October 16, 2021

The Past in the Present

On entering the Sainsbury’s African Gallery at the British Museum, visitors are firstly greeted by a vibrant piece of contemporary ceramics. The piece, which is perhaps a surprising opening ‘object’ to the gallery, was created by Magdalene Odundo, an African born artist now living in the UK, in 1997. Closely exhibited to this is a large textile piece entitled ‘Man’s Cloth’ by artist El Anatsui. Produced in Ghana between 1998 and 2001, this is a prime example of contemporary African art. Arguably a highly aesthetic exhibition, with its offering of white walls, open displays and enormous but very light cases, this start to the Sainsbury African Gallery is reminiscent of a modern art gallery; perhaps not what visitors would expect from an exhibition of African cultures.

Opened in 2000, the gallery combines a collection of objects from the past with contemporary African art relevant to current themes in Africa today. This collaboration of objects spanning various centuries is common throughout; one case exhibits nineteenth Century textiles alongside modern examples, such as Robert Ntila’s etching from 2002, highlighting technological and stylistic changes within the medium; whilst a sculpture of a Kalabari masquerader, created by artist Sokari Douglas Camp, sits adjacent to a case filled with twentieth Century masks, leading visitors to question the use and purpose of a mask.

Venturing to the left of the gallery, a large display of ceramic pots from various African locations greets the visitor. Considered an art gallery technique, as such, this overtly uncharacteristic form of ethnographic museum display really challenges the boundaries between art and artefact. Perhaps more importantly, next to this stands the Tree of Life, a sculpture made specifically for the Sainsbury African Galleries.
This current practice of displaying the past alongside the present is common in ethnographic exhibitions; the Horniman Museum is another key example. Here, large contemporary African paintings line the walls that surround the Benin Bronzes, Mende masks and other objects closely associated with African history.

Ensuring the past is relevant in the present is a major struggle that curators of African cultures face today, and by using exhibition styles
such as this, they are beginning to bridge the gap that was once considered impossible. Africa, once distant in time and space, has begun to change within the confines of public perception. The effect of globalization has meant that previously abstracted notions of Africa have been replaced with more accessible ones through pervasive practices of cultural exchange and fusion. This newly acquired accessibility now provides innovative ways in which to gather information and deliver it, encouraging ethnographic curators to reconsider the museum as an informative portal. This, alongside the possibility of gaining knowledge both past and present, seems to now offer curators the opportunity to display a more rounded concept of Africa.

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