Ask the Curator: Janet Dees and Kathleen Bickford Berzock
The Block Museum of Art is a free public art museum dedicated to presenting programmes and exhibitions that complement the curriculum, research and teaching areas of Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, where it is located. The museum was established in 1980 when Chicago art collectors Mary, daughter of Albert Lasker and Leigh B. Block, former vice president of Inland Steel Company, donated funds to Northwestern University for the construction of an art exhibition venue. The Block also commissions new work by artists to foster connections between them and the public and each year, mounts exhibitions; organises and hosts lectures, symposia, and workshops involving artists, scholars, curators, and critics.
Janet Dees is the Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum curator of modern and contemporary art at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Prior to her appointment at the Block, she was curator at SITE Santa Fe, where she held various curatorial positions since 2008. Dees was also part of the curatorial team for the inaugural SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americasbiennial and has curated exhibitions and produced new commissions with a broad line up of contemporary artists including Janine Antoni, Jamison Chas Banks, Gregory Crewdson, Amy Cutler, Ann Hamilton, Linda Mary Montano, Sarah Oppenheimer and Rose B. Simpson. Her papers have been featured in publications for SITE Santa Fe, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and Radius Books.
Kathleen Bickford Berzock is associate director of curatorial affairs at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, where she provides artistic leadership of the museum’s exhibition programme and collection strategy in support of the museum’s cross-cultural and interdisciplinary mission. Berzock has presented internationally acclaimed exhibitions including the groundbreaking Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria (2008), Masterpieces from Central Africa: Selections from the Belgian Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren(1999); and Baule: African Art/Western Eyes (1998). In 2005, she curated and wrote the scholarly catalogue for the exhibition For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection, which highlighted the ceramic arts of the African continent and celebrated the gift of 75 ceramic works to the museum’s collection.
In this interview with Omenka, Dees and Berzock discuss the museum and its future plans, as well astheir curatorial thrusts, and Africa’s increasing global significance.
What specific experiences prepared you for your role as the Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art? (Janet)
Janet: I think the combination of my academic training in art history, and previous curatorial positions engaging contemporary art from a global perspective prepared me for my current position. Prior to coming to the Block I spent seven years as a curator at the contemporary art venue SITE Santa Fe, and have over twenty years of experience working in various roles within the arts. My commitment to the educational mission of museums and inclusive strategies are aligned with the Block’s mission, vision and values.
What underlying philosophy informs your individual practices? (Janet and Kathleen)
Kathleen: In my curatorial approach I seek input and partnership from people who are approaching topics from many different perspectives. My curatorial projects have been the most successful when developed in dialogue with others. I also am interested in a broad definition of what constitutes art, one that is more rooted in the physical presence or psychological impact of a thing. I am excited about the fuzzy areas between art and a wider visual culture.
Janet: My curatorial approach combines a preoccupation with contemporary and art historical lines of inquiry sparked by my encounters with particular objects or performances, with a concern for contemporary social relevancy. It is informed by an ethos of dialogue, collaboration and compassion with artists, colleagues, co-workers and a variety of constituents and collaborators. For me, my projects are most successful when they promote reflection on issues of import, and have an impact on how people see things in different areas of life, in addition to how they interact with art.
You recently received the Curatorial Research Fellowship from the Warhol Foundation. Kindly expatiate on your curatorial thrust and methodology, as well as the new directions you hope to bring to the museum. (Janet)
The Curatorial Research Fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was awarded to support research for a specific exhibition project that I am developing, which will open at the Block in 2021. This project, A Site of Struggle: Making Meaning of Anti-Black Violence in American Art and Visual Culture[working title],explores how artists have grappled with the reality of anti-Black violence and its accompanying challenges of representation. It seeks to put contemporary debates about these issues into a longer historical context by starting with work artists and activists working in the late 19thand early 20thcentury and coming forward to the present. Just as importantly my research, developed in concert with colleagues at the Block and at other institutions, focuses on museum best practices for engaging with challenging subject matter. This research will subsequently inform our work at the Block.
