Reimagining Ritual and Style - New Conversations on African Art

Last year we witnessed worldwide calls for cultural industries to re-envision their entrenched standards of practice. Museums—which had already experienced multiple evolutions since their beginnings in the early modern period as institutions for storing “collections of curiosities”—were especially at an inflection point. In response, museum directors and curators confronted questions of representation, equity, and social justice. At the Stanley Museum of Art, curators are continuing to explore these questions in many ways, including through an inaugural exhibition, History is Always Now, that will open to the public in September 2022. Ahead of the inaugural, the Stanley’s Curator of African Arts, Dr. Cory Gundlach, will facilitate a series of online events this fall titled “Reimagining Ritual and Style in African Art.” With major support from the Interdisciplinary Project for Advanced Study of Art and Life in Africa (PASALA), these panel discussions will bring together a diverse group of scholars and artists in the field of African art. 

According to Gundlach, the Stanley’s literal repositioning to a new building in downtown Iowa City, alongside a metaphorical one focused on re-animating its collections, offers the museum a unique opportunity to reconsider its collection of historical African art, one of the largest in the country. He notes, “we [must] take stock of life, our values, and our norms.”

Gundlach will moderate three online events anchored by a central question: “With special attention to ritual and style in historical and/or contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora, how must we comport ourselves to the [conditions] of our research and practice today?” Each event will feature two to three twenty-minute presentations from panelists who will then join in a roundtable discussion. 

Re-thinking the Canon, the first of the three events, is shaped by the recognition that “scholarly approaches and canons change over time in response to changing values, responsibilities, and needs.” What, then, does the African canon look like in a world forever changed after 2020? What new possibilities are there that allow us to consider the African diaspora as a context for viewing the African canon? How do associated histories among artworks re-constitute the canon and help us see it anew?

The second event, New Directions in Practice and Performance, will address innovations of creation and interpretation including, for example, ways in which artists are changing conceptions of the longstanding artistic traditions of pottery and textiles, which are important portals for exploring shifting paradigms of taste, teaching, and scholarship in African art history. Performative dimensions of contemporary artistic practice in Africa will also be explored, while interrogating ideas of “old” and “new.” 

The final event, Museum Interventions, will explore the potential for the museum to be a source for good. Together with panelists, Gundlach will probe the institution’s power to answer to youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s appeal that “the norms and notions / of what just is / Isn’t always just-ice….” How might the museum harness the power of its collections? Can it serve as a conduit for a just world, with sensitivity towards the often-fraught histories behind African artworks?

All symposium events are online and free – registration is required:

Rethinking the Canon 

 Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi is an associate professor of African art history at Emory University. Gagliardi has conducted more than thirty months of fieldwork in rural West African communities, scoured archives in Africa, Europe, and North America, and also analyzed objects in collections on the same three continents. She is the author of Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa (The Cleveland Museum of Art and 5 Continents Editions, 2015).

Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi will consider how we have arrived at what we think we know about the arts of Africa. Viewing knowledge production as a process rather than an endpoint, she will propose alternate possibilities for approaches that can be taken within and beyond museums.

 Sylvester Ogbechie is a professor of art history at University of California, Santa Barbara. Ogbechie specializes in the arts and visual culture of Africa and its diasporas, especially in terms of how art history discourses create value for African cultural patrimony in the age of globalization. He is the author of Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist (University of Rochester Press, 2008: winner of the 2009 Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association for best scholarly publication in African studies), Making History: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2011), and editor of Artists of Nigeria (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2012). He is the director of Aachron Knowledge Systems, and founder and editor of Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture.

Sylvester Ogbechie’s research considers several questions: how do we liberate our knowledge work from the stranglehold of colonial/imperial epistemologies? What is our current knowledge about African art for and who benefits from it? He investigates these concerns under the rubric of “Rethinking African Art History”, which he will present as a protocol for decolonizing knowledge about Africa’s past, present, and future.

 Yaëlle (“Yah-ell”) Biro has worked at The Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2007. She earned her PhD at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, with a dissertation focused on the reception of African art in the West during the first decades of the twentieth century, work for which she was awarded the Dissertation Prize of the Musée du Quai Branly. Among her most recent exhibitions are The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon (2017) and In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa (2016). In 2012 her exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde received the AAMC Small Exhibition Award of Excellence.

Yaëlle Biro’s presentation will investigate the shaping of African arts canon through the lens of materiality, with a focus on works in gold. Considering the turn of the twentieth century as a highly politically charged moment of heightened visibility of African works in Europe, Biro will explore the oscillating positions of gold works from West Africa within the corpus of the continent’s visual forms of expression.   

New Directions in Practice and Performance

 Nnenna (“Neh-nuh”) Okore (“Okoray”) is a professor of art at North Park University, Chicago. She has a BA in Painting from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and both an MA and MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a 2012 Fulbright Award recipient and has exhibited internationally. Her works have been featured in several important exhibitions such as Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary, Museum of Arts and Design, New York City; We Face Forward, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, United Kingdom; Africa Africans, Museu Afro Brasil, São Paulo, Brazil; and When the Heavens Meet the Earth, The Heong Gallery, Cambridge, United Kingdom. In 2018 her major installation, Sheer Audacity, was exhibited at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee. Her work is in many international collections, including the World Bank, Washington, DC, among others.

