Exhibitions bring unique collection of African art into modern context

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To celebrate Black History Month, the McIntosh Gallery is preparing an exhibition unlike any other previously housed within the gallery’s walls, said James Patten, McIntosh Director and Chief Curator.

Starting Jan. 21, McIntosh will present The John and Suzanne Kaufmann Collection of African Art, an exhibition that will feature more than 200 works – a gift from the Kaufmanns, who were long-time friends of the gallery. The show will run alongside an additional exhibit, Worn, an installation by Vancouver-based artist Karin Jones. Both exhibitions run through March 12.

“It’s not our usual thing – we’re usually known for contemporary Canadian art, but we are trying to become more international, in keeping with Western’s Strategic Plan,” Patten noted, adding the Kaufmann donation presented the perfect opportunity.

Suzanne and John Kaufmann met in the early 1940s while studying medicine at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Born in Belgium in 1920, Suzanne had lived in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi (present day Rwanda and Burundi), where her father was previously posted. John, a South African, was born in Umtata in 1924. The Kaufmanns immigrated to London, Ont., in 1972, where John joined the neuroscience medical team at Western, and Suzanne completed a degree in Visual Art and French.

“They were lovely, cultured people, very interested in the arts. They collected African art passionately. They knew African art intimately, and they picked pieces of high quality. They also collected London artists and were very much involved with the gallery as donors, and after John passed away, they were wondering what to do with their collection,” Patten said.

The Kaufmann children unanimously agreed the collection should be bequeathed to McIntosh, for which the gallery is very grateful, he added.

The donated collection consists of roughly 220 items including tribal masks, ancestral figures, basketry, jewellery, sculpture and textiles made by artists from more than 30 ethnic groups, including the Dan, Mossi, Asante, Luluwa and Dogon peoples.

“Putting this on was a bit of a challenge for us because there’s not a lot of expertise in Canada on African art at the moment, and it’s certainly not our area of expertise,” Patten said.

“But we thought it was important – given the diversity of Western’s campus, and the move towards a more diverse student population, that we take this material and use it to celebrate African culture. John Kaufmann kept extensive notes (on the artworks) – which we have – and we had Visual Arts students and interns working on the project, cataloguing and photographing,” he explained.

To complement the Kaufmann exhibition, McIntosh will simultaneously exhibit Worn. Worn was recently exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum to explore the theme of African identity and Canadian history. The work consists of a Victorian mourning dress made of braided synthetic hair extensions, surrounded by a bed of natural cotton bolls, some of which are altered to contain tufts of the artist’s hair. It examines issues of African identity, imperial rule, slavery and alienation.

“When we realized we had this wonderful (Kaufmann) collection, and we were going to be exhibiting it, we thought, ‘How could we bring it up to date, and how could we make it more contemporary in terms of Canadian culture?’ We were very fortunate to find Worn,” Patten added.

“It’s a wonderful piece in that it’s very, very simple yet, very complex in that it is one dress – and she’s done a beautiful job of making it – but it speaks to the whole history of slavery, and the cotton industry specifically, in the United States where black African slaves were used to pick cotton for the textile industry. The dress isn’t made out of cotton, but it would have been made out of cotton. She puts cotton bolls all around it – it’s very moving,” he went on.

“And the whole issue of black hair is a very significant one, too. It’s loaded with all sorts of political and cultural associations. The dress is playing on that history as well, which isn’t just history, these are current issues.”