What are we to make of the MoMA Makonde exhibition? From the outset it seems clear that this exhibition requires two assessments. Apart from appraising the Makonde sculpture itself, we also have to look at MoMA in an attempt to work out why they have chosen to present this work.
From the outset it should be stated that (in artistic terms) this is a fine exhibition and the work deserves to be seen. However, within the wider context of this particular exhibition, such a judgement seems almost secondary because, as is so often the case, the principal issues and concerns arising out of exhibition work by Black artists in white gallery spaces revolve around the ‘politics’ of these exhibitions, rather than the wok itself.
MoMA is a white gallery, that is, it is run exclusively by white people, for an anticipated white audience, who (MoMA assumes) want to look at exclusively white art. Maybe you think that that is fair enough; if you do, then grudgingly, I have to agree with you. But what does David Elliott (Director of MoMA) mean when he writes, ‘The exhibition policy of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford has consistently been concerned to challenge culturally formed preconceptions which limit the range of art which can be taken seriously’?...
…In other words, African art is much more than this and MoMA is grossly irresponsible for not making that abundantly clear, especially to a largely ignorant white audience. Not surprisingly, the Makonde exhibition is being toured to some of the worst offending white gallery spaces across the country. These galleries have no doubt convinced themselves that they have got the better of Britain’s Black artists by bringing in a large exhibition of work by 42 ‘genuine’ African artists. All of them certified genuine; none of the artificial, home-grown variety.
This highlights a potentially alarming situation which, if nothing else, will serve only to compound the marginalisation of Black artists. That is, that Britain’s Black artists cannot expect to gain any reasonable access to MoMA (and MoMA’s counterparts), having been supplanted or usurped by a preconceived and desperately shortsighted notion of African art.
The above extracts are from an exhibition review by Eddie Chambers of “Makonde” exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Art Monthly, London, Number 129, September 1989: 18-20 [RTTJ]
This review received hostile written responses from several people involved with the Makonde exhibition. The sequence of post-review Art Monthly correspondence was as follows:
October 1989 issue: response from Jeremy Coote
November 1989 issue: responses from David Elliott and Michael Stephen
December 1989/January 1990 issue: my reply to Coote, Elliott and Stephen
February 1990: Elliott response to my reply
at this point, Art Monthly terminated the correspondence.