Want to Explore Africa? Just Travel to Philly!

Holland Cotter, “Philadelphia Offers a Full-Fledged Summer of African Art,” The New York Times, July 7th, 2016.


Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015
oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, darkening patina
2 parts, each: 48 x 120 x 1.25 inches
121.9 x 304.8 x 3.2 cm
96 x 120 x 1.25 inches (overall)
243.8 x 304.8 x 3.2 cm. Lehmann Maupin.

Born in Connecticut of April 1947, Holland Cotter hit big in 2009 by winning his very first Pulitzer Award for criticism. The prize winner currently works as an art critic for The New York Times. And while he specializes in Asian art, Holland Cotter is not afraid to go wherever the art world takes him. In his article entitled, “Philadelphia Offers a Full-Fledged Summer of African Art,” Cotter critiques the title of the exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called, “Creative Africa.” In his repose to the title Cotter states that “People talk about Africa as if it were a unitary thing, one culture, one mind, which it is not.” The author’s one and only harsh criticism toward the museum; was that by lumping all of Africa’s Art into one exhibition, may result in the assumption that all Africans reason and live their lives the same way. On the contrary, according to Nations Online there are an estimated 1500 to 2000 spoken African languages and a cite called the African Holocaust claims that there are at least 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa. So the point Cotter is trying to make is that society has these assumptions about other cultures that are sometimes not true, and often people who come from similar places may not always value the same traditions. However critical the comment may be, throughout the remainder of the article Cotter praises the museum for the jaw dropping art work on display.

In his admiration toward the exhibit, Cotter introduced the curator of the museum, Kristina Van Dyke, who believes that if the audiences of African Art truly wants to connect with any of the pieces; all they would have to do is observe the work and simply ask questions. For example, many of the viewers have wondered why the artists used “dissimilar and often unbeautiful materials,” and in response, Ms. Van Dyke replied that when differences collide they create something entirely new and unique. Some of these exceptional pieces from the exhibit were obtained by the museum as gifts, they might have been brought from the owner, or even “confiscated.” No matter where the art came from, or what it was made out of, Cotter ensures the reader that experiencing African Art is nothing short of a “fantasy.” Cotter acknowledges many of the artists, from the youngest photographer who shoots in the hot desert, to some of Africa’s most popular fashion designers. The author even informs his readers that the Dutch supplied Africa with a variety of fabric that is still influencing African print being sold in the Netherlands today. This mixing and matching between completely different cultures is again creating a new experience for its audience to enjoy.

Holland Cotter then begins to focus his article on a Jamaican artist by the name of Nari Ward. Cotter explains that is particular artist, whose work is influenced by African and Caribbean culture, uses his art to expresses his take on political issues. For example, one of Ward’s installation entitled “Amazing Grace” consist of 365 empty infant strollers. Although his 1993 work was created during the crack epidemic, at the same time, it is also a symbol of  hope for the future. Cotter suggest that Ward’s artwork pieces are “…potent, and right on target for the Black-Lives-Matter American moment.” Ward is using his art to express, not the battles that were fought overseas, but the silent battles right here in our America. Another one of Ward’s installations called “Oriented Right” characterized Ward as one of the “few 21st century artists [who] have made stronger and more textured visual statements about racism, failed justice and exile… And none have come upon with images more poet.” This installation, made of punctured holes, represented the breathing tunnels on the floor of Georgia’s First African Baptist Church which were made for hiding fugitives. At first, Cotter claims that the different pieces of Ward’s installation do not make any sense, or seem not to mesh well together. However, once put in the proper place, the pieces create something never before seen. This idea of “newness;” through the collection of the past, is how Cotter describes his experience at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Very few of the materials, or fabric are “new,” but once they are placed together, they offer their viewers an enlightened experience of the past, the present, and the yet to be seen.

-Regine Lawson


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