objects of Africa, objects of Harlem?
Reading Stewart’s chapter “Objects of Desire” after visiting the Museum of Art and Origins with Arrie and Claire provided interesting insights into the connections the Museum’s objects have to Stewart’s discussion of the souvenir and the collection.
From Arrie’s brief description of the Museum in class a few weeks ago, I got the impression that this house was a collector’s display of his African artifacts, where these objects become aestheticized so as to represent connections to an idealized continent – a place of origins, a motherland to Harlem. Upon walking in to the house, I was unsurprised. My expectations were somewhat on target. The place was filled with objects. I was reminded of Victoria’s Apartment in the Tenement Museum, where I had also been struck by the intensity of materiality in her reconstructed home. This Museum, however, contained its objects in a different way. There were a handful of modern paintings by contemporary artists – many African-American – and some East Asian prints, but the majority of the pieces were wooden masks and sculptures from Africa. Everything was everywhere, on walls in hallways, stairways, on tables, on windowsills…some paintings were even filed together on the floor of the entrance hallway, with no place to be seen.
I arrived a bit late, and shortly after, the professor/owner/curator of the Museum, George Nelson Preston, Ph. D., entered, and came over to discuss a series of five masks mounted on stands, placed on a table against the wall. He first stated that these objects are incomplete, noting that they were representations of what were once part of elaborate living outfits consisting of many components. The outfit, the dances and rhythms that they were made for, and the ceremonies that utilized the outfits all carried the same name. There was not separate name for the object we were seeing on the table. (Perhaps this was his disclaimer for the lack of wall text and labels?) These entire outfits were once collected, he continued, but upon arriving in Europe they began to be compared to European standards of artistic materials, and as much of these outfits were made of organic materials, everything but the wooden mask part was discarded/devalued. The five masks were described to us as “variations on a theme”, and he noted the similar markings that signified cosmological and spiritual elements.
I was amazed. The professor was trying to give an adequate scholarly explanation of the objects that justified their decontextualized, aestheticized presentation. Also, he never positioned himself in the anamoly of displaying the masks in such a way, and never told us why he chose these masks in particular or if he was even the one who acquired them. Knowing what I do about the history of collecting, I had to ask, “How did these objects come to be in this museum?” His response was a steady and well-rehearsed monologue that went something like this:
Culture is fluid. It travels and moves like water. The impetus for its movement is economics. Money. Money is what makes these objects of culture travel. How did the Met and the Louvre get their collections? They had the money. $100 for a mask like this buys the carver/seller enough cement to build a house, and he can then just make another mask in its place. Or sell you a fake! It may seem crude, but the seller thinks it is a good deal. [Pause.] That is one answer. But that is the best answer.
I could not believe it! To state that was to really make some declarations about the origins of his art. However, the vagueness and removed quality of his narrative continued to set himself apart from the actual collection process of his own Museum pieces. Ironically, the Museum’s stated mission is:
“MoAAO is dedicated to the preservation and exposition of art in relation to its origins. MoAAO addresses the question what generates art? and endeavors to exhibit art in dialogue with its origin: culture-historical, environmental, ideological, medium/process.”
Interestingly, the origins of many of the objects we saw – and were told about – were NOT exposed. A country or ethnic group was the most specific he got. In thinking about the Museum in relation to its position in Harlem, Stewart’s chapter provides a useful framework.
The souvenir – as described by Stewart – is incomplete without its owner’s narrative that ascribes significance to the life of the object, which in turn signifies identification for the object’s possessor: “It will not function without the supplementary narrative discourse that both attaches to its origins and creates a myth with regard to those origins. …What is this narrative of origins? It is a narrative of interiority and authenticity. It is not a narrative of the object; it is a narrative of the possessor.” (Stewart 136) In this sense, I believe the objects in Mr. G.N. Preston’s Museum functioned in a way like souvenirs. However, they were of course his collection.
“While the point of the souvenir may be remembering, or at least the invention of memory, the point of the collection is forgetting – stating again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie….The spatial whole of the collection supersedes the individual narratives that ‘lie behind it.’” (Stewart 152, 153) The invention of culture, and the forgetting of each individual object’s history, is the modus operandi of the MoAAD’s display of “African Art.” However, the aesthetic presentation and valorization of these forms are supposed to be a way of instilling pride in African roots.
Nostalgia, desire, longing. These were all at play in the narrative Mr. Preston prescribed to his collection. In a sense, the objects also maintained an element of relic. Stewart writes, “Because they are souvenirs of death, the relic, the hunting trophy, and the scalp are at the same the most intensely potential souvenirs and the most potent antisouvenirs. They mark the horrible transformation of meaning into materiality more than they mark, as other souvenirs do, the transformation of materiality into meaning.” (Stewart 140, emphasis hers) The African mask at the MoAAO, as described by Mr. Preston, did function as relic because their meanings have been subsumed by their material and aesthetic forms, and the death of the mask’s life – as they are only fragments of what they had originally been, in context – turns into the life of the community museum, and the life of an imagined Africa for Harlem.