Ask the Curator: Ndubuisi Ezeluomba
The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA, in Louisiana, US) is the city’s oldest fine arts institution. Established on December 16, 1911, the museum boasts of a collection of over 40,000 artworks. Noted for its extraordinary strengths, the collection consists of French, American, African, and Japanese art as well as photography and glass. The collection continues to expand, making NOMA one of the top art museums in the American South. In this interview, Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art, Ndubuisi Ezeluomba, discusses his role, the African art collection, and plans for the future.
In August 2018, you were appointed Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). What specific experiences in your successful career as Andrew W. Mellon curatorial research specialist in African art and as a consultant at Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida have prepared you for this role?
I bring unique experiences to my current role as African art curator at NOMA. Not only do I have the academic grounding, which complements the position, but importantly, I was born and raised in Nigeria before coming to America. Therefore, I have had first-hand experience seeing how these objects were made and put to use. Through formal and informal modes of education in the traditional systems of some cultures, much esoteric knowledge has been revealed to me in the course of my interactions and research fieldwork. My social and academic backgrounds provide the qualities that I bring to the position.
Your PhD in art history from the University of Florida, Gainesville, specialised in historic African shrines with your dissertation entitled “Olokun Shrines: Their Functions in the Culture of the Benin-Speaking People of Southern Nigeria.” How authentic is contemporary African art, given its increasing Western colouration due to globalisation and the loss of its characteristic intimacy of process, materiality, and magic?
To put your question in perspective, I specialise in African art history with emphasis on the visual cultures of shrines, especially the Olokun shrines of the Benin-speaking people.
Africa has always been global. Africa has always been at the forefront of global happenings from the earliest times. Recall the Malian empire and the activities of Mansa Musa; recall, too, the kingdoms of Kongo and Benin. This individual and these kingdoms played host to the West in varying ways.
The last time I checked, there has never been any doubt about the authenticity of contemporary African art. From its obscure beginnings in the last decades of the 20th century, there has been a steady surge both in artists and creative works coming from the continent. And contemporary African artists have shown that significant aspects of their creativity are informed by traditional works. The global art market can attest to this, as some auction houses have identified the significance of contemporary African artistic creativity. Sotheby’s London and numerous others have begun to dedicate sections of their auction to contemporary African art.
To frame your question around the authenticity of traditional African art, I think that those readings have been problematic. It has created the impression that only works produced and used within religious ceremonies in times before and during colonialism were authentic, everything afterwards is not. Many art forms and objects that we have accepted as constituting art today were made for diverse ceremonial functions. When the function for which they were created is realised, such objects were discarded and new ones were created, if the need arose. I suspect that authenticity is a shortcut to determine the economic relevance of those works that made their way here before and during colonialism. Many of these ceremonial works are still created today, and they meet the religious needs for which they are used, and so defeat the authenticity notion.
Please expatiate on your curatorial thrust, acquisition policy, and the new directions you hope to bring to the African art collection?
My plan is to articulate, through my collections and exhibitions, that Africa is a continuum. Therefore, I will focus not only on strengthening the historic materials that currently enhance our collection and gallery, but also on collecting contemporary works, creating a dialogue with both. This is a valid way forward in the display of African art in the museum organisation. By displaying historic and contemporary art, we are consciously articulating the idea of the continuum, which unquestionably is the reality about African art.
What challenges have you faced since taking on the role?
No significant challenge so far. However, adjusting to a new role and environment can sometimes be daunting. New Orleans is a very huge city, one that will take some time to get used to. Navigating the city and taking in all the diversity and nuances can be challenging.
Given NOMA’s extensive African art collection, what has been its impact on contemporary art from the continent?
