First Person Singular: Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art

Johnnetta Cole:
Johnnetta Cole: "We have art of the continent that birthed humanity." (Benjamin C. Tankersley)
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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Well, first I need to say that while I grew up black, I did not grow up poor. My maternal great-grandfather had very little formal education, but he had a vision, he had drive, he had tenacity. He and six other black men, in 1901, began the first insurance company in the state of Florida. Not the first black insurance company, the first insurance company. It went on to become the Afro-American Life Insurance Co., and he became Jacksonville, Florida's, first black millionaire. So my parents were unusual. As Southern black folk of that era, each went to college. For my sister, for me and my younger brother, this was not even to be discussed, whether or not we were going to college. The question was: Which college?

I have always had a love of art. My mother, who never had an art course, loved works of art. She had what we call an eye. She knew a good piece when she saw it. And because she had the eye, our home, in my view, was a place of artistic expression and warmth.

When I did my fieldwork, in Liberia, it was all around me -- I couldn't escape art. I couldn't help but see that when women were combing their own hair or the hair of their children, it wasn't just a carved comb; somehow it had been embellished. It had been made to tickle aesthetic sensibilities. A spoon or a bowl to serve rice somehow became not only a utilitarian object, but it became something for one's eyes to feast on, so the fieldwork sure did feed my interest in art.

African art has been on a journey. Go back as far as the days of colonialism: African art was being viewed by many missionaries as expressions of the devil, as, well, what would you expect of a savage people. [Later,] African art was fundamentally being viewed as art that influenced European art. But it is today that we are able to appreciate African art within the context of the continent itself.

There are times when I am in the gallery, and you can literally see on someone's face that moment of understanding, that moment that says, "This extraordinary, exquisite work of art could not have been done by a people who have been labeled uncivilized. This is a work of art by a people who are and deserve to be seen like all people."

Yesterday, as I was leaving the museum, there were two African American women sitting on a bench, and they stopped me. One woman said, "Aren't you the president of Spelman College?" And I said I used to be.

[I asked,] "Have you been in the museum? Did you like it? How do you feel?" The other woman said, "I feel proud. " I hope that not only African American women, but that people of all genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, religions, nationalities, will experience what is here and then say, "I felt proud."

We have art of the continent that birthed humanity. This is a place for everyone.

Interview by Robin Rose Parker

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