The word “sightline” refers to the unobstructed visual path between an observer and an object of interest. Sightlines are pivotal to enhancing a viewer’s experience by ensuring a clear, uninterrupted view. They are also meaningful in that they allow museum and gallery visitors to fully appreciate the nuances, details, and emotions the artwork conveys. More often than not, sightlines are reserved for art that falls into Euro-American canons. Anything else, such as art from Africa, Asia, South America, or Indigenous groups, is often relegated to side galleries that highlight their peripheral position in relation to Euro-American art.
The Bard Graduate Center’s current exhibition, SIGHTLINES on Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa, determines its own way to increase the visibility of African art, bringing metal arts from the 19th and 20th centuries together with works by contemporary African artists. The exhibition features over 140 historic works from various cultures, including the Mande smiths of Mali, Edo chiefs of Nigeria, or the Akan people of Ghana, as well as modern works by artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, Otobong Nkanga, Nari Ward, and Amanda Williams, among many others.
The exhibition’s installation echoes the curatorial sentiment set forth to create new and question old sightlines on African and Black diasporic art. Designed by architecture firm AD–WO, the historic metalworks are showcased in vitrines and glass cases in the center of each room, sometimes running tangentially between galleries, while the contemporary paintings and sculptures are installed along the edges of the rooms. The result offers a clever way of looking simultaneously at the past and present, with each step around a vitrine providing a new perspective on the works in question, many times with Bard’s graduate students voicing their expertise in wall texts.
The metalworks on view show how critical a role these objects have played in African history. Saidiya Hartman coined the term “critical fabulation,” a method of historical inquiry and storytelling that blends fact and fiction to explore the lives of marginalized individuals. This type of narrative is found in the exhibition, where metalworks are given a deeper meaning through what future stories they might have brought into being. One example is a jewelry ensemble complete with hair ornaments, earrings, a necklace, a ring, and a bracelet by Senegal’s “Queen of Couture,” Oumou Sy. This opulent set of gold jewelry was made in 2017–18 but harkens back to the smiths of Senegal’s medieval, gold-rich kingdoms, and the accompanying signares, local women who had power in networks of trade and wealth and used their entrepreneurial savvy to influence European colonizers.
On the third floor we see objects that are or were used as currency. Before contact with European countries, the Kingdom of Kongo used copper, brass, and other alloys as currency. Here, Amanda Williams’s sculpture “Semper Augustus Chicagous” (2022) takes center stage. On the floor are dozens of cement-cast tulip bulb sculptures covered in imitation gold leaf. These gold tulip bulbs reconsider the history of the flower and its economic impacts during the Dutch Golden Age’s “tulip mania,” when the flower reached extraordinarily high prices because of their status and an increase in consumption. When the tulip bubble burst in 1637, it wreaked havoc on the Dutch economy. Williams uses the tulip to represent contemporary discriminatory financial practices, like the denial of mortgages to residents in non-White neighborhoods in the US, and the irrationality of these inequitable practices.
SIGHTLINES demonstrates the vast importance of these African metalworks that traverse the continent. Engaging with themes of devotion, currency, architecture, domesticity, and more, this show is an intervention, spotlighting the issues that curators face when displaying non-Western art and artifacts, as well as the joys of seeing new perspectives.
SIGHTLINES on Peace, Power & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa continues at the Bard Graduate Center (18 West 86th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through December 31. The exhibition was curated by Drew Thompson, associate professor of visual culture and Black studies at Bard Graduate Center and Bard College, with Emanuel Admassu and Jen Wood of AD—WO as curatorial advisors, and Laura Microulis, research curator at Bard Graduate Center, as project manager.