During the ongoing controversy at Binghamton University, the director of the university art museum, Dr. Lynn Gamwell, defended her position of bringing the exhibition, "Engaging The Camera: African Women, Portraits and the Photographs of Hector Acebes" to the university. The following are commentaries from faculty and students on the Hector Acebes exhibition.
Responses to Acebes Art Exhibition
Compiled by Azuka Nzegwu
Part 2: Acebes Other Show (Not Safe for Work)
* The commentaries were not edited. They appear in their original form.
Dr. Lynn Gamwell's position on the Acebes exhibition (Director of the Art Museum) - Date: October 19, 2006
Thank you very much for your fruitful discussion with me regarding the current Museum exhibition. My objective in bringing this traveling exhibition to campus was to showcase a newly-discovered archive of photographs taken in Africa during the colonialist era by the Columbian photographer Hector Acebes, and, more generally, to provide an opportunity for students and the community to become more educated about the historical context in which the pictures were taken.
The reason that I scheduled an exhibit on an African theme was to correspond with the performance of African music at the Anderson Center, and I worked with the Center's director, Floyd Herzog, on this joint program. Of the many traveling exhibits that cross my desk, I selected this one because of the high quality of the photographs, the narrative framework for the pictures provided by the co-curators, who have excellent scholarly reputations, as well as the fine reputation of the organizing institution. Secondary but important considerations were also the fine reputation in the Museum world of the catalogue producer and Acebes archivist, as well as practical matters such as the rental fee being within my budget and the exhibit's availability for the time slot I needed. I am very sorry that I have offended African students by displaying this exhibition.
As we discussed, although the co-curators frame the pictures by stating their historical context in the exhibition scripting (the wall text and the catalogue), the framing of the pictures could be enriched and strengthened by additional text describing African cultures. If I (or a Museum staff member) organize an exhibit (such as the current exhibit of Sigmund Freud's neurological drawings and diagrams of the mind, which I curated), then I (or the relevant staff) give these guided tours. But in the case of a traveling exhibit such as this, we lack the expertise. Thus I very much welcome your suggestion of providing student volunteers from your organization who would act as Museum guides, giving walking tours to visitors. I think this would very much help achieve my goals, and I would be very grateful for this help.
I look forward to working with you further on the organization of the forum on Nov. 9th, 6-8pm, to discuss the issues raised by the exhibit. Also, I am enthusiastic about pursuing Professor Mazrui's suggestion of a conference in the near future to put the debate in a broader intellectual context.
Again, I appreciated your speaking with me. I welcome your views and those of any graduate students in African Studies.
Professor Nkiru Nzegwu - Date: October 3, 2006
Dear Dr. Gamwell,
It is with shock and disappointment that I viewed the Acebes exhibition curated by Andrea Barnwell, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and Isolde Brielmaier, visiting assistant professor of art at Vassar College. I was also disappointed to read your response to Professor Okpewho's criticisms.
As you are aware, Brielmaier and her collaborator Ed Marquand, director of the Hector Acebes Archive, jointly published the book titled Hector Acebes: Portraits in Africa, 1948-1953 (2004) that is the basis of the current exhibition. You could say that the seed of this exhibition was conceptualized by the Hector Acebes Archive while Brielmaier is its front woman. I am not privy to how Brielmaier convinced Barnwell to collaborate on the project. Nor, can I speculate as to why Barnwell deployed Spelman College's limited exhibition budget on voyeuristic images of this white male photographer. Perhaps, she was focusing on the aesthetics of the photographs and completely missed their sexist and racist content! Still, it is difficult to imagine how anyone in this day and age of advanced scholarship on Africa, can believe that these images are invaluable resources for scholars of African culture, or that they are appropriate for a black college like Spelman. Whatever their rationale, the fact that these two curators are African American women does not imply that their exhibition cannot devalue Africa. What is inexcusable and exceedingly problematic is that you appealed to the curators' race to justify your poor judgment in accepting an offensive exhibition for Binghamton University.
Anyone who has been attentive to art historical analyses in the last twenty years knows the extensive discourses that have taken place in art history and museum studies on power and difference in photographic representation. Suffice it to say that this knowledge has informed much of the theoretical work of Binghamton University faculty, and should have alerted you that the Acebes exhibition would encounter problems in a research institution like ours where faculty is critically engaged. Publications such as Marianna Torgovnick's Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1990), Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collinss Reading National Geographic (1993), Sander L. Gilman's "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteen-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature" (1986), and many others, have probed the ideological framework of images produced during the era of colonialism. Some members of Binghamton University faculty have taught courses on the subject; and many more have published articles and books that exposed the specious nature of myths that reinforce condescending views of Africa and African people.
The Acebes exhibition is about the most offensive exhibition that the University Museum has displayed in my sixteen years of teaching aesthetics, art history and Africana Studies at this university. It is unclear why, of all the available exhibitions on African art and culture, you chose to receive the Acebes exhibition. Over the years, various mid-size university museums and galleries--notably, Yale, Fowler Museum-UCLA, Iowa, and Newark Museum--have curated far superior educational exhibitions on African art that the University Museum could have hosted, but you never showed any inclination to receive them. Let me add that these exhibitions were curated by scholars with many years of research experience in the field of African art, and that they approached their projects with immense cultural sensitivity and a keen sense of intellectual responsibility. Moreover, it is not as if Binghamton University lacks competent resources in the curation of African art and culture. I, for one, have organized exhibitions at spaces that are more prestigious than our university museum, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (the 8th largest gallery in North America), The Power Plant: A Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto (the Canadian equivalent of, but much larger than The New Museum in New York), and Mitchell Museum-Cedarhurst, Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Although I had approached you in the past on the possibility of curating exhibitions of contemporary African art and African American art, I never received any support from your office.
I am aware of the ways the university administration has endeavored to create a wholesome multicultural community and to stand up for cultural sensitivity. African women on this campus expect to be accorded the same sort of treatment that is extended to others; nothing more, nothing less. You may want to argue that these photographs are the perfect accompaniment to your show on Freud, and to Freud's neurological and psychological theories, but that argument is defective. It ignores the larger ethical question of the exploitative framework, relations of dominance, and relations of inequality underlying the photographing of these men and women. The dignity of African women on this campus should not be sacrificed on the altar of voyeurism. Anyone who is familiar with the history of colonialism in Africa would know that the individuals in these pictures were not the empowered figures the curators glibly proclaimed them to be. In fact, the only way one can attribute power to them is to roundly falsify history and to deliberately misrepresent the power of white males during Africa's colonial era.
Binghamton University's mission statement and strategic plan eloquently underscores the importance of scholarship and research to the university community. I do not believe that the university is interested in underwriting projects that reinforce and perpetuate negative stereotypes of any members of its community. The administration's principled stand undercuts any slick argument that these images are not about the African women on campus since you are yet to curate or host an exhibition that positively addresses Africa, its art, culture, or its women. As faculty who are very much concerned with excellence in teaching and research, we cannot accept poorly conceived exhibitions, and we cannot stand by idly and have them foisted on our students. No segment of the university should be forced to bring out placards and bullhorns in order to be treated with respect. I welcome and support Professor Okpewho's recommendation that you should close down this exhibition, immediately.
Professor of Africana Studies and Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture