07/26/2011 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The New View From Atop Manhattan's Museum Mile: Africa

110th & 5th Avenue, New York City, Harlem.

Harlem Meer is in the foreground. The scene makes for an instant city pastoral: a thicket of trees, the Dutch pond, and a museum... behind me. At this lazy hour of 5th avenue traffic, I can manufacture a scene in Beacon, NY sitting in front of DIA. But, I'm in Manhattan, in Harlem and the bucolic contrast is the kind of thing that saves you in NYC. I'm looking outward from the entrance of a big building that proposes a big conversation about Africa, about Art, about people -- a conversation long overdue.
View of Harlem Meer from Museum doorstep.

The Museum of African Art is scheduled to open in 2012. It won't be, however, a new institution. It's been around for a while, 27 years, formerly housed in a small Soho-NYC gallery space while being (even during that time) one of the world's few independent museums dedicated exclusively to African art. The Museum has organized more than 60 exhibitions that have traveled to over 150 venues in 15 countries including the U.S. I imagine the itinerant is happy to have a home now.

In its pending form, it is a 90,000 sq ft structure that even in its skeleton state seems to carry the weight of the Continent, the Diaspora, New York City, and Art itself. I'm walking the full plan of it with museum President, Elsie McCabe Thompson, and the structure gives off a distinct humanity. The giant, airy interiors conceal a painstakingly executed series of cantilevers designed to avoid your navigating the huge columns that would otherwise be essential for support. As a result, the sharp Curator will be able to immerse you in a world, not just welcome you to another art exhibition.

You can sense the kind of involvement that Mrs. Thompson intends for the museum. This will not be art to be simply admired from a distance, whether that distance is physical or cultural.

As a design influence, Mrs. Thompson singles out Nelson Mandela's establishment of South Africa's highest court, the Constitutional Court. He specifically mandated a building for the people and fundamental role for art in creating that, starting with the first concepts.

President, Elsie McCabe Thompson, among the distinctive architectural shapes defining the Museum's structure.

That fact led me, coincidentally, to a person whom I have met, publisher and gallerist David Krut and this 2008 release , Art and Justice: The Art of The Constitutional Court of South Africa, designed by Ellen Papciak-Rose, featuring photography by Ben Law-Viljoen:

[Mandela] sought to bring together, in the most inspiring, innovative and dignified way possible, art and the workings of justice, and to give a public soul to the new Court building... Essential to the original design of the Constitutional Court... was the integration of art and architecture into the most important building of the new South Africa. To realise this aim, the architects sought designs from artists for elements of the building such as lights, security gates and sun screens. The architects also commissioned artists and craft collectives to design and make furnishings for the Court. The result of these important collaborations can be seen in the colour, vibrancy, warmth, and humanity of the building.

Mrs. Thompson uses analogous language and has directed an effort that invokes Mandela's approach to the classic problem of disenfranchisement being met with either fresh disregard or the awkwardly patronizing attempts of institutions to "involve the people." For Mandela, the problem was unifying an entirely disenfranchised country around new and immediately legitimate institutions. (What vehicle can do this in the way Art can?) For the Museum of African Art, it can't be ignored that the top of Museum Mile now starts in Harlem, the name still being a worldwide synonym for "black," this brand being a net positive mix of enlightened art, a vibrant village, and black disenfranchisement.

So, here is the parallel reality: Building country (community) with intent to install undeniable credibility in a public institution by using the breadth of art to define the building and invite the people in. The neighborhood isn't shielded from its giant neighbor as windows open onto the courtyard of brownstone backyards. The second level atrium is an open-air respite and a dedicated event space for local and international activities. There is no separate "education entrance," to the Museum, an understandable feature that gives efficient access to the busloads of grade-schoolers bound to visit. But here, everyone enters the same doors. Above the Museum is a residential high-rise building that gives clear and dramatic views over Manhattan north and south, Central Park, and across the Hudson River.

After 13+ years of Mrs. Thompson's wending through city, state, and local regulations and politics, and a $95 million budget, this edition of Africa in New York has to be more than a cultural outpost. It has to be a world destination.

The proposed experience completes an integrative mission. Integrating Africa into broad conversation is where academia, journalism, and plain old conversation still fall down. The American experience, in particular, owes more to Africa than we will ever learn from tropes spanning the news, the college, and the coffee shop that give simplistic treatment to such subjects as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its legacy, and Nelson Mandela, the latter often being rendered in a virtual civil rights box set with King and Malcolm X. As a result, we leave out "the legacy of [our] coming together" (as Wynton Marsalis calls it), the stories of the unexpected advocates for freedom, and even the study of the "complex adaptive systems" (to riff on Miller and Page) that make the USA unique.

If we would ever mainstream a worldview that neither exoticizes nor damns Africa as the still-Dark Continent, then it's time for a new experience. Art should lead.

Detail of signature patterns, Museum for African Art exterior.

So, what will that experience be? One example: Giving an art presentation to certain artifacts that would formerly have been shown in curio cabinets. Follow that by filling the space with comprehensive narratives: Who made this? Why? When? Why is it here in the museum? How was it used? How was it considered by the people who made it? So, now, "Standing Figure with Nail" goes from headscratch-inducing thing on a wall to an account of a dispute resolution method in which the nail indicates a social compact, a binding agreement that invokes a spirit figure as metaphor and uses that spirit to cue various art forms. This may bring us to the thought and humanity behind a given piece and relieve us of lazy, wholesale mysticism.

In short, you'll be a capable docent, yourself, with help from the narratives surrounding you.
It's funny that when we try to build beyond our humanity in order to reach the sublime, the resulting thing often ends up tall as wind and bland as a beige minivan -- or, just corny. (See your local skyscraper.) That's a challenge for something on the scale of the Museum of African Art. The paradox is that we might just achieve the sublime by building humanity into a thing and, in doing that, point to something greater than us.

I hope they pull it off. This kind of knowledge and deep experience can add dimension to our self-concept by plumbing an integral meeting point, the one we all share, given the starring role of Africa in world affairs. And, for our purposes in this writing, it would be a living intersection of Art, The Arts, and Policy.

President, Elsie McCabe Thompson in the 2nd level courtyard overlooking Central Park North.

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