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Curator recounts challenge of developing African-focused global art exhibit in NYC

The challenge of developing an African-focused global art exhibit involved issues relating to diversity, identity and more, said Lowery Stokes Sims, A.D. White Professor-at-Large, March 29 at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Sims, who is completing her six-year term as an A.D. White professor (2005-11) with this visit to campus, focused her final lecture on "The Global Africa Project," an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design (on view until May 15) in New York City that explores the broad spectrum of contemporary African art, design and craft worldwide. Sims is the Charles Bronfman curator at that museum.

The exhibit features the work of more than 100 artists working in Africa, Europe, Asia, the United States and the Caribbean. It focuses on "design -- furniture, décor, architecture, fashion and craft," but includes painting, sculpture and photography in order to "create synergy between design and craft," Sims said. In addition, the exhibition challenges conventional notions of a singular African aesthetic and identity, Sims said, and reflects the integration of African art and design without making the usual distinctions between "professional" and "artisan."

But putting the exhibit together was extraordinarily challenging, said Sims. "The most important thing we wanted to do [in curating the exhibit] was to destabilize stereotypes of Africa and African by examining the truly global and very variant African descended in the contemporary context."

Determining who or what is African was a challenge, Sims said. Location, nationality, physiognomy, skin color, form, object and material were all considered, she explained. Other driving questions included not only what the global African looks like, but also where artists lived.

In showing a list of where the featured artists in the exhibit live, she said, "You'll be surprised to see Japan and India."

One aspect of the exhibit, she said, revolved around intersecting cultures, which "was a fascinating section because it talked about interchange and how Africa was not a closed entity," she said. "It really showed how creators were defying cultural stereotypes and classifications while merging references of their cultural icons."

Many of the artists also challenged the notion of identity with their use of nontraditionally African materials, Sims said. For example, designer Sakina M'sa creates dresses out of silk and other non-synthetic materials not generally associated with Africa, she explained. Thus, diversity is evident not only culturally, but also artistically.

As an example of how diversity and identity are results of globalization, Sims showed a painting by Iona Rozeal, explaining how the work is African but influenced by Japanese art. Rozeal takes "the fascination the Japanese have with black culture and translates that into a more traditional Japanese painting," said Sims.

She also showed images from Mark Bradford's Miss China Silk hairstyle series: "I thought it was really wonderful how he had done these styles of 'black hair' on Asian models and set them in Africanesque fabrics. Again, talking about this globalization of phenomenon, we usually associate with one culture or another."

For more information on The Global Africa Project, visit http://www.madmuseum.org/.

Dorothy Chan '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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