Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa of the black Atlantic Matthew Rarey joined Oberlin’s art history department in fall 2015 and has since made strides toward building a comprehensive African art history curriculum for students. The first professor in his position at Oberlin, his background ranges from the study of Andean archaeology to the study of the ways in which African art developed during and after crossing the Atlantic with an emphasis on its presence in Brazil. His work has been published in many volumes, most recently in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography. Before arriving at Oberlin, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recently, he was chosen by the Allen Memorial Art Museum to helm the re-installation of its African collection with the help of the students in his seminar class. Professor Rarey sat down with the Review to discuss his perspective on interpreting African history, his vision for the new African collection and his upcoming book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you interpret African history in contrast to common conceptions of what is primitive or past?
I like these big, general questions. They get me thinking about my real motivations as a scholar.
I’m a specialist in what I call African and black Atlantic art history. … My research is … based on the African continent, but it’s also privileging trans-oceanic and trans-cultural exchanges, both to the Americas and back from the Americas, back into Africa. One of the main points that all of my classes make is that Africa is not a given concept. Africa is an idea that has been carefully constructed and reified and defined in certain ways over the past couple hundred years to give it meaning. And unfortunately, the meaning that has been given in a lot of public discourse is associated with words like “primitive,” “traditional,” “homogenous” … [and] maybe “culturally underdeveloped.”
The point that I want to make in my classes is that with a billion people, 50 countries [and] countless ethnic groups, emphasizing [Africa’s] diversity is just step one. The other thing to emphasize is … [that] the idea that African cultural practice is somehow bounded and unchanging is not only not true on the continent of Africa — it’s never been true anywhere. So what I try to do in my classes, and the way that I think about history, is emphasizing cultural production on the African continent as historically involved in exactly the same kinds of trans-national and trans-cultural processes, questions of modernity, questions of colonialism and imperialism that are deeply implicated on the continent — involving histories of the continent as not just adding African history to a longstanding discourse, but saying that Africa is part of the West. Africa is part of modernity, and has been participating in those questions and in those discourses for centuries.
How do you represent heterogeneity over the axis of time in a museum collection?
Part of the problem that a number of “Western” institutions have when they create a display of African art is that they’re bounded by the kinds of objects that are in their collections already. And the problem is that most African objects that were collected by Western museums were collected not to represent the cultural realities of the African continent. They were collected to represent what Westerners thought Africa should be. So that’s already creating an inherent bias. And usually, what that was, was wooden sculptures and masks that were produced sometime between the end of the 19th and the early 20th [centuries]. So, the majority of the collection that we have here is that. And I made it a strong point in the installation to de-emphasize that, and to re-emphasize other kinds of objects that are important to the collection that each bring out a major theme.
… The oldest piece that we have in the collection is an ivory salt cellar. It’s a couple of feet tall, and it’s attributed to a man named “The Foliage Master,” who we know was running an ivory carving workshop in present-day Sierra Leone sometime around 1500 [CE]. At that time, Portuguese merchants were actually trading with local peoples along this part of the West African coast, in the area between Senegal and Sierra Leone. They weren’t colonists. So, we already need to ditch the idea that all European presence in Africa has always had to do with colonialism. This was actually not a colonial situation. What we’re talking about is foreign Portuguese merchants who were interested in trading gold and ivory and spices and things like that with local West African groups on very equal terms. Those Portuguese merchants became interested in the local ivory carvers and local ivory trade, and they actually worked with local carvers to commission a number of objects.
One of these — this salt cellar we have on display — is the product of that. So the general form was commissioned by the Portuguese, and then the finishing touches were put on there by this local carver. … On the base, there are images of four men who are actually men of Portuguese descent, but they display scarifications on their [chests], which indicates that they had been assimilated into local society. That salt cellar is also made for export. … So the oldest piece of African art that we have in the collection was actually produced to be sold to Europeans. It’s a tourist piece. It is a product of cultural interactions between people who now live in areas that are called Europe and Africa, and it was a product of a trans-cultural encounter that was on relatively equal terms. … When we have this idea that Africa was in itself until the slave trade came along, and until colonialism came along, this object really disproves that. That starts one of these historical conversations.
What was involved in getting this exhibit to happen?
To the best of my knowledge, I am the first person to teach African art history at Oberlin College, which I think — and which I think everyone else on campus thought — was very long overdue, especially given the history of this campus. … The Allen Memorial Art Museum has been collecting African art longer than almost every institution in the United States. The earliest acquisition date on a piece that we have is an ivory tusk from Angola that entered the [ethnographic] collection in 1904, which is 13 years prior to even the founding of the museum, and is much earlier than the arrival of most African objects into U.S.-based collections, which happened more in the ’20s and the ’30s. Ironically, pieces were only collected piece-meal over the course of the 20th century, and there had been some rumblings that they were going to hire someone to the position that I now occupy.
