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Q&A: Curator Carlee Forbes talks new exhibit on African art history at Fowler Museum

Selection of weights collected by an Officer in the West India Regiment (L–R): X65.9559, X65.9765, X65.9304, X65.9580, X65.9558, X65.9553, X65.9549, X65.9731, X65.9774. (Courtesy of Fowler Museum)

“Particular Histories: Provenance Research in African Arts”

Fowler Museum

Jul. 10 - Nov. 13

By Talia Sajor

Sept. 16, 2022 6:05 p.m.

The Fowler is uncovering the particular histories of African art.

Running until Nov. 13, the Fowler Museum will be presenting “Particular Histories: Provenance Research in African Arts.” The exhibit focuses on provenance research – a deep dive into the past owners of a particular piece of 20th-century African artwork from Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection in London.

The curator of the exhibit, Carlee Forbes, spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Talia Sajor about the various pieces and the process of the provenance research method.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daily Bruin: As this exhibit will display five different case studies regarding African art, can you go into detail about what visitors can expect?

Carlee Forbes: The exhibition is divided into three thematic areas. The first section talks about military personnel and collecting, and that has just one case study in there. What we’re led to consider with that case is a question of how material left the Nigerian community where it was made and why it might have left. And we have lots of different avenues of thinking about those questions, but no concrete answers.

From there, we move into a section that’s about those same questions of value and authenticity, and that one has a case of the brass procession and then a throne that is from Cameroon. But what we found in our research is that most of that archival information is things that we think were just fabricated by a collector at some point in time to give the work more value. And so it’s a really interesting case of trying to show that you can’t always trust what’s written down and you got to really do these deep dives into the work and the piece.

Then the final section is about changing markets and thinking about the many different places through which the objects moved in the early 20th century. These objects (the final section’s gold weights) have a really spectacular history in that they were once functional objects that were used in this weighing of gold process in West Africa. But then they also became really, really accessible and popular items for tourists and others who were visiting West Africa throughout the 20th century and even into today.

Unidentified artist (Kedjom Ketinguh, Cameroon)Throne, before 1908Wood, X65.1624; Gift of the Wellcome Trust (Courtesy of Fowler Museum)
Unidentified artist (Kedjom Ketinguh, Cameroon)Throne, before 1908Wood, X65.1624; Gift of the Wellcome Trust (Courtesy of Fowler Museum)

[Related: Fowler exhibit to spotlight Swahili coast’s culture and global significance]

DB: What sort of particular methods were used to uncover the objects and pieces of art that the exhibit is presenting?

CF: Our exhibition is about provenance as the main topic, this history of ownership, but it’s also distinctly an exhibition about research. In the exhibition, you’ll see a lot of references to all the different kinds of research that we were doing. So we have the archival inquiry, which includes a lot of documentation and diving into old auction records and photograph archives. And then we also have the art historical side of it, which is considering how something was made and the style and the paints used. And then also, we worked really closely in conservation, which is looking at how something was constructed and the materials that were used for us and that’s a lot of material science as well. So we’re really looking across disciplines to think about the methods of looking at the objects.

DB: As this is a provenance research exhibit, how do these pieces of art overall reflect the different cultural, economic and political contexts to which they were originated from?

CF: Where they (the pieces) originated is what we’re always trying to get back to, but the exhibition is also about how works can change – meaning and value and interpretation – as they change hands. So we’re really trying to break down the barriers of what we mean by value, what we mean by authenticity and showing how that is really something that changes over time.

Attributed to the family of Sokan Akinyoke (Ikoto Quarter, Abeokuta, Nigeria)Egungunor Oro Society Mask, before 1911Wood, pigment, laundry bluing, metal screw, X65.8237; Gift of the Wellcome Trust (Courtesy of Fowler Museum)
Attributed to the family of Sokan Akinyoke (Ikoto Quarter, Abeokuta, Nigeria)Egungunor Oro Society Mask, before 1911Wood, pigment, laundry bluing, metal screw, X65.8237; Gift of the Wellcome Trust (Courtesy of Fowler Museum)

[Related: Twelve artists showcase African culture-inspired art at Fowler Museum]

DB: Is there any specific knowledge you hope visitors take away from the exhibit?

CF: They (the works on display) have a lot of really interesting details and little bits of information and really to kind of walk through the text with us to see how those visual analyses alongside the archives, alongside the material analysis, are being used to present this history altogether. I think (the) overall takeaway is first to appreciate the works that we’re showing. As always, they’re really spectacular pieces. And second, to think about the research as a process and what we’re seeing in what we’re able to learn where we see those holes, what’s missing and where we might go in the future.

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