“Describe the shape of this object,” Sam asks to prompt discussion. “What do these shapes remind you of? What do they look like?”
The African Art Gallery glowed with the meek light of midday. As the tour group contemplated an answer, the room was populated with other noises: the soft creak of our tiny black stools, the occasional swish of a passing car. Mumbled chatter animated the lobby, where we had gathered just minutes before for Black Identities, a Highlights Tour guided by a Yale student.
I considered the object before me: Magdalene Odundo’s Untitled, completed in 1995, composed of carbonized and burnished terracotta. The piece has a rounded base, with a long handle protruding like the stem of a fruit from the top. Two rings fixed to the handle give the impression of an aorta with irregular valves. If one turns their head, an impression of hollow eyes appear. Due to its matte black finish, the artwork both mysteriously absorbs and emanates light.
The group expressed their opinions to Nyeda Sam ’22 PC, the Gallery Guide leading our tour. As each person spoke, she nodded slowly and then summarized each person’s point to the group. After garnering first impressions, Sam revealed the history of the object and its maker.
Odundo was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1950 during British colonization. She studied Graphics and Commercial Art in Nairobi and eventually traveled to England to further her exploration of Graphic Design. Despite Odundo’s Kenyan roots, her wall label in the African Art gallery simply lists her nationality as English. During her time in England, she developed a passion for ceramics, ultimately travelling to Nigeria in the 1970s to hone her command of sculpture. After her arrival in the United States, Odundo sought out indigenous potters. Their influence is apparent in her work, which also reveals elements of classical forms from Ancient Greece, China, South America, and Africa.
“Something that I admire about this piece,” Sam begins, “is that you can’t really place it in a specific artistic or historical context. Odundo has been able to create a universal voice by synthesizing the cultures of many. There is a place for political art with stark and specific perspectives. However, creating art that reminds us of our commonalities is just as powerful as art that divides us.”
Sam posed another question to the group: how was the object presented to us in the gallery? A young boy beside me raised his hand.
“It’s in a box,” he noted, “and all the other sculptures are not.” He was right; although Odundo’s work was positioned among pottery works from other periods, it stood in a glass box of its own, elevated on stilts, while the other works shared a common base. Another difference the group noticed was the lack of wall label for the other ceramic pieces; instead, a sheet of paper at the far end of the exhibit listed all the items displayed in one consolidated document.
“It’s important to consider how objects are presented to us,” Sam began, leading us out of the gallery, “as well as the objects themselves”.
Sam found out about the Gallery Guide program the summer before arriving at Yale by browsing the Yale University Art Gallery website. She was accepted in October of her first year.
Founded in 1998 as a way to engage students and the public, the Gallery Guides program has become a centerpiece of the Yale University Art Gallery’s educational programming. The program has developed its own pedagogy for training Gallery Guides over the course of an academic year, foregrounding the role of experiential learning for both Guides and visitors. This process allows Guides to “articulate what they love about art in the first place, giving them a name and a structure for the experience of looking,” according to a case study co-authored by Elizabeth Williams and Elizabeth Manekin, who previously directed the Gallery Guide program.
According to Sam, the conversational versus didactic presentation style encouraged by the program enables guides to form connections with visitors. Stressing the experience of first interacting with an object by looking, rather than intellectualizing, affords a degree of accessibility that is often lacking in museum spaces.
“The training really emphasizes looking at an object, and not necessarily trying to analyze it, and I think that allows visitors to approach the object easier. Often museums can be intimidating spaces. Just asking a question like, “What do you see?,” allows people to use a part of themselves or sense that they use constantly in a different way.”
The inspiration for Black Identities was derived from Sam’s frustration with the one-dimensional representation of blackness both within and outside of the black community.
“I decided to name the tour Black Identities so that people wouldn’t come in with an idea that I would be presenting about one specific way of perceiving blackness. My tour in and of itself isn’t really about blackness; it’s about centering the works of black people and talking about the display of the objects within the gallery so that we can then talk about the broader politics of how works by black people or underrepresented people in general are often acquired or displayed in museums.”
As our tour continues to the basement level, we visit Joy by Dawoud Bey, a triptych of enlarged polaroids in the least frequented portions of the museum. At the last stop of our tour in the American Decorative Arts Gallery, we observe a portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Louis Rigaud. Sam poses the question of why this painting of a prominent leader of the 1791 Haitian revolution has been situated among furniture from New France. Through our exploration of these objects, Sam raises not only the question of how the objects in themselves are perceived, but how black artistry in museums is perceived.
“I’ve realized that often times when there is a black artist who is speaking here or who comes to Yale for an event, then the Gallery will put up a work by said black artist. That’s happened with Wangechi Mutu, who came last semester to speak and a work by her was put up in the Contemporary Art Gallery, and Dawoud Bey, who graduated from Yale and just joined the art gallery board recently; they just put up photographs by him.”
As Sam was devising a tour that would bring visitors to different parts of the gallery, her interest in exploring the politics of which works are displayed and their placement became central.
“I don’t want to make the suggestion that all works by often marginalized groups are only put up when it’s convenient for an institution, but I do think I’ve seen a pattern in how works are displayed, particularly in contemporary times for black artists. I question the Gallery’s intent in doing so.”