If you haven’t heard, the Brooklyn Museum recently appointed a white person to curate narratives and artifacts for African Art. And, I will admit, that I am among the folks confused about this choice. Not because I think that white folks cannot be experts in African Art, but because I considered this appointment to be so out of touch. I tweeted, paced, and shuttered in disbelief. I thought I was alone in my incredulousness, but the cool part about the internet is that I would quickly see that I was not alone.
As a Brooklynite, Black person, and academic, I was highly insulted. I thought about the community of Black academics who have been invaluable to my education over time and the institutions of African art and culture created by our community for our community (F.U.B.U education) because our excellence, history, and heritage was often misinterpreted, erased, given a colonial spin, or exoticized for white consumption. I tried to calm down and rationalize why they would have made this decision, but I couldn’t. One reason is that I felt let down and disappointed by this institution, which is in my community and I frequent. I’m a member, I attend lectures and events there monthly. I have been really excited and moved by the work that was being done to highlight the contributions of black and brown women in the art and the programs they have to engage young people of color. It couldn’t possibly have been performative, right? Could it?
Well, about week later, I received an email from the museum saying that they were “standing by their choice.” I wrote back. I decided that I would share my letter to the Brooklyn Museum with you all.
I haven’t visited the museum since this happened, even though I get in for free. There is still a lot that I love about Brooklyn Museum. Seriously, as a huge David Bowie fan, that current exhibition is AMAZING. I give credit where credit is due. I don’t know about the future though.
I just feel like this needs to be said, spread around, and heard. Calling these issues out takes a village, so I decided to make my thoughts on the matter public- in support of all of those individuals who are actively taking this issue on with the museum. Accountability, Y’all.
This is wrong. I’m not questioning Dr. Luna’s credentials or experience. This response is definitive proof that white people remain delusional about how white supremacy operates. The idea that your “extensive” search resulted in no qualified Africans in diaspora, if true, should have been so concerning to you as an institution. In fact, it should have been one of the biggest red flags in Brooklyn Museum history. That’s why this is so unbelievable and outrageous- especially in Brooklyn, NY.Your choice to “stand by your decision” is a poor default that organizations use to discount and dismiss the voices of those who are fighting and challenging for appropriate recognition for our work and contributions. You chose to actively not consider the current social and political climate and ramifications of a decision in which a predominately white institution has actively chosen white individuals to represent and tell the narratives of non-white people. There is no way that her curatorial expertise and “anticolonial” approach outweighs the decision to reproduce systems of whiteness by way of this appointment.Again, we, Black people, are told by white people, “We know what’s best for you- it’s for your own good.” Hiring a Black academic and curator (we do exist) to represent African art and photography is not about taking something away from a qualified white person, but making a strategic and political decision champion inclusion and improve your department. It also sends a much overdue, fundamental message that African voices matter in telling African stories.As a major institution, you get to decide who gets to represent a given area and culture. Our research and efforts are our currency! If her CV is impressive, it is not just because she is the best; it is because her whiteness provides her with access often denied, directly and indirectly, to scholars of color. If a white person is the best person to discuss and frame African art, culture, meaning, and experience, why does that not disturb or shake you to your core?! Why would your decision be one to stand by as opposed to one of immense crisis?We understand that the work must appeal to all people, but the idea that African art and photography by its sheer existence cannot appeal to a broad audience is insulting at best. I’m referring to your quote in the letter:“Her priority at the Museum is to create dynamic, multi-vocal installations that speak to all our communities, including those of African descent, both locally and nationally. All of us at the Museum are confident that with her expertise and care, we will revitalize and transform the presentation and interpretation of our collection, and amplify our capacity to illuminate connections and shared narratives with our broad and diverse audience.”Might I remind you that museums have acquired their collections in large part by theft of African resources. We know Europeans like and want to possess our art and culture. We have 500 years of colonial evidence. That is precisely why this matter has come about in the manner that is has. YOU DON’T GET TO BE DISMAYED at being called out for your appointment! Or, even personal attacks. While I may not be too fond of them, you aren’t dumb people. You and she have to know that her appointment is another sign of the systemic racism. We, as the people of color, who are continually erased, dismissed, used for our talents and but not seen as experts, are sick of it. Bed-Stuy, the community just up the street from the museum is one of the largest African diaspora communities in the country. We possess PhDs, we curate museums in our own communities, we write papers, teach, travel the world, create the work! And still somehow lack what the Brooklyn Museum “needs.” That’s insulting, lazy, demoralizing, disheartening, and cruel. If your curator gets called a couple names, at the end of the day, she still has her job, and white privilege. You all will be okay.Also, one of the most racist things that an institution can do is go find a Black person to corroborate their decision. It’s like when Trump found Ben Carson and Omarosa. Watch yourselves and get better publicists. Whoever wrote this was clearly white or white adjacent.I am a Brooklyn museum member, visitor, supporter, from Brooklyn, and a Black woman in academia. I know the shut out when I see it, because I navigate it daily.I suspect that now, you all will lay low, maybe plan a few “diversity and inclusion” events to show your “dedication to presenting all stories” (even without the presence of all voices, clearly), and then the curators will have to do such a great job curating the next African (through the white gaze, of course) exhibition that we will all simmer down and accept your choice as being the right one. Am I right? Did I guess it?I’m very disappointed in all of you, but I suppose I’m used to the continued narrative that Africans cannot be responsible for ourselves and our stories. White people make African palatable. I hear you loud and clear.Us: #BlackExpertsMatterYou: #AllExpertsMattersRight?Myeashea Alexander