How would you evaluate the success of The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art since your appointment as associate director of curatorial affairs in 2013? (Kathleen)
I have had the privilege of working at The Block Museum during a period of significant growth of the programme, one which is attributable to a dedicated and talented team of professionals that includes the director, Lisa Corrin, and the entire museum staff. With innovative teaching and learning as our primary motivation, we have created ground-breaking exhibitions, often working with guest curators, and many also accompanied by important publications. These include; A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde; 1960s – 1980s, Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies; WilliamBlake and the Age of Aquarius; If you Remember, I’ll Remember; Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory, and; Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. We are also growing our collection, particularly with strategic acquisitions of modern and contemporary art with a global perspective, all motivated by our site on the campus of Northwestern University and the university’s educational mission.
The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is currently presenting Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. Itis a major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the 8thto the 16thcenturies. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases 250 artworks spanning five centuries, including loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time, to celebrate West Africa’s historic and under recognised global significance. Please tell us more about it, the challenges you faced in putting together an exhibition of this scale, and how the reception has been. (Kathleen)
The exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa, considers the wide-reaching impact of the movement of things, people, and ideas across the Sahara between the 8thand the 16thcenturies through material fragments and works of art. The exhibition innovatively juxtaposes fragments from important archaeological sites with complete objects that help us to imagine what the fragments once were. The featured sites are Gao and Tadmekka in Mali, Sijilmasa in Morocco, and Igbo-Ukwu, Ife, and Durbi Takusheyi in Nigeria. In creating the exhibition, I have relied on the participation of scholars working in the fields of archaeology, art history, history, and comparative literature, who focus on the histories of West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe. We have hosted four advisory meetings to discuss the project together, and I’ve also made eight research trips to Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, as well as other trips across North America and to the UK to meet with colleagues and to look at collections. I’ve relied on many experts, who’ve shared their knowledge with me. My job, as curator, has been to aggregate, organise, filter, and shape the story into one that is comprehensible in the form of an exhibition. One of the most exciting aspects of the project has been to work with archaeologists and institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria who are excavating sites and preserving their countries’ cultural heritages. Presenting loans from the national museums and the archaeological institutions in these countries was essential to the success of the exhibition—indeed, many of the medieval objects from the Saharan region and from West Africa are unique. It’s important for us to foreground the work being done in these countries, to disseminate that work, and to support the protection and preservation of these materials. This is the first exhibition to tell the story of medieval West Africa using the material remains of that time and place as the starting point.
You have written papers and a book on the 100-year history of the representation of Africa in American art museums, as well as curated several innovative exhibitions including Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria(2008) at the Art Institute of Chicago. Considering the great historical and cultural significance of ancient Benin art to the Edo people, would you support calls for their repatriation and proper contextualisation? (Kathleen)
Many important questions are being asked today that are raising public awareness about African art collections and their histories, including how African artworks now in museums were taken during warfare and colonialism. The Block Museum does not collect historic African art, therefore this is not an issue I am currently grappling with. However, in my opinion it is inevitable that some of these works of art will be returned to their countries of origin in the coming years.
Colonialism and its aftermath also have had an impact on the kinds of stories about Africa that are told in museums, which focus largely on the 19thcentury to the present day. Caravans of Goldis important at this time because it introduces a history that predates colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade. The exhibition also highlights collections from Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, and it brings attention to the importance of cultural heritage protection in Africa. Finally, the exhibition includes the voices of specialists from Africa in telling the story of medieval trans-Saharan trade.
In the same vein, are there partnerships you wish to extend to indigenous museums in Africa to improve infrastructure and expertise, relating to storage, conservation, display and research of returned African works of art? (Kathleen)
It is important that curators in museums outside of Africa develop supportive relationships with curatorial colleagues in Africa. This is often best undertaken in conjunction with a specific project. For instance, for the Caravans of Gold project, the Block Museum has worked with institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria. This has included the travel of curators and technicians in both directions with professional development and training. It has also included the conservation of some objects.
