As museum goers, we’ll likely never have the opportunity to meet the artists whose work we see hanging on the walls. Maybe a local artist in a smaller show, but never a major international figure.
It’s a shame because artists are fascinating people. We’re used to it. We don’t meet our favorite musicians or actors either.
As a long-time museum director, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee owns a different experience. She meets all the artists. Beyond mere meetings, she spends time and develops relationships with them.
Such is the case with Brownlee and Zanele Muholi.
Brownlee met Muholi when Brownlee was director at Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts. She curated a show of Muholi’s photography there in 2018. It was that experience which allowed Brownlee to fill a sudden and unexpected COVID-19 exhibition gap in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens 2021 exhibition calendar. With a show stuck in Los Angeles and an empty gallery staring her in the face, Brownlee made a few calls and within 72 hours pulled a rabbit out of her hat, landing “Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” for the Cummer, the same show she presented at Spelman.
Bringing the internationally traveling exhibition featuring one of contemporary photography’s brightest stars to Jacksonville with no notice was an extraordinary flex by Brownlee who’d been on the job as director at the Cummer for all of about three months when this crisis presented itself.
Brownlee knew Muholi, knew the work and knew the company organizing and promoting the exhibition from her time at Spelman.
Zanele Muholi the person
I asked Brownlee what kind of person Muholi is.
“They (Muholi’s preferred pronoun) are hilarious. They love chocolate. They have a great rapport with my daughter. They are very serious,” Brownlee said. “I had the great pleasure of actually spending time with them when they were creating a work. We went to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery (Alabama) together.”
Located on the site of a former warehouse where Black people were enslaved, the museum’s multimedia exhibits immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South, and the world’s largest prison system.
“This space is engrossing. It’s intoxicating. It is looking at the history, or legacy, of lynching,” Brownlee remembers. “So, for (Muholi) to be brought up under rule of apartheid (in South Africa) and to spend time together in that space where lynching was the focus was an astounding opportunity for me, and to know that they created a work in that space.”
Listening to Brownlee recall time spent with Muholi makes clear the two have a relationship that extends beyond museum director and artist.
“Everybody’s cell phone becomes this incredible document of what they do, to look back at my cell phone picture roll and see that time we spent together was just very, very special,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee’s intimate description of Muholi in combination with observing Muholi’s candid, revelatory self-portrait photography allows for a true understanding of the artist.
“They are sensitive. They are worldly, and by worldly, I mean well-travelled – they’ve got experiences in so many different parts of the world,” Brownlee adds. “You’ll notice that many of the works (in the exhibition) are actually the names of cities (where self-portraits were taken), you’ll see works that were created in Charlottesville, you’ll see works that were created in Oslo. The reason I mention that is because they take these experiences, wherever they go, and they’re informed. They are history and they share so much about their experiences.”
Experiences we as museum goers can share in.
Experiences Brownlee cherishes in her capacity to share those insights with us.
“Personally, this is an extraordinary privilege, a real, real privilege,” Brownlee said. “Muholi is an exceptional human being, but I love to say is that they make me think differently. They make me think about the world in ways that are expansive, ways that are really dynamic. Our great hope is that Jacksonville residents and beyond come and really soak in the magic, the dynamism of their work.”
“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” is on view at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL through Sunday, June 20.Andrea Barnwell BrownleeCummer Museum of Art and GardensZanele Muholi
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