In 2011, … around 50 objects [were donated] in honor of … Alexandra Gould, who graduated from Oberlin [that year]. That basically doubled the size of the African collection in a single evening. Meanwhile, with that small number of objects, the museum has also never had a full-time curator of African art. … The African art is technically under the purview of the Modern and Contemporary curator at the museum, because most of the pieces were produced in the 20th century. So already, we’ve got these conceptions of modernity. … The director of the museum, Andria Derstine, approached me, … and she asked me if I would spearhead [the new exhibit].
Do you have control over the blurbs for the objects?
Yes! The museum was really great; [they] gave me and my class — the seminar that I’m teaching on this — complete creative control over the labels. And there was a lot of discussion about how those labels would be written specifically for the African objects, which we think have different considerations in terms of their labeling than maybe European works might. … Yeah, they gave us total freedom over that.
What is the difference between approaching a European label and approaching an African label?
That may be too much of a generalization. … But let’s say, if you walk into an exhibit of works by Claude Monet — just to use that really typical, famous French impressionist artist — every single label on one of Monet’s paintings is going to say, “Claude Monet, French.”
Only two works that are going to go on display in the African gallery have a name of an artist attached to them. In every situation — and the only two works that have the name of an artist attached to them are by well known, trans-nationally visible contemporary African artists who have been producing work since the 1960s and onward — for almost every other object, especially those objects which were produced in the late 19th century, early 20th, we don’t have artists’ names attached to them. Often, that’s for a number of different reasons. The most obvious one is that Europeans who collected — and in some cases, to be frank, stole — these objects had no interest in recording the names of the people who made them. In other cases, it’s actually a product that in the societies and the cultural milieu in which these objects were produced, the idea of an individual artist, the way that we think of it, wasn’t even operational. There’s no conception that someone made something individually. We address this in the opening label to the installation.
There’s one piece that’s going to go on display where, … technically, the artist for it is a spiritual force who came to a spirit medium in a dream, and then told the spirit medium what the object should look like. That spirit medium is then responsible for going to a carver who gives the piece that form. So attributing it just to that carver actually obscures some of the cultural history of the subject. Given that wide diversity, we have really different conceptions of what that should mean. We were faced with a real problem of, “So, what do we put on all the labels?” What we ended up going with was a conflation of both the cultural group and the word “artist,” because we felt it was important to acknowledge that here in Ohio, we need to talk about these objects as art, because people may be coming into the museum and not thinking about them that way.
So, in the place of a lack of name, we have something like Yoruba — which is a main cultural group in Nigeria — Yoruba artist, or Luba artist, or Baule artist. Other museums are tackling this problem in other ways; some of them say things like “anonymous” or “unidentified” or “unknown” or “unrecorded.” But the thing that we didn’t want to do is say something like “Yoruba peoples,” which gets done a lot. The reason we didn’t want to do that is because it makes it seem like all 10 million Yoruba people made this one object. Or that they’re all the same, and that they’re all unchanging. We really wanted to bear down on the idea of individual creativity and historical agency for African peoples. With that, we also made an insistence that the objects should all be labeled with their local African names and those names appear first on the labels. To the best of my knowledge, this is pretty unprecedented in a U.S. museum. Most museums will have a rough English translation of what the name of an object is first, and then in parentheses put the African name, if they do so. I was pretty insistent that I wanted the African name first because that’s the name of the object. And then you put the translation in parentheses. So there was a ton of discussion about that between me and the students.
What are you working on now?
I have a book to write, which somehow I have to get on. … Right now, it is both a history of and a discussion of the cultural implications of this artistic practice that has … never really been discussed before in art history.
… In the 1730s, in Lisbon, Portugal, there were a bunch of enslaved African priests who were put on trial for sorcery and witchcraft. The reason that they were put on trial is because they were manufacturing little tiny pouches that they would sell, basically to everyone in town — not only other Africans, but upper-class whites, too, and everyone in between. They sold those pouches with the promise that they would protect from malevolent spiritual forces and dangers. Some of those pouches actually still survive, attached to their trial records in the National Archive in Lisbon, which makes them some of the oldest extant objects produced by enslaved Africans whose names we actually know, and whose biographies we can trace somewhat. And so, the history that I trace is that these pouches — which were called mandinga, which is the name of a West African ethnic group — were made by Africans, usually who were enslaved in Africa around present-day Benin in Nigeria, [who] were eventually enslaved and taken to Brazil and then who finally had made their way to Portugal. So they’re these amazing cross-Atlantic biographies and histories. But … the objects they’re producing are small and ephemeral, and if you didn’t know what they were, you’d think they were trash, and in fact that’s a word that is frequently taken up in the trial records by the people who were accusing them.
I’m pretty convinced at this point that these objects pose some fundamental questions about the discipline of art history and African diaspora studies — questions about what … African continuity in the Atlantic world [means], and to who, questions about how enslaved Africans were dealing with that position and the aesthetic practices that they’re taking up to talk about slavery for themselves, and also questions of the kind of artistic practices that Africans found really important in their own lives that are just completely marginalized from mainstream art-historian discourse. So you’re not going to see a small pouch like this on display in a museum. No one’s collecting that; no one’s writing about it. And yet there’s something about these objects which they perceived as culturally and aesthetically really central and important to their identity and their practice. So I’m trying to talk about what the big implications of that are.