Last month news came of the delay in plans to open the new home of The Museum for African Art, in New York. Damn, I thought to myself for a number or reasons. First is that I really miss this Museum, which has more than any in the United States (except perhaps the Fowler at UCLA) produced really amazing, groundbreaking shows since the days of Susan Vogel, its first director. Yes, since the closure of its space in Long Island years ago, the MAA has continued to produce traveling shows pending the opening of the new space. But that is not the same! And it is not good for New York's ego; after all it is still -- the last time I checked -- the center of the art world. Right?
El Anatsui, "Ozone Layer," 2010.
You see, in the world of African Art, the MAA was (yes, I use the past tense on purpose) the only reason any sane person could imagine New York as the place to go checkout ambitious, and thrilling art exhibitions of African art. But since it resorted to producing peripatetic exhibitions, New York has seen no real action, since the opening of Okwui Enwezor's traveling The Short Century (at MoMA/PS1) in 2002. Now that is more than 10 years! So if only to maintain that city's artworld ego, its stakeholders should help Elsie McCabe and her team find the money to get this building finished as soon as possible.
Just consider what New York has missed. The MAA slated three incredible exhibitions to inaugurate its new home. The first was the Divinity and Dynasty exhibition -- the once in a lifetime show of the incredible sculptures made by artists from the Kingdom of Ife (12th-15th centuries). When these sculptures reappeared in the first decade of the 20th century, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, not willing to concede that the naturalism of the figures could have been by African hands, declared he had found evidence of the existence of the lost city of Atlantis! Divinity and Dynasty soon to open at the National Museum, Lagos (which lent most of the works) is the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the Ife art corpus, and New York missed that -- just as it missed the equally phenomenal Benin: Kings and Rituals show that made its sole U.S. stop at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008.
El Anatsui, "Remnants of Grandmas Cloth," 1995.
MAA's second big show is El Anatsui's retrospective that has traveled elsewhere but New York. When you think of the fact that Anatsui is without doubt one of the preeminent artists practicing today, you feel nothing but an "ouch;" again New York will only make do with small gallery exhibits of Anatsui's latest works, rather than have the opportunity to see the artist more comprehensively framed by the MAA's show now at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
And third, in faraway Sharjah Museum of Art in the UAE, the MAA's third "inaugural" -- the retrospective of Ibrahim El Salahi (b. 1930), perhaps the most influential modernist African artist and leader of the historic Old Khartoum School -- opened last month. Ibrahim El Salahi: Visionary Modernist, guest-curated Cornell University's Salah M. Hassan (my good friend, for full disclosure) is the one of MAA's three big shows that I really, really pined to see come to New York for a simple reason. It is not just the first major retrospective of this incredibly important African modernist; it would have been the first of such in-depth presentation of an African modernist in the United States. And, as I have always insisted, despite the fashionability of exhibitions of recent African art and artists, the absence of the work of the earlier generation of Africans in the art world and art history's consciousness is a serious problem. I prayed so hard to see the MAA's new home ready in time to host the El Salahi show. Alas, that is not going to happen.
El Salahi, "Untitled," 1976.
So, frustrated, I am calling on New York stakeholders and the MAA officials, to buckle up, bear down, and get the new house open -- soon. I am not sure I can keep waiting. Perhaps, it is time to consider moving close to some other African-art-friendly city, like LA or Chicago. And when that happens, let me hear anyone tell me about how New York is the center of whatever art world!