The historic and renowned Newark Museum has once again placed itself in a unique category among the country’s cultural institutions unveiling the first permanent contemporary African Art Gallery in the United States that is drawn from its own collection. Present Tense: Arts of Contemporary Africa, showcases collections from the museum’s historic collection of more than 4,000 works of art dating back to 1914. In addition, visitors will welcome the newest installation of art highlighting the creativity of Africa’s artists practicing today.
Present Tense showcases nine new artists who provide a window into the creative contemporary spirit of African art through painting, sculpture, photography, and works on paper, mixed media, and video art.
Christa Clarke, Ph.D., curator of Arts in Africa and senior curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, was resolute in making the exhibit a part of the Newark Museum’s permanent gallery, a goal she saw as fitting to the museum’s centennial celebration. Clarke said that through the exhibit she wants to transform what people think and know about African art as more than the traditional masks, statues and figurines. “The perception is that African art is timeless, that it is frozen in time, that it hasn’t changed and it isn’t diverse. The exhibit allows us to look at Africa in a new light,” she said.
One of the more striking works in the collection is titled Return of the Spirits II, a 2008, colored ink on paper painting by Julien Sinzogan of Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin who currently resides in France. The paintings are reimagining’s of the Middle Passage where the souls of those who died are brought home to Africa. Intricately woven into one picture are images of people chained to the mast representing departing spirits. A complementary painting of the same ship vividly captures a celebratory feeling.
Each of the artists’ own words are incorporated in the gallery’s wall text to provide a deeper understanding of their artistic intentions and creative processes.
A provocative work of art is Better Lives I by Sue Williamson of England who currently lives in South Africa. Williamson uses video and new media to visually tell the stories of marginalized immigrants to post-apartheid South Africa and the xenophobia they encountered. Each of the subjects come dressed for a portrait and is videotaped. They are then allowed to listen to their own stories in conscientious detail while Williamson captures their reactions silently through their slight movements and expressions.
“Many of the artworks on view are rooted in or engage with culturally specific content,” said Clarke. “They are informed by local histories and tradition in Africa, as well as the continent’s political and social realities. At the same time, the visual vocabulary and their artistic concerns transcend cultural, national or geographic boundaries and reflect individualized experiences.”
For information on the Newark Museum visit www.newarkmuseum.org.