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Why Tanzania And Portland, Maine Suddenly Mix

MedicinecontainerIn tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, I review an exhibition that opened at the Portland Museum of Art on Saturday: Shangaa: Art of Tanzania. It is, according to its curator, Gary van Wyk, the first exhibition in the United States devoted to Tanzanian art, and one of the few period. This material has been shown in Germany, and that’s about it. History is the culprit, as I explain in the article, headlined Objects that Amaze.

But what’s it doing in Maine? Maine is the whitest state in the country, with 96.9 percent of its population described as white in the 2010 census. So many museums nowadays are programming to their populations — a trend I have some qualms about — that it seems a lot contrarian, if not a little odd. (Ok, it’s true, I learned someway into the story that this show originated at Queensborough Community College in New York City’s most-diverse borough.)

MaskHeheBut always there’s a reason — and in this case it is a fortuitous personal connection. The Portland museum’s director, Mark Bessire, was a Fulbright Fellow in Tanzania. He and his wife, Aimee, who now teaches courses in African art and culture, African photography, contemporary art and history of photography at Bates College in Maine, lived there for two years. As van Wyk, a transplanted Zimbabwean who at first specialized in South African art, tells the tale, in 1997 he commissioned Aimee as well as Mark to share their experiences for The Heritage Library of African Peoples, which he edited. That’s when he first encountered Tanzanian art, quickly realizing that it was understudied, underexposed, and therefore underappreciated.

Through Shangaa, he convinced me. I’m posting a couple of pictures here of items that I don’t talk about in the review — because the notables were too numerous to mention.

But there’s a larger point here, about museum programming: what if the museum director had not lived in Tanzania? Would this show ever have been seen in Maine? I hope this exhibit does so well that museums learn that they can mimimize, rather than emphasize, identity exhibitions and identity acquisitions. I wish the public shows them that if it’s great art, it doesn’t matter which tribe, which nationality, which race created it.

I also hope that there are more such serendipitous connections out there, bringing art to places it might not “logically” go.


Photo credits: Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art



  1. Judy,

    I was so pleased to read this article. I just returned from traveling through Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, where I encountered a tremendous culture. It is interesting that the culture of East Africa is not defined by modern geopolitical distinctions, but by tribal affiliations, which can vary dramatically within a relatively small geographic area. I am pleased to see Maine doing this show. However, it should not surprise us that it is created out of personal experience. Most good exhibitions come from just that, personal interest.

    Joe Ketner
    Foster Chair in Contemporary Art
    Emerson College, Boston

  2. First, while the state of Maine is predominantly white, the city of Portland has quite a diverse population in its boundaries. This is due to the fact that the city provides most of the social services for the state and a large number of immigrants from all over the world end up there.

    Secondly, there is (or was when I visited three years ago) a storefront private museum of African Art as well as a thriving contemporary gallery scene in downtown Portland. The relationship between 20C & 21C art and African Art dates all the way back to the Cubists.

    And lastly, many survey museums (museums representing an overview of all arts) have some pieces of African Art, i.e. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Metropolitan, Philadelphia Museum of Art, etc. That Portland is thinking of itself on a Larger scale and not just as the art of the local is welcoming. I enjoyed the Portland Museum when I visited, but felt it was self-centered. Now I will have to go back and take another look.

  3. Michael Black says:

    Over the last century, the art of western and southwest Africa has held the greatest cachet for collectors; the ethnological collections of major museums likewise reflect this preference. Rightly or wrongly, East African art is not considered as refined, and so there is less interest in devoting serious exhibitions to this region. An analogous situation exists with west European art: we see far more exhibitions of French art than, say, Polish.

    The major museums often do not like to take risks, but curators at out-of-the-way, secondary museums are able to make their mark by bringing attention to neglected art. We should applaud the Portland Museum of Art for mounting the Tanzanian exhibition. It has more art historical value than the majority of candy-coated blockbuster shows that the survey museums draw crowds with.

  4. Jumaa Almasi says:

    Dear Judith, I am the Founder and CEO of the soon to be launched River Springs Heritage House. I am highly impressed with this article. Tanzania has got more than 120 tribes, so to say, it represents quite a diverse forms art of all these tribe. So far only the Makonde Art has enjoyed quite a good reputation in museums worldwide. But alot is yet to be explored in terms of Arts and culture from this region. As to the words of Dr. Gary Van Wyk ” The attention paid to African carvings, sculpture and paintings from Tanzania has not always enjoyed the same high profile in Museums and galleries as that accorded to the more prominent arts from other African countries”.
    River Springs Heritage House realized this and we want to make it an “intersection of Tanzanian cultures” as represented in carvings, sculpture and paintings. Through our collections, we are determined to let the world know the richness in Arts and Cultures of Tanzania’s 120+ tribes.
    Jumaa Almasi
    Founder & CEO
    River Springs Heritage House
    Dar es salaam

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