South Atlantic Art Worlds
I am struck by the close thematic links and stylistic similarities between the contemporary art worlds of Bahia, Togo, Benin, and Southern Europe. I am currently preparing a research project to examine more deeply this history of artist exchanges, traveling exhibitions, and similarities in genre paintings and how they are constituting a uniquely South Atlantic contemporary art world.
My interest in African art began with the exhibition African Worlds, which I curated at the Horniman Museum in 1999. At that time there were few art books that used specific African conceptual systems to interpret the works they illustrated. As I documented the works in the Museum's collection and wrote exhibition text, I began keeping files on specific categories of objects and completed a manuscript organized thematically in 2001 (Horniman Library and Archive). I continued researching and adding to these files with notes, relevant articles, and photographs of objects in collections throughout the world. These files formed the basis of Under Different Moons: African Art in Conversation (2021). The book with contributions from Nuno Porto and Titilope Salami, provides a thematic classification of works in the collections of the UBC Museum of Anthropology. These are all much more recent collections than those of the Horniman Museum, which nevertheless show a striking likeness and suggest stylistic continuity between the first and second halves of the 20th century.
African Worlds grew out of a previous project to decolonize the interpretations often ascribed to African art, undertaken while at Brighton Museum, 1994-1995. The research focused on figurative Congolese object-entities that had been described in foundational discourses on psychiatry, sexual deviancy, and early anthropology as "fetishes". The project traced the origins and uses of these discourses from the late 19th century to the present, explicated their colonial interpretations, and substituted descriptions derived from Kongo peoples themselves. The research resulted in a major touring exhibition, Fetishism. Visualizing Power and Desire which included seventeen Kongo and Songye power objects, works by surrealists and contemporary artists and was shown at Brighton and Nottingham museums and the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, UK. I edited two books, Fetishism. Visualizing Power and Desire (1995), and The Chameleon Body. Photographs of Contemporary Fetishism (1996), based on this research.
After curating African Worlds, I went on to curate five smaller exhibitions that opened different dialogues between the Horniman historical African collections and the work of contemporary African artists. This series of exhibitions and interventions enabled me to better understand and appreciate modern and contemporary African artists, Godfrey Donker, Sonia Boyce, Osi Audu, and others. My research interests deepened in 2019 when I delivered a paper on museology at the University of São Paulo. On that trip, I visited the city’s African Museum and Contemporary Art Museum and became fascinated by their designs and curatorial strategies. I spent a further week in Salvador, Brazil where I visited artist’s studios and exhibitions. What struck me most was not similarities in the religions, iconographies and material cultures of Bahia and West Africa, but the close links between the subjects of the contemporary art of the two regions, and the number of artist exchanges, traveling exhibition, and similarities in the genres of painting in and between Bahia, Togo and Benin. I am now preparing a research project to examine more deeply the history and development of the South Atlantic contemporary art world.
2021 Shelton, Anthony. Under Different Moons: African Art in Conversation. Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing and UBC MOA, 2021.