Significance of African Art Exhibits at Kean University: An Interview with United Nations' Jan Arnesen


Kean XChange sat down with Jan Arnesen, Exhibitions Director at United Nations, and Neil Tetkowski, the Director of Kean University Galleries, to get their thoughts on the significance of displaying African art in two different exhibits currently at Kean, Embodying The Sacred in Yoruba Art: Selections from the Newark Museum Collection in the Karl & Helen Burger Gallery and The African Continuum: Celebrating Diversity and Recognizing Contributions of People of African Descent in the Human Rights Institute Gallery.

Embodying The Sacred in Yoruba Art is on display until April 18th.  The description of the show reads, “West Africa is the land of the Yoruba people, whose art is an integral element in their way of life.  This exhibition comprises 28 works from the collection of the Newark Museum.  The pieces were produced from the late 19th through 20th century and highlight the relationship between art and the spiritual world.”

The African Continuum runs until March 16th.  “This exhibitions comes directly from the United Nations and is presented in honor of the year-long observance of the International Year for People of African Descent in 2011.  The show celebrates the contributions of people of African descent to global civilization and aims at fostering greater awareness about the challenges they face.  It was prepared in conjunction with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  This exhibitions also commemorates the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action on combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Read the interview below for more in-depth analysis and thoughts on the importance of these exhibits.


Kean XChange: How are the arts and art exhibits advancing the UN's mission?

Jan Arnesen: “Most of the time our exhibitions are geared to a specific topic that relates to humanitarian crises and human rights or development issues such as poverty, hunger, and land mines, etc.  I think that for the average visitor who is coming into the United Nations complex it’s helpful for them to see what kind of projects the UN is actually working on…so we tend to focus on photography more than artwork but sometimes artwork is involved in communicating a message also.”


KX: Why was the UN's declaration and observance of the Year of People of African Descent significant? 

JA: “Hopefully there will be ongoing programs around this topic but initially there was an effort a few years ago on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was commemorated at the United Nations and different UN venues around the world, that spurred some thinking about what happened to the descendants of the slave trade, so there was actually an action group within the UN member states, African union, Caribbean union, South American countries and so forth, as well as the United States, who decided to put some more emphasis on that topic just to raise awareness.  In the context of the human rights arm of the UN, what people have found is that a lot of the descendants of the slave trade, either directly or indirectly, that people of African descent are still victims of a lot of discrimination and sometimes that discrimination is buried and not so well known as it might be for example here in the United States.  There are a lot of countries in South American who have a large population of people of African descent but they are not even recognized as a “special group” per say and unfortunately in many of these countries those folks are still suffering from discrimination or working the least well-paying jobs.”


KX: What do you consider to be the greatest contribution that people of the African diaspora have made to the Arts?

JA: “Well that is a good question.  We did a lot of research with this project so there are many, many artworks, film, photography, music, and all kinds of different creative displays of either done by artists of African descent.  It would be really hard to pinpoint just one art form that was the greatest contribution because what we have discovered in the research that we did is that there is a vast amount of creativity that has come out of the African diaspora.  It’s still fairly evident in many cultural expressions such as music and dance and the arts and even in something like hairstyles or clothing…and in many countries you’ll even see a re-affirmation of African culture that might have been buried or just ignored for a long time because people were trying so hard to just assimilate into whatever culture they found themselves in.  Even after slavery there were so many other struggles that people of African descent had to go through until they got to the place where they could freely express their culture and sometimes these cultural activities were carried out even in secret societies.  This is what we found out even about the Brazilian-African diaspora for a long time even the African customs were carried out in secret or they were given the guise of religion and Catholicism and so forth to cover up some of the African customs.  Now that that is out in the open I think you’ll see more and more evidence of what a great impact the African culture has had all through the world but especially in the American continent.”


KX: The exhibit seems to indicate that migration fosters cross-cultural dialogue, how has that been the case?