NOMA’s African art collection boasts of some of the finest works by Yoruba carvers, such as Olowe of Ise. Numerous other objects attest to the brilliance of workmanship of the artists that created those. On the wall of the first-floor elevator lobby of the museum are three murals by Donald Odili Odita. There is also the work by Toyin Ojih Odutola, both obviously contemporary artists. And in the sculpture garden, there is a sculpture by Yinka Shonibare MBE. These works are evidence of the influence of the collection in attracting works of contemporary art from Africa. We hope to carefully add more contemporary works that will help us achieve the aims and objectives of the museum and the African art collection.
How will NOMA operate as a multidisciplinary museum, and why do you think these types of spaces are important in the 21st century?
There currently are six curatorial sections here at NOMA. I believe that they speak to the multidisciplinary colour of the museum. This also helps to put the wide-ranging works in specialised curatorial hands, so that through research and exhibitions, our visitors are able to engage the various departments and come out with an informed understanding of the various components on display.
But within these various departments, we hope to find how to draw connections. Potentially, the modern and contemporary department will benefit from works of contemporary African artists going forward. In the same way, the decorative arts department will realise that some of the forest resources used in making some art deco were actually gotten from central Africa. All these nuances are evident, and we hope to engage with them going forward.
What programmes does the museum offer families and those perhaps less knowledgeable about art to keep visitors engaged?
We have numerous Small Talks and Noontime Talks. These are already opportunities whereby curators can speak about a piece of work or group of works in the gallery. The idea is to help visitors glean a deeper understanding of the works on display.
NOMA has varying programmes that cut across the various departments. Some programmes are done in our award-winning sculpture garden.
In April, we are screening Invasion 1897, a movie by Lancelot Imasuen about the British punitive expedition of 1897 in the Benin Kingdom, which will be followed by a roundtable discussion on Nigeria’s social condition. This is the type of programme that not only brings a section of the Nigerian community in New Orleans to the museum, but also presents a unique opportunity for other visitors to see something engaging and educative, something that can help kindle their appreciation of the culture and art of Benin and many other African cultures.
Family Fest is another type of programme that caters to families. These and other programmes are ways to engage visitors and enhance their appreciation of the works of art in the museum.
To a large extent, trends in contemporary African art are still dictated by Western patrons, and by scholars who may not be directly influenced by stimuli from the continent, even though they are of African descent. In your view, is this an anomaly, and how can a balance be achieved on the African continent?
This question lies squarely on the economics of art. No doubt that the economic capital is more robust in the West for the arts; however, many African cities are beginning to be active in the art market as well.
Recently, Ozioma Onwuzulike delivered a paper at the Yemisi Shyllon Foundation in Lagos, and he rightly claimed that there is an upsurge in the appreciation of artworks by the emerging middle class. Art auction houses are registering impressive sales as well. Thus, the anomaly that you point to will be a thing of the past when more art connoisseurs in Africa start to invest in art.
To what can you attribute the increasing global interest in African art, and what do you think the future holds for it?
African art has always been interesting. The vitality of the sculptural forms and the vibrancy of the two-dimensional works are testaments to this claim. Therefore, there is no rekindling of interest in something that never waned in interest. The statistics are there to support the facts about the importance of African art. I will not belabour the point about the influence African art had on the creativity of European modern artists at the turn of the 20th century.
Looking ahead, there is the assurance that the volume of creativity coming out from Africa will engineer another—and an even more heightened—enthusiasm in the art world. And by including African curators in collecting African art in America and other parts of the world, we hope that there will be more changes in the way the works are displayed. This, in turn, will enhance visitors’ interest and participation in museums with African art collections.
What partnerships are you extending to indigenous museums or galleries in Africa?
Some museums in Nigeria have reached out to me, and I have made promises to support and collaborate in ways that will be mutually beneficial to my museum and theirs.
The director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum in Lagos, Jess Castellote, solicited collaboration as he embarks on the building and development of the museum. I gave my acceptance without hesitating, just as I did with the Idiong Gallery at the University of Uyo. Beyond these two museums, there are others in southern Africa and other nations that will benefit from curatorial and other forms of collaboration going forward.
Oyindamola Olaniyan holds a B.sc in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.
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