The University of Massachusetts Amherst
HFA - College of Humanities & Fine Arts view HFA submenu
Section Menu

Elizabeth Upenieks

As a Curatorial Fellow at the UMCA, 5 Takes on African Art | 42 Flags by Fred Wilson has given me the unique opportunity to acquire valuable curatorial skills and to explore deeply the complexities of working with African objects from the Derby Collection. While I am trained in the traditional art historical canon that is based on the Greco-Roman culture, here I was challenged to question those traditional ideas, overturning notions such as ‘masterpiece’ or the venerable ‘artist’. It gave me a chance to explore theoretical ideas that often do not make it into discussions of Western art. A year of meetings, research, and planning all has fed into my new understanding of African art in a contemporary context.

Our diverse curatorial team spent many months researching, discussing, arguing on how to exhibit African Art that challenges the Western trained gaze. As the only white woman in the team, I was concerned of being too stuck in a Western mindset. Visiting the collection and talking to Charles Derby was instrumental in my appreciation of the objects. Derby’s passion for his collection, his extensive knowledge of the objects’ origins, their meaning, and role within that society was indispensable for my understanding of the objects. In time, I leaned to recognize and mitigate my Western biases.

The focus of my research came surprisingly easy and was prompted by Derby’s occasional references to pieces in his collection as ‘traditional’ and some as ‘tourist’ works. Beyond the physical markers of worn, soiled, or aged appearances that guide his judgment, he also questions the intent behind its creation. For a piece to be traditional, or “authentic”, it must have been intentionally created for, and existed within, the artist’s ethnic group. The flipside of “authentic” objects are “inauthentic” ones that were created specifically for tourists and traders, and may be indistinguishable from the “authentic” ones. For many collectors of African Art, it matters little if the artist also creates “authentic” works, employs the same materials, workmanship, energy, and passion into the “inauthentic” piece - it is still considered inferior as the intent is different. This illustrates the Western point of view, defined by African art collectors, and unfortunately, affects the appreciation of pieces that have just as much artistic merit as the so-called “authentic” ones.

Ironically, the pieces created specifically for the Western collectors, were rejected by them. Now, signs of authenticity such as wear and ageing, can be easily recreated by a skilled craftsman, and are commonplace. By eschewing the qualifiers of many Western collectors, I selected objects from the Derby collection that exist outside of that dichotomy.

While African art, no matter its intent or inspiration, has gained more acceptance in our mainstream culture, it is often still undervalued and viewed as inferior. With my selections I not only hope make aware our cultural biases but also to expand and broaden the viewers’ understanding of African Art.