Home Art collection Questioning the Place of Black Art in a White Man’s Collection

Questioning the Place of Black Art in a White Man’s Collection

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PHILADELPHIA — Dazzled by iconic paintings by Cézanne, Matisse and Seurat, most visitors to the Barnes Foundation overlook African sculptures. Still at Albert C. Barnes, founder of the collection, they were central. He began to acquire African sculpture in 1922, the year the foundation was created, because it had inspired Picasso, Modigliani and many other artists in France whom he supported. “At the opening of the Foundation, Negro art will have its place among the great artistic manifestations of all time”, he wrote to his Parisian dealer in 1923.

Barnes believed that an appreciation of African masterpieces would also advance the cause he fervently championed alongside modern art: the advancement of African Americans in society. As a testament to his commitment, African sculpture was the subject of the foundation’s first published book, and the entrance to the original museum in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, featured tile and terracotta designs inspired by African pieces from the collection.

But the patronage of black art by a white millionaire is complicated, then as now. Acquiring cultural artifacts from a subjugated or impoverished society raises ethical questions. And once African sculpture is taken out of the context in which it functioned, what role does it play? And what interests does it serve?

With a commission from Barnes for the centenary of the foundation, black English artist Isaac Julien created a black and white cinematic installation on five screens, “Once More…(Statues Never Die)”, which examines the place of African art in the Barnes and other Western museums.

In two adjoining galleries, he complemented the film with a sculpture exhibition that features eight works of African art moved from their usual upstairs perches at the Barnes, accompanied by three bronzes of African-American subjects by Richmond Barthe (1901-1989), a prominent Harlem Renaissance artist, and five contemporary works, by Matthew Angelo Harrison, of cut-out African tourist sculptures embalmed in polyurethane resin and enclosed in aluminum framed display cases.

The protagonist of Julien’s film is Alain Locke, an African-American writer, critic, and teacher considered the intellectual father of the Harlem Renaissance. Through Barnes, Locke had his first significant exposure to masterpieces of African sculpture. Locke in turn gave Barnes access to black writers and artists. Julien explores the true working relationship — both collaborative and antagonistic — between these strong-willed men. Each learns but mistrusts the other. In a personal sense, their exchanges encapsulated the sensitivities and inequalities surrounding the adoption of black African art by mainstream white culture and the struggle of black Americans to claim and use this heritage as their own.

“I call it the poetics of restitution, something I try to explore in the work,” Julien said in a phone interview from London. “The debates that we have today and which seem contemporary took place 50 years ago, if not before. I think it’s really interesting.

In a way that won’t be obvious to most viewers, “Once Again… (Statues Never Die)” is a quasi-sequel to two movies: “Statues Die Too” a 1953 short film by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, which ruminates on the displacement of African art to Western museums by imperialists who degraded the cultures and peoples they colonized; and Julien’s revolutionary film, “In Search of Langston”, from 1989, which he calls a “meditation” on poet Langston Hughes’ ambiguous queer identity. Locke, who was quietly but unmistakably gay, romantically pursued young Hughes. In “Once Again… (Statues Never Die),” Julien incorporates footage of Harlem gay balls he staged for “Looking for Langston,” as well as a musical setting he used earlier in the Hughes’ famous line, “What happens to a deferred dream? ?”

In “Once Again…(Statues Never Die)”, Julien, a black queer artist, watches with sensitive curiosity Locke’s sporadically sexual friendship with the young African-American sculptor Barthé. The film incorporates excerpts from archival footage but relies primarily on scenes directed by actors playing Locke, Barthé and Barnes. The recreations are often very precise, as when, mirroring the filmed documentation of Locke and Barthé, the actors reproduce their original positions and expressions while smilingly examining Barthé’s art.

One of Barthé’s major works, ‘Male Torso’, is a nude that departs from the Greco-Roman ideal in search of an alternative noir prototype. It was, writes Jeffrey C. Stewart in his authoritative biography of Locke, “The New Negro”, “a sculpture that visualized a new black masculinity” that was “leaner, slimmer, slimmer” and “an icon of black homosexual desire”. The nude model in the film strangely conforms to the sculpture. (Julien confirmed that he did “body casting” to find him.)

But in a half-hour film, the question of what it was like for a black homosexual like Locke to live in America in the first half of the 20th century is awkwardly intertwined with issues surrounding the displacement of art African in Western museums. . “Once Again… (Statues Never Die)” intercuts re-enacted scenes from Locke with a fictional character Julien describes as his “second protagonist”, a tall African curator who first appears in a scene shot in anthropological and archaeological Pitt Rivers. Oxford Museum, where she bears witness to the wounds suffered by civilizations stripped of their cultural treasures.

Towards the end of the film, historic photos of the 1897 British raiding expedition which destroyed Benin City in present-day Nigeria and brought a treasure trove of bronze and brass masterpieces to the British Museum, are accompanied by extracts from the journal of the expedition. leader. Julien also includes images of “You Hide Me” a 1970 documentary filmed in the basement of the British Museum in 1970 by the Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo, which follows a young black man and woman as they unpack African artifacts stored in crates.

These scenes amplify Julien’s theme of African art’s restless journey into Western realms, while a recreation of Locke gazing lovingly at Barthé as he sleeps resembles an excerpt from “Looking for Langston.”

In the interview, Julien faulted Barnes for limiting his support of black art to the work of African civilizations and for not collecting output from his own African American contemporaries. (Barnes did, however, purchase and exhibit Horace Pippin’s paintings.)

“Someone like Barnes was not interested in the sculptures of Richmond Barthé, they are not part of his collection, but they were of great interest to Alain Locke”, Julien said. “Why don’t people know about the works of Richmond Barthé? He didn’t do a lot of work, but he was an important African-American artist. We feel the sensuality of Richmond Barthé’s sculpture. The reason they are disavowed, could it be their resonance in the way of something that was debatable? Even today, says Julien, homoeroticism is a delicate subject for many African-American art historians.

But Barnes ignored Barthé for other reasons. Barnes favored cutting-edge modernism; Neither a popular artist nor a cubist, Barthé was closer to Rodin than to Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko, and the other sculptors Barnes collected. But for Locke, the primary significance of African art was its power to reinvigorate the flourishing of black consciousness in the present. This important distinction can get lost in the torrent of ancillary material from Julien’s film.

Unlike the British raiders in Benin, Barnes did not burn down a town to obtain his carvings. Yet his admiring acquisition of African art from the society that nurtured him continued a process that began with shipments of the bronzes from Benin to the British Museum in the late 19th century. Raising these questions in an evocative film, Julien’s installation shines a light on the Barnes’ prized treasure of African art – and the long shadows it casts.

Isaac Julien: Once again… (Statues never die)

Through September 4, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA; 215.278.7000; barnesfoundation.org.