Fowler Museum exhibition sheds new light on African objects collected during colonial era

Brass figures on a wooden base

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Unidentified artist (Dahomey, Republic of Benin), Figure group, before 1931; brass, wood. Gift of the Wellcome Trust.

As museums across the world ask themselves and the visiting public to consider the origins of the pieces on display, the Fowler Museum at UCLA presents "Particular Histories: Provenance Research in African Arts."

The exhibition features artworks and archival material drawn from a subset of African objects dating to the early 20th century that came to the Fowler in 1965 from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936). These materials are the subject of a three-year initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation. Curated by Carlee Forbes, Mellon curatorial fellow, the exhibition is on view now through Nov. 13.

"Particular Histories" contains case studies that spotlight: a Nigerian helmet mask, a brass figure group from a Dahomey Court artist, a carved wood throne from Cameroon, a series of gold weights from West Africa and a carved wooden house post. These are installed alongside Wellcome Collection archives, letters, auction records and photographs. Each vignette draws visitors into the process of tracing the history of a work, a journey that reflects changing cultural contexts and sheds light on shifting perceptions around a work's value.

"'Particular Histories' invites audiences to experience the challenge of reconstructing an object's provenance when its history has been lost and or even omitted from past records," Forbes said. "It is an exciting moment to redirect conversations about collections and collecting."

Employing a combination of conservation, material science, archival research and curatorial methods, the Fowler research team aims to unravel the histories of African works at the Fowler and begin reckoning with the legacy of European colonization and its influence on the objects' perceived use and evolving notions of worth. The works on view invite audiences to think about collections' materiality and their history, and consider a host of larger themes that arise from provenance, beyond a series of owners.

The five case studies

In the first case study, a visual analysis of structural breaks and writing inside a carved wooden mask provide contextual clues about the mask's movement and possible acquisition by military personnel. In the absence of further archival evidence, this example highlights the difficulty of determining whether works were looted, purchased under coercion, bought on an open market or some combination of factors.

The second and third studies challenge the classifications of authenticity and value (or monetary, cultural or its significance in art history). By examining auction and acquisition records, we see how classifications oscillate between rare, authentic, valuable, mundane, fake or cheap, and how such interpretations shift over time. In the example of the brass figure procession, the research team reconsiders a piece formerly deemed "tourist art" — intended for non-African audiences — to discuss artistic agency in the form of sculptural innovations aimed specifically at European markets. In the case of a wooden throne from Cameroon, an unlikely origin story was invented in part to increase value and conjure a rare and "authentic" pedigree.

The fourth and fifth modules look for details in the myriad markets through which some object passed. African objects frequently moved within their communities on the continent and then abroad, their meanings shifting among commissions, religious objects, souvenirs, war loot, scientific specimens, curiosities or artworks. The function of the West African gold weights in this section changed over time due to new colonial policies, shifts in audiences, and altered aesthetic preferences. The "opo" or carved house post in this section contains several clues about its collectors but is ultimately representative of thousands of works that left Africa as a result of European expeditions, their histories lost in the process.

Provenance research is the crucial first step in helping to contextualize the circumstances under which belongings and ancestral remains entered the Fowler's collection. When materials can be linked to the communities who made and used them, these connections may open doors to conversations, collaborations and possible returns. The Fowler sees this ongoing initiative as an obligation and an opportunity to share provenance findings with the public and other institutions. To this end, extensive research on each object in the exhibition is also available online via StoryMaps.

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