Nnenna Okore’s creative practice straddles elements of African aesthetics and practices of call-and-response. This presentation will speak to aspects of the African materialist and participatory practices that influence Okore’s own works and pedagogical thinking. Okore will draw on historical references and memories of different African canonical art to illustrate how these influences shape, provoke, and enliven a material-bodily dynamic in her creative works.


 Allen F. Roberts is the Distinguished Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at University of California, Los Angeles, and an affiliated professor of French and Francophone Studies. Dr. Roberts conducted research, organized museum exhibitions, wrote books and articles, and often co-taught with his late spouse, WACD Professor Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts (1959-2018). Allen Roberts’ most significant scholarly products have been museum exhibitions and accompanying books, with eight major exhibitions supported by NEH implementation grants based upon or directly impacted by his research.

In Yinka Elujoba’s recent New York Times review of the accomplishments of the celebrated African American artist/musician/filmmaker Lonnie Holley, emphasis is given to how Mr. Holley repurposes found objects into vital assemblages. “It’s about the brain,” he holds, the “same brain that produces the music produces the visual art. Allen F. Roberts calls it ‘brainsmithing’.” For some decades now, Senegalese artists have also been “brainsmithing” as they create engaging works from detritus. Roberts’ talk will focus on this practice and is based upon twenty years of research that he and his late spouse, Dr. Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts, undertook for the prize-winning book A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal.

 Donté K. Hayes graduated summa cum laude from Kennesaw State University at Kennesaw, Georgia, with a BFA in Ceramics and Printmaking with an Art History minor. Hayes received his MA and MFA with honors from the University of Iowa and is the 2017 recipient of the University of Iowa Arts Fellowship. His work is included in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. Hayes is a 2019 Ceramics Monthly Magazine Emerging Artist and Artaxis Fellow and the 2019 winner of the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art from the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Donté K. Hayes’ research has been focused on the pineapple as a symbol which represents welcoming and hospitality, rooted in slavery and agricultural colonization of South America, the Caribbean, and the Southern United States, particularly South Carolina and his home state of Georgia. In addition to this research, his art practice pulls from his interest in hip-hop culture, history, and science fiction. Hayes will present on his research and art practice, with a focus on how they suggest the past, discuss the present, and explore possible futures interconnected to the African diaspora.


Museum Interventions

 Bennetta Jules-Rosette is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center. She received her BA (Summa Cum Laude) in Social Relations from Radcliffe College and her MA (1970) and PhD (1973) from Harvard University in Social Relations (Sociology and Anthropology). Professor Jules-Rosette's research interests include contemporary African art and literature, semiotic studies of Black Paris, religious discourse, new technologies in Africa, and museum studies. Jules-Rosette and J.R. Osborn are co-authors of African Art Reframed: Reflections and Dialogues on Museum Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2020). The book offers a “sociosemiotic” study of museums as institutions as well as suggestions for museum transformations.

In her presentation, Bennetta Jules-Rosette will discuss the book's nodal model of museum classification. The five nodes are ideal types of museum organization based on historical and empirical observations that transcend stylistic and aesthetic idiolects. Nodes contrast the goals, classification and storage practices, exhibition strategies, and outreach activities of diverse museums. Jules-Rosette will also discuss the ramifications of the nodal model for the repatriation and restitution of artifacts as well as their implications for museum development on both the African continent and worldwide.

 J.R. Osborn is associate professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University. Osborn is a scholar and experimentalist of communication. His work explores media history, design, semiotics, communication technologies, and aesthetics with a regional focus of the Middle East and Africa. Osborn and Bennetta Jules-Rosette are co-authors of African Art Reframed: Reflections and Dialogues on Museum Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2020). The book offers a “sociosemiotic” study of museums as institutions as well as suggestions for museum transformations. The authors approach the reframing of African art through dialogues with curators, collectors, and artists across three continents, and they have given workshops on the book for academics, students, and museum professionals.

J.R. Osborn's presentation will discuss the theory and method of "unmixing." Unmixing encompasses the location and separation of semiotic and stylistic elements that compose an artwork. This method enables practices of curatorial contextualization, artistic interpretation, audience perception, and community dialogue. Taken together, these paired presentations propose new approaches for interpreting African art across the nodal categories and remixing the results.

 Peju Layiwola is an artist, professor of art history and head of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos. She is a member of the board of the Lagos Studies Association. She is currently the President elect and Vice President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association, USA. She works in a variety of media and focuses on personal and communal histories which centralize Benin as both an ancient kingdom and a contemporary city. Layiwola's dual heritage of Yoruba and Benin informs her art in diverse ways.

Peju Layiwola will consider the role and concept of the museum in Benin City. She will touch on her art projects in the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Köln (Resist! the Art of Resistance) and her 2014 Whose Centenary. The former will show how artists engage with ethnographic materials that derive from a traumatic history, and the latter, a public art project that activates a cultural space and allows for the appreciation of visual arts in the African context where art/objects are not confined to vitrine glass cases but are appreciated and consumed within a community.  

Register for New Conversations in African Art.

[From the Fall 2021 Stanley Museum of Art Magazine.]

Taiye Idahor

Taiwo (Ivie series)

, 2020
Giclee print collage, pen drawing, acrylic paint and colored pencil on paper, 112 x 80 cm
Collection of the artist © Taiye Idahor