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Museum forum offers chance for dialog

Enabling civil, respectful discourse is one of the hallmarks of a university’s mission, and Binghamton is no different in working to promote dialog among those with differing opinions.

One such opportunity for dialog came last week in response to calls from some faculty and students to close an exhibition the University Art Museum currently has on display — Engaging the Camera: African Women, Portraits and the Photographs of Hector Acebes.

The exhibit, which opened Sept. 8 and continues through Friday, Nov. 17, features photos of African women taken by Colombian photographer Acebes in the late 1940s and in 1953. As can happen through the wide range of courses and events that occur at the University, the exhibit has evoked differing interpretations and responses from those viewing it, prompting a variety of discourse.

Last week, the Graduate Student Organization sponsored an open forum on Colonialism, Photography and Africa.

The following evening, Conversations with the Curators, organized by the museum’s director, Lynn Gamwell, brought the exhibit’s two curators to campus. More than 100 people attended the discussion with the curators, with about a dozen silent protesters holding signs in the back of the room.

Andrea Barnwell, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and Isolde Brielmaier, director and curator of Brooklyn’s Rotunda Gallery and visiting assistant professor of Art at Vassar College, began the discussion by explaining how the exhibition came together, what their curatorial mission was and what they learned through the process.

“We felt compelled to critically address photographs by this relatively unknown photographer,” Barnwell said. “We wanted to provide a platform for discussion. Our role as curators was not to act as if they (the subjects) don’t exist, but to create a critical context in which to discuss them.”

In producing the exhibit, Brielmaier said she and Barnwell meant to produce discussion and documentation of this period of Africa’s history. “We were responding to Acebes’ work as part of the unbelievably vast volume of images of Africa produced from within Africa by Africans,” she said. “Acebes’ work here is framed in a broader context of photography in Africa.”

Patrick Dikirr, a post-doctoral research fellow for Binghamton’s Institute of Global Cultural Studies, provided a response to the exhibit. He represented his comments as his alone, not on behalf of any other group or individual. Himself a Masai from Kenya, Dikirr noted that Acebes created photos “of what he would like the Masai to look like.”

Dikirr said he was posing questions to the audience to help others see if the curators succeeded and to help them navigate the complexities of the exhibit and what it represents. He questioned what new insights the exhibit provides on the concept of home and away.

“When I look at the images in the exhibit, I find lessons, insights, not about Africa’s cultures, but I see, looking beyond the images, the crippling effect of the West,” he said.

In viewing the exhibit, he said he sees “a window in which I could understand the culture of the West, when one is on the wrong side.”

A question-and-answer period followed the panelists’ opening remarks, with more than a dozen asking questions or making comments about the photographic exhibit before time ran out. Many who commented challenged the museum for its failure to involve students and faculty more directly in decisions to host the exhibition.

“This is not the first time, and will not be the last time, that our academic environment will be charged with emotion and very disparate opinions about how and why an issue has been represented,” Provost Mary Ann Swain said. “Universities are meant to provide a venue to explore complex issues, and we have done that here by creating a dialog and encouraging intelligent, respectful debate without infringing on anyone’s right to express themselves.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08