New Orleans, protests against museum for choosing a white woman as curator of African art

The New Orleans Museum of Art, the Louisiana city's premier museum, is in a storm for choosing a white woman as curator of the African art section.

In New Orleans , the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), the Louisiana city’s main art museum, ends up in a storm because of a recent appointment. Indeed, the institution has been hit by a wave of protests, expressed mainly through social media, because a white-skinned professional, Amanda M. Maples, was chosen as curator of the African art section.

Lots of negative comments. “We have worked for centuries to be in control of our own expression,” writes one user. “Our art. WE. BLACK. Giving someone who knows nothing about the lived black experience the role of chief curator of African art is just wrong.” “The work of curating black and African art,” says another user, “is soul work. Our history and artworks have been abused, stolen, attacked and destroyed since the West learned about us; putting together, preserving and telling the stories of the fragments that somehow escaped the violence of white supremacy and colonization is spiritual work. Institutions like yours should empower, enable and support us to do it. It is really very bad that you do not understand this after so long.” Many less detailed comments: for many users commenting on a museum’s Instagram page, the issue is simple, African art should be curated by a black person. And there are those who simply ask, “you couldn’t find a black curator in all of New Orleans?”

However, there are also those who think otherwise, even in the black community itself (just as there are also whites who believe that a black person should be in charge of Africa’s art). “I have known Amanda Maples for over 8 years, I met her in Senegal, in my hometown,” says a Senegalese artist. “I was absolutely blown away by her knowledge in the field of African art, she was able to distinguish all the masks I used in my art, she was able to state which tribe each one came from and the meaning behind each individual ritual. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the depth of her knowledge in the field of African art. I trust that African art will benefit and has benefited from his sincere efforts.” For others, however, that is not enough: “in those eight years,” one user replies, “have you ever met a black curator who was given the same opportunities to interact with you and advance their career?” And another, “if she is your friend and you have respect for her you should talk to her about the damage she is doing. You should tell her if she wants to stay that she needs to encourage her new employees to create a team that includes people of color from New Orleans who are paid as much as she is if not more.” Surreal concluded, “to be honest, we are tired of people who are experts in our experiences.”

The prevailing view among the black community in New Orleans is that the commitment to tell the African story is in danger of failing when the very person assigned to cover the subject is not a person of color. In short, evidently for many African Americans if you are not black, you cannot oversee a collection of African art.

The New Orleans Museum of Art attempts to throw water on the fire by explaining the obvious: that Maples was chosen for her professionalism. “Although we cannot speak of others who were considered for this position, Maples’ broad experience and emphasis on sustained collaboration with artists and institutions in Africa and around the world distinguishes her from other candidates. Maples’ research and work focuses on areas in which NOMA is seeking to grow, including leading a crucial reconsideration of how North American museums collect and present African art.”

Amanda Maples has a Ph.D. in visual studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is not in her first such position: she was previously curator of African art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She has also held curatorial positions at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the High Desert Museum, and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She also writes for the journal African Arts published by MIT Press. The newly appointed Maples herself said she will continue to immerse herself in the realities of New Orleans: “I am considering how to fill in the historical gaps in the museum’s vast collection,” she said, “to tell the story of African art as fully as possible, and I am considering how NOMA can highlight the work of contemporary artists in Africa.”

And in the face of criticism, the museum can only cash in and still demonstrate a willingness to listen: “We are listening carefully to feedback from New Orleans residents and the public on the appointment of the museum’s new curator of African art. We recognize the need for NOMA staff and the museum sector at large to represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. We take this priority for positions throughout the institution very seriously. The search to fill this position was conducted with the guidance of a national consulting firm specializing in arts research. Amanda Maples’ academic experience combined with her enduring relationships with organizations and artists in Africa, her work in organizing groundbreaking exhibitions, and her leadership in addressing decolonization and restitution led us to select her for this position. We are committed to seizing this moment to learn and act. In the near future, we will host a town hall to openly discuss race and equity within museums. We recognize that listening is only a small part of honoring our commitment to being an inclusive, anti-racist institution.”

Of course, Maples will remain firmly in place, indeed: the curator is already at work leading the curatorial team organizing the exhibition New Masks Now: Artists Innovating Masquerade in Contemporary West Africa, scheduled to open at NOMA in 2025. The exhibition will examine the use of masks in West Africa as a fundamentally contemporary practice and will mark a significant collaboration between American and African institutions, including NOMA and the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal.

Pictured: the African section of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Amanda Maples

New Orleans, protests against museum for choosing a white woman as curator of African art
New Orleans, protests against museum for choosing a white woman as curator of African art

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