The Global Africa Project, currently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design through May 15, is a unique exhibition that aims to promote the arts of Africa and its influences, proving that African style and art has stretched to the far-reaches of the earth. With over 100 international artists represented on two floors of the museum, the exhibition is overwhelming. Curators Lowery Stokes Sims (Curator, MAD) and Leslie King Hammond (Graduate Dean Emeritus, Founding Director, the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art) have broken up two floors into five separate themes in an attempt to make sense of the over 150 works included in the exhibition. These themes include: Building Communities, Branding Content, Sourcing Locally, Transforming Traditions, Competing Globally, and Intersecting Cultures.
The goal of the Global Africa Project is not to “define an overarching aesthetic” but instead to tell the “stories of individuals [through] aesthetic responses”. This is a commendable goal, and one that works on perhaps a few of the works, but generally gets lost among the chaos. Overall, the exhibition almost looks almost like a hoarder’s apartment – visitors need to pick their way through a mess of unrelated and forgotten objects, objects that have been collected simply for the sake of collecting them. Ceramic pots line the floor, textiles are hung on walls behind a display of furniture, a chandelier and a box car share the same room with recycled newspaper mats, photographs, videos, architectural renderings, fashion displays, and the list goes on! It seems, and perhaps this is the museum’s point, that Africa is in everything.
The one space that worked most well was in the “Intersecting Cultures” theme, where a corner of the room was dedicated to the AFRICA Collection. It was neat, colorful and relevant; combining fashion, design illustration, video and photo, the set-up was powerful and enjoyable.
One addition that especially assisted the themes were the videos that played alongside a few of the works. Giving cultural context and displayed far enough away from the works that visitors were not distracted by them, the videos were a welcome addition to the show. What detracted from the exhibit however, were the labels, which were placed far too low for anyone to read comfortably. While they gave some interesting information, the text only added to the clutter.
In order to make the space easier to understand and navigate, the exhibition needs to be re-arranged, extraneous items culled out, and themes simplified. As it is now, visitors are given no room to stop and view a single work; there are too many distractions – fashion, textiles, furniture, photography, household objects, wallpaper, architectural renderings, and more – from all directions. The exhibition centers around defining a culture, recognizing its uniqueness and understanding its influences. While the project is certainly worth the visit simply to see how pervasive African art is in our everyday lives, it fails to maintain an organized, understandable narrative, losing our attention along the way.
To check it out, visit the museum at 2 Columbus Circle. Every Thursday is Pay-What-You-Wish from 6-9pm.