This week in Black Art: The Fowler to Return Benin Bronzes, Denise Graves is the First Black Board Chair of a Major Museum and More

This week in Black art and culture, progress is being made in the return of Benin artifacts. History is being written as the first Black female board chair of a major U.S. museum has been named in Chicago. Howard University is hosting its 31st Art Colloquium in collaboration with The Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. Focus Pictures has taken the film and distribution rights for the movie adaptation of Silent Twins.

UCLA Connects with Benin about Stolen Artifacts

The Fowler Museum at the University of California (UCLA) is arranging meetings with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria to discuss the future of 18 artifacts in its collection from the former Kingdom of Benin. According to its director, the negotiations may contribute to the return of the works, which were confiscated by British military forces during an attack on the Benin royal palace in 1897.

Christine Mullen Kreamer, chief curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., proposed at a Columbia University conference on April 9 that the museum might lead discussions on restitution of objects in U.S. museums to Benin. She went on to say that another conference scheduled for June of this year might be the perfect opportunity to form a working group. The National Museum of African Art houses 42 pieces from the Kingdom of Benin, with provenance studies underway.

“There are many colleagues out there who recognize completely that the time is not only right, it’s overdue to move forward with all deliberate speed,” she said. “The Smithsonian does have a process under way to develop a policy and a framework, not just for Africa, but for other areas of the world connected to looted and colonial-era collections.”

The announcement from Fowler, which was sent to The Art Newspaper by email, comes after the German government declared that it is paving the foundation for the return of Benin bronzes from German museum collections. The proposed restitution is part of a broad agreement reached with Nigerian stakeholders identified by the Legacy Restoration Trust. The trust intends to build a modern museum in Benin City to house art that had been looted by British troops.

Following the looting of Benin’s royal palace in 1897, artifacts from the royal palace were sold and dispersed throughout the world; there are still Benin items owned by more than 160 foreign museums. According to Berns, a substantial portion of the Fowler Museum’s African art assets were donated in 1965 by the Wellcome Trust in London, which dispersed the extensive collections of pharmaceutical industrialist Sir Henry Wellcome after his death. Three Benin objects—two bronzes and one carved ivory tusk—are currently on show in a long-term exhibition.

Other U.S. museums contacted by The Art Newspaper said they are either doing provenance analysis or are not yet prepared to agree to repayment. In its African arts section, the Cleveland Museum of Art has eight sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin on display, five of which are believed to have been stolen in 1897. The origins of the other three are unknown.

Art Institute of Chicago Names Its Next Board Chief

Denise Gardner was elected chairman of the board of trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, the institution announced today. This marks the first time in history a Black female stands at the helm of a major U.S. museum. Gardner was named president, replacing Robert M. Levy, of both the School of the Chicago Institute of Art and the Chicago Museum Art Institute. Levy is now a member of the museum’s Board of Council, and after his term ends in November, Gardner will take over as chair.

Owing to her expertise and close affiliation with the Art Institute as a volunteer and philanthropic leader for almost 30 years, Gardner is well positioned for furthering the strategic mission of both the museum and academy, spanning 15 years as trustee, and five years as new vice-chair of the board.

Gardner has successfully established his business careers as Chairman of Insights & Opportunities, and co-founder of Namaste Laboratories and senior vice chairman of Soft Sheen Products. Formerly serving on the boards of The Chicago Community Trust, The Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Humanities Festival, she has long been an involved political leader, and now sits on the boards of the Chicago Arts Club, Gaylords and The Donnelley Foundation. She is a civil activist.

Gardner knows first-hand the benefits of significant relationships in the region. As a member of the Board of Council, she served on the Strategic Planning Working Group of The Chicago Community Trust, on the Chairperson Search Committee of the Chicago Community Trust, and as member of the African American Legacy Fund. Much of her work has focused on achieving tangible benefits for young people in Chicago, for example, increasing access to college for students in Chicago through the Denise and Gary Gardner Bursaries at the School of the Chicago Art Institute.

31st Annual James A. Porter Colloquium

Visit the 31st Annual James A. Porter Colloquium, co-presented by Howard University’s Department of Art, the Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland on Friday, April 16, 2021, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. EDT.

The subject of this year’s interactive program is “Defining Diaspora: 21st Century Developments in Art of the African Diaspora.” The sessions are to explore how visual artists and theorists are identifying and redefining the artistic contours and possibilities of the African diaspora in American art spaces. The Porter Colloquium, established in 1990 by the late art historian Floyd Coleman, is the premier scholarly venue for creative discussion and insights from leading and developing historians, artists, curators and cultural critics.

On Thursday, April 15, from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. EDT, the Driskell Center will deliver its Distinguished Annual Lecture in the Visual Arts in honor of David C. Driskell via Zoom. On Friday, April 16 from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m., the National Gallery of Art will livestream presentations for an online viewer Q&A. Artist discussions will be made accessible on the colloquium platform at a later date. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery also have offered generous programming funding.

Drama Silent Twins starring Letitia Wright Acquired by Focus Features

Focus Features has ensured the worldwide distribution rights of the film, Silent Twins, which will be the first film in the English language by director Agnieszka Smoczynska.

The film is based on the book, The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace, a haunting, true story about a Black family in a small town in Wales in the 1970s and ’80s. It stars Letitia Wright, who is known for her work in Black Panther and Black Mirror, most recently starring in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove as part of his Small Axe anthology, and Tamara Lawrance (The Long Song). The pair retreat into their own dream realm of artistic creativity and teenage impulses, rejecting contact with all but each other. Getting into a life of crime, they are committed to Broadmoor, the notorious U.K. mental institution, where they must choose between separating and surviving or dying together.

Focus Features handles home distribution, while the overseas distribution is handled by Universal Photographs International.

-Compiled by Sumaiyah E. Wade

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