African Artworks Provokes a Meaningful Conversation with the Fitchburg Art Museum’s World-Class Art Collection

 

Curator Jean Borgatti offers an insightful, conceptual, and educational exploration of African art

FITCHBURG, Mass., September 26, 2011 – The Fitchburg Art Museum, North Central Massachusetts’ oldest and most treasured cultural institution hosts “African Conversations: Works From the Collection in Dialogue,” that places African objects with works of art from other areas and times in our collection including Asia, Ancient Egypt, Classical Greece and Rome, and 19th and 20th century America and Europe.

“We hope this exciting show offers formal and conceptual conversations between artworks—stimulating new ways to think about the works and about museums as places of learning,” says curator Jean Borgatti.

For example: The Fitchburg Art Museum’s portrait gallery will host the sculpted image of an unidentified elder from Nigeria, adjacent to the image of a 19th century gentleman from New England. The American artist (both American and African artists are unidentified) worked to create a likeness of his subject, one Samuel Crocker, showing the lines of age, the balding head, irregular features, somber clothing and severe expression to provide clues to his personality and position as church deacon. In contrast, the African artist provides us with an ideal vision of his subject rather than his reality. He showed the Oron-Ibibio elder in the prime of his life, calm and controlled in his demeanor, upright to indicate integrity, and holding items that indicate his status within the community. Though American and African portrait traditions have different conventions for constructing identities, they both agree that a specific person is the subject, and the underlying purpose of the portrait is remembrance.

About the African Collection at the Fitchburg Art Museum

African art has assumed a new prominence at the Fitchburg Art Museum recently with large gifts from three major New England collectors, William and Bertha Teel, the Genevieve McMillan-Reba Stewart Foundation, and Dwight and Anna Heath. These works form the nucleus of a collection of some 400 traditional objects in wood, cloth, metal, and mixed media originating in over twenty countries distributed across the African continent. Recently, the museum purchased a kinetic sculpture by Sokari Douglas Camp, a trans-national contemporary artist born in the Nigeria’s Niger Delta and now living in London. The other significant purchase is a brilliant cloth applique mask and costume commissioned from an artist who had continued making these in his local community in Nigeria until his death in 2010—complete with films of similar masks dancing and an interview with the artist himself carried out in English and the local language. These two works bridge the gap between the iconic masks and sculptures characteristic of the 19th century and now, when local traditional art in Africa features new materials and artists are also educated at universities at home and abroad, selling their work through international galleries.

Curator Jean Borgatti is an internationally recognized scholar whose family came from central Massachusetts and who has been living and working here since the 1980s. Jean received her B.A. from Wellesley College where she majored in Art History with a focus on Modern art, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA where she concentrated on non-Western art with a research interest in Africa. She has worked with Okpella (Nigeria) people over a forty-year period, returning to Nigeria between 2002-2004 as a Fulbright scholar. She is currently affiliated with Clark University in Worcester MA where she taught regularly between 1984 and 2004. She served as President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association from 2009 – 2011, and has been the e-review editor for H-AfrArts, a listserv for African expressive culture since 2005.

About the Fitchburg Art Museum

The Fitchburg Art Museum, North Central Massachusetts’ oldest and most treasured cultural institution, is a world-class family-friendly museum with a permanent collection spanning 5,000 years. Visitors can experience a wealth of masterpieces in 12 galleries that feature American, European, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, African, Asian, and Pre-Colombian art. Award-winning educational programs inspire all to learn about the importance of world cultures, art history, and contemporary life. The museum was founded in 1925 through a bequest of artist, collector, educator and Fitchburg native Eleanor Norcross (1854-1923).