.
Quoting several scholars to drive home her point, Lydia noted that “It is necessary that a well-educated and articulate art historical practice develop all over Africa if the current perceived neo‐colonial and xenophobic attitudes of western scholars, curators and art historians must be addressed.
“If a meaningful understanding and appreciation of the creative objectification of a people is to be achieved, then, a correct interpretation of the intention of the artist for his or her work is necessary”, she added.
She said that her experience with Nigerian (tribal) art confirms the assumption that good art is made only by gifted individuals. “I am, in fact, struck by the differences rather than the similarities between tribal pieces of the same style, East Africa has a rich well‐established tradition of non‐figurative art for a long time, but, not considered art by the West.
The visiting scholar who is rounding off her research in OYSAAF, also expressed her appreciation for being a beneficiary of the programme, noting that her research, which focusses on the display of African traditional art, is not only a good opportunity to dig deeper, but, also an opportunity to visit and rub minds with some of the Lagos-based art houses and prominent galleries.
She said the OYSAAF scholarship programme, which admits researchers, students, artists, historians and curators from all over the world in a bid to encourage the awareness and appreciation of African art, should be emulated by others.
Lydia also spoke at length on how African museums can display art to ensure that its full meaning is not lost. According to her, the advantage in African museums is that the information for these objects is not lost. The problem is that only a little is provided (as per standard (Western) curatorial practice), such that in the absence of a guide, one cannot interpret the object meaningfully.
Her presentation, which had relevant participants in attendance, offered them the opportunity to appraise issues that affect African art.
The founder of OYSAAF, Engr. Yemisi Shyllon noted that the foundation was founded to give face to the preservation of our rich African heritage. He promised that the foundation would continue to do its best in this regard.