‘Second Careers’ pairs highlights from Cleveland Museum of Art’s African collection and works by six contemporary African artists

The connections between historical African art and contemporary practice are deep but not always apparent. Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art probes this connection through a smart selection of stellar highlights from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s African collection and loaned works by six contemporary African artists of different generations. The exhibition is on view in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery through March 14, 2021.

“Enigmatic, awe-inspiring and accumulative are some of the words used to describe historical African art as well as its impact on the viewer,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “This exhibition contemplates how contemporary African artists from different generations draw inspiration from and seek transformative encounters with the historical canon, providing a critical understanding of African art, past and present.”

Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art presents objects from nine cultures in Central and West Africa that are juxtaposed with large-scale contemporary installations, sculptures and photographs. The exhibition considers the status of canonical African art objects as they begin their “second careers” upon entering museum collections. It simultaneously examines modes of artistic production in Africa that employ mediums that once served other purposes in everyday life.

“The exhibition’s premise is twofold,” said Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, the exhibition’s curator and former curator of African Art at the CMA, currently the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Second Careers explores the role of historical African art in the Western museum context: how the objects made their way into the museum and the expectations placed on them to educate, to act as vectors of cultural memory and history and, ultimately, to add value to the institution in their second careers. The exhibition’s secondary focus is the relationship between historical arts of Africa and contemporary practices.”

Objects from the CMA collection in the exhibition consist of male and female figures and masks, a masquerade dance costume, a headdress, a prestige belt, a hunter’s tunic and a throne from nine cultures in Central and West Africa (Yombe, Songye, Yoruba, Babanki, Baule, Chokwe, Malinke, Yaka, Kuba, and Senufo). They are positioned in dialogue with large-scale works by El Anatsui (Ghana), Nnenna Okore (Nigeria), Elias Sime (Ethiopia), Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique), Tahir Carl Karmali (Kenya and United States) and Zohra Opoku (Ghana). The contemporary works draw attention to how African artists practicing today address historical African art as a living archive from which they draw inspiration and seek transformative encounters.

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