North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

“In the not too distant past, you would walk into an art museum and the African collection would be shoved in a corner somewhere,” says Linda Dougherty. Until December, that was arguably the case at the North Carolina Museum of Art, where Dougherty is chief and contemporary curator.

But, as of Friday, when NCMA’s new African gallery opened, the collection is spread out in a prominent gallery at the entry level of the East Building. Decorative and ceremonial artifactsfrom seventh-century terracotta to twentieth-century masksmingle with contemporary artworks, hanging on walls, ranging over pedestals, standing in vitrines, and, in one striking case, soaring on stilts.

That work is “Eleanor Hewitt,” a 2005 sculpture by the renowned British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. A headless figure in a corseted Victorian dress made of African fabrics, it makes me think of the artist himself, intrepidly stepping over the noxious legacy of colonialism and into the rarified air of the global art market. Other contemporary pieces are nearby, notably El Anatsui’s “Lines That Link Humanity,” a curtain of salvaged aluminum and copper wire, and Victor Ekpuk’s “Divinity,” a site-specific chalk mural. These works are ingrained with traditional influencesGhanaian cloth in Anatsui’s case, the sacred symbols of Nigerian nsibidi in Ekpuk’sand express a heroically sanguine view, seamed with cultural criticism, of universal human connection. These works form an epicenter at the head of the gallery from which the patterns on the beautiful costumes, vessels, figures, and textiles radiate outward.

Dougherty stands before a breathtaking Yoruba costume, reflecting on how the new gallery came to be. “After we opened the West Building and moved the permanent collection there in 2010, one of the first things that came up in our evaluations was the African gallery,” she says. “It’s an object-based collection, and it was squeezed into the space, with so many cases and platforms that it was hard to bring in tours. We were also actively adding to the collection. We realized we needed to move it and give it room to breathe.”

Three times the size of the old one, the new gallery houses almost twice as many works. They span sixteen centuries and represent about half of Africa’s fifty-four countries. The museum’s holdings are augmented by a rotating North Carolina collection, starting with a loan from Greensboro’s Bennett College. The lighting system is perhaps a little dimmer than visitors might like but allows for the display of fragile paper and textile works. And an interactive learning space for kids centers on a floor-to-ceiling loom.

Made possible by a $500,000 grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, the renovation comes at a time when museums across the country are reevaluating their African collections. Last summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art filled two floors with Creative Africa; last March, Ekpuk also created a mural for the new African gallery at Tennessee’s Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. It represents a curatorial trend of reconsidering old divisions between art and artifacts.

“When you change the context, it changes how you view a work of art,” says Dougherty, who is now preparing to reinstall the modern and contemporary collection in the West Building. “I’ll be putting a work of art by a contemporary Ethiopian artist next to artists from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the United States. The conversation they have is very different from when the Ethiopian work is in dialogue with other African artists.”

Proximity helps viewers make connections between old pots and modern installations. It also presents ethical knots pertaining to the display of religious artifacts in secular institutions and the conflation of objects made for personal use with those made for the art market. Dougherty hopes viewers will consider the pieces both historically and artistically, abetted by videos, labels, and a variety of educational events through the fall.

“What’s really interesting about this collection is that it contains objects made not to be hung in an art museum but to be used in a cultural, ritual, or spiritual event,” Dougherty says. “I think objects can have more than one role and meaning, and once you create something, it goes out in the world and you no longer control how it’s used. That happens in contemporary art all the time.”

Of course, the ethics governing commercial art aren’t necessarily sufficient when personal artifacts enter private collections. So I asked Elizabeth Perrill, NCMA’s consulting curator for African art, about the challenges of merging folk and fine art. She says the division isn’t as stark as it might seem.

“The line between ‘contemporary,’ a chronological category, and ‘traditional,’ a category referring to a practice tied to cultural roots, is a blurred one,” she explains. “I do hope that visitors notice that the dates on some artworks are far more ancient than others, and that for some pieces from colonial periods, the names of artists have been lost. There are painful histories of loss related to artwork from many continents around the world.”

To Perrill, Ekpuk’s “Divinity” embodies the slippage between sacred and secular. “We have a contemporary piece to help us talk about the sacred nature of many of the objects and the diversity of spirituality across the enormous continent,” she says. “There are some distinctions between the sacred and the globally marketed works, but sometimes the line between these categories is fluid.”

Perhaps African galleries have often been relegated to dusty nooks because to highlight them is also to wade into the vexing history of European colonialism. It’s admirable that NCMA is facing these unresolved challenges. Viewers should, too. The exhibit includes a screen in which they see themselves rendered in pixels made from slides of African art. Aiming to speak of inclusion and connection, it also stirs guilty pangs of appropriation. But that’s not something a museum can be blamed or praised for. That’s just being an American, engaging in the difficult but vital process of bringing things that have been shoved in dark corners into the light.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Africa Revisited”