JA: “I think that’s definitely the case in the African diaspora and the Caribbean and the countries of South America as well as North America but what you see after so many generations beyond the time of the slave trade and slavery is that many Africans have blended in with whatever culture they encountered.  Many times you see that Africans actually have adopted another cultural group.  In this exhibit we have displayed some photographs of some black Indians who can still be found in Oklahoma, this group was living autonomously in Florida and then migrated to Oklahoma, and in some ways they stayed independent and in some ways they adopted the traditions of the Native Americans who lived there at the time so you’ll see their culture now is a mixture of Native American and African culture.  So that has happened throughout the Americas, and you’ll see that in Cuba, Brazil, and the Caribbean, that the mixture of Latin culture with African culture is expressed through music, dance, and the arts in particular as well as clothing and hairstyles.  There is always a cross-cultural exchange, it’s just a natural phenomenon, but at the same time because of some of the painful things that happened to people of African descent there is even more significance given to retaining the culture.  If you feel that your culture has sort of been ripped away from you or perhaps you even lost it and you have to go back and find it again, it might even feel more important to you than if you have just been carrying it along with your families through time.”


KX: How have peoples of African descent reshaped the very cultures that at one time oppressed them?  

JA: “With the arts, I think you’ll find a big impact and big influence on contemporary culture that has taken place because of African American and Afro-descendant culture that has seeped over into the mainstream culture that is especially obvious with music.  It’s happened in so many other areas as well.  That is a positive phenomenon and that will keep continuing as our societies are changing more rapidly all the time with creative ideas.  Because of the global marketplace and the way that people move and travel so much now, those kinds of boundaries are disappearing even more quickly.”


KX: Why do you think it is so important for the students of Kean University to have such immediate availability and contact with this Yoruba art exhibit?

JA: “I think that it’s important for all people, whether they are students of African descent at Kean who may be particularly interested in this or not, can get something out of exposure to this culture and the beauty of the African art is so apparent in the Yoruba work…the sculptures and the older pieces really give you a feel for the indigenous African cultures.  Then the African continuum shows a different contemporary view point where there are so many people of African descent in Europe, the US, the Caribbean and from all over and it gives you that nice mix which is really what it’s all about.  Since Jazz was such a big contributions of African American culture to our contemporary culture, in a way, all of these photographs are sort of like a Jazz piece because things go together but they are not always taken from the same place but they somehow all work together and you can see it when you walk around the show.” 

Neil Tetkowski: “Also at Kean, I think a third of the student body is African American in some capacity so I feel as the Gallery Director here, a big function of art on campus has to do with ways that we can kind of come to terms with our own cultural and ethnic identities.  So you will see the if you look at our schedule that at least half of the shows do deal with cultural, ethnic diversity…and these two shows of course fit right in.

I also think that there is kind of an absence or vagueness of slavery as an issue that is really at the heart of so many other issues.  In the US, sure we have made a lot of progress in a lot of ways, but I think that we have conveniently avoided acknowledging slavery.  It’s a footnote in the history books it seems.  Maybe we are kind of coming around; maybe we will see in our lifetime a little acknowledgement.  Also in my mind, there is a social consciousness that can shift and create another level of healing.  This is a problem that was around for thousands of years and it’s not just going to evaporate.  We have new system, we say slavery is a bad thing, but the vestiges of that kind of behavior are with us everywhere.”

JA: “As I was mentioning earlier, the fact that you might have your culture completely taken away from you if you were forced to immigrate from your original homeland, a lot of Americans can relate to that because they might have had to move for economic reasons or religious freedom, but in particular the people of African descent didn’t have any choice.  A lot of times under the systems of slavery their culture was even denied to them…they weren’t even allowed to play drums, sing, wear the clothing that they had worn in their homelands…so recovering that culture is an important part of healing as well.  And the diversity is just so interesting.  On the positive side of where we are now in 2012, I think everybody is starting to understand that diversity is really enriching and we need to appreciate it and take a look at it, appreciate it, delve into it, and enjoy it.”

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