Accepted paper:

In Between Congo and Belgium: The ambiguous role of contemporary art in the Royal Museum for Central Africa


Elaine Sullivan (University of California (UCLA))

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes the contemporary art in the renovated Royal Museum for Central Africa, and how the artists view their roles. Artists connect past artistic practices to the present and historic objects with contemporary communities, reflecting debates on transnational flows of objects and people.

Paper long abstract:

The presence of contemporary African art in ethnographic museums highlights questions of such art's categorization as contemporary or African, and how it can build connections between present day communities and historical objects found in the museums. The renovation and reinstallation of ethnographic museums in Europe have brought such questions to the forefront, as objects once relegated to the ethnographic sphere are reconsidered and museums prioritize community engagement. Questions about the role of contemporary arts in ethnographic museums are infrequently posed to the artists themselves, however. In this paper, I analyze the contemporary arts in the recently reopened Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Based on interviews with the artists whose work is featured in the museum, I suggest that contemporary arts can indeed disrupt traditional ethnographic displays and provide new points of view, changing the course of conversations about arts and Africa. Nonetheless, I argue that contemporary arts are not a cure-all, and that their mere presence does not "decolonize" a museum or sufficiently address colonial legacies. Further, their presence in an ethnographic museum changes the meanings of art works and risks categorizing the artists and their artwork in a similar manner to their predecessors. In being relied upon to create connections, artists are placed in between multiple communities on at least two continents. Their interstitial place, however, provides a window onto questions of transnational circulation of arts and people, and wedges open the door to further conversations between Africa, the African diaspora, and Europe more broadly.

panel Art13
Connections and disruptions: African contemporary expressive culture in the global context