How significant is Benin art to the evolution of modern, Black, African and Nigerian art and its placement in the development of Black aesthetic consciousness? (Kathleen)
There is no doubt that art of the Benin Kingdom is of extraordinary importance both to the history of art in Nigeria and within the larger context of universal cultural heritage.
What in your opinion is responsible for the increasing global attention on African art, and what do you think the future holds for it? (Janet)
I don’t pretend to know all of the factors that have led to an increase in global attention on, particularly late modern and contemporary – African art. Partly, I think it is the accumulative effect of years of labour on the part of artists, curators, art historians, writers, and other cultural producers working on the continent and in the diaspora, as well as those from non-African backgrounds intersecting with international art world networks interested in “new” areas. When I invoke this longer history of labour I am thinking of people like N’Gone Fall, Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), Olu Oguibe, Bisi Silva(1962-2019), Rasheed Araeen, Kobena Mercer, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, just to name a few of many who have been doing this work over the last 30 years or more. Publications like NKA, Third Text, Revue Noire, and Transitionhave been important vehicles for critical engagement with the work of African artists. Though much contested, the international exposure the two editions of the Johannesburg Biennial(1995 and 1997) brought to artists working in or from the region has had lasting effects. Continuing platforms like Dak’ArtandRecontres des Bamakoare draws for international arts professional to see work on the continent.
The Block also has a focus on contemporary African artists with seminal exhibitions like Kader Attia’s Reflecting Memory (2016). It featured a collage, a sculpture, and an extended film essay to probe the legacies of colonialism, slavery and xenophobia. The museum also continues to expand its collection with contemporary art from Africa, including recent acquisitions of the work of Omar Victor Diop. Please tell us more about these initiatives, as well as new directions in your exhibition and acquisition policies to engage with contemporary art developments on the African continent and her related diaspora. (Janet)
These initiatives are a part of the Block’s larger strategy of engaging with art across time, cultures and media, and expanding our collection with an eye toward global perspectives. In setting our areas of focus we think about how works in our collections will be used in teaching and learning at the university, and will be amplified by other resources on campus. Northwestern has a long standing commitment to African studies; it is home to the Herskovits Library, the most extensive library dedicated to African studies in the United States, and one of the most extensive in the world, so we see our focus on contemporary African artists as part of this commitment. Other recent acquisitions include works by Admire Kamudzengerere and Rachel Monosov, Bakary Daou and Rose Kgoete.
How does the museum plan to engage with the surrounding community, particularly less knowledgeable about art? (Janet and Kathleen)
The Block will continue to build upon strategies that it has developed over the last several years to engage diverse communities. These range from initiatives to incorporate content related to its exhibitions into the curriculum of local schools and co-curricular programmes, to the development of engagement programmes with community organisations that have affinity toward particular content. For example, for the 2017 contemporary art exhibition, If You Remember, I’ll Remember, the Block worked with several different groups to develop programming inspired by works in the exhibition. One example was a program remembering the internment of Japanese-Americans by the United States government during World War II which was connected to a work in the exhibition by Japanese-American artist Kristine Aono that engaged with that history. This programme was co-developed with several Chicago-area Japanese American organisations and featured conversations with community members who survived internment and was held in the gallery in dialogue with Aono’s work.
Currently, the Block Museum is working closely with public schools in our region so that they can integrate the story told in Caravans of Gold into the standard curriculum. This has included teacher workshops and field trips for teachers and students to the museum and to Northwestern University’s Herskovits Library of African Studies. Recently, we hosted six archaeologists—from Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States—for a series of programmes with the campus, the public schools, and the general public. We are also creating a website for the exhibition that will include curriculum resources for teachers. Finally, we are creating a version of the exhibition content, in the form of an APP, that will be downloadable to a smart phone.
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