The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New museum chief fiercely promotes African art but faces a more prosaic problem at home

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Director Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford. (Credit — Franko Khoury, EEPA National Museum of African Art)

When he talks about African art, Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford radiates like a beam of sunshine.

That’s good because most of the National Museum of African Art he now heads gets little of it. The subterranean architecture is symbolic of the buried treasure that is African art. African culture remains hidden in many ways, and that’s Casely-Hayford’s challenge.

It’s a challenge in more ways than one. African culture too often has been overlooked or denigrated, if not stolen, in a European-centric environment, a subject that incites Casely-Hayford. Repatriating purloined artifacts is a priority for a man who owes fealty to the culture before any institution.

But as the museum director who took over in February, following Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s 2009-2017 tenure, he faces a more immediate and prosaic problem: visitors who seem increasingly hidden. Attendance dropped to 159,000 last year from a high of 403,000 in 2009, when there was a special exhibition. Last year’s number is 43 percent below the 10-year average.

“One of my key areas of focus is around audience,” he told reporters at an introductory news briefing last week. “I have no doubt, I have absolute confidence that we will build a significant audience.” Part of that effort was a museum discussion in February with Ruth E. Carter, the costume director of “Black Panther,” about the influence of African aesthetics on the film’s fashions.

He certainly has the passion and the personality to be an effective promoter of the impressive 12,000-piece collection — self-described as “the only museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s arts across time period, geography and medium.”

With credits as an author, TED talker and writer/presenter of television series on Africa, not to mention the subject of a spread in British Vogue, the London-born Casely-Hayford could be a candidate for the rock star of cultural historians, if that’s not an oxymoron. His weighty resume includes a doctorate in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he was a research associate. He is keen to make art widely accessible, as he did as director of Africa 05, a major British African arts series. He comes from a family of black, British high achievers, with a grandfather and uncle among the Okyeame, educated spokesmen in traditional Ghanaian society.

Casely-Hayford exudes pride in his heritage, and it fuels his professional life.

“This is the single most important collection of African art on earth,” he said. Yet, there are changing expectations for museums, and this “special place” now faces a “generational challenge of remaking our institution to reflect that changed world, and we will do it,” he added. “We want people to leave here thinking about the cosmopolitan dynamism of the continent.”

It is that continental dynamism that energizes and animates Casely-Hayford. During his TED Talk, he lashed the ethno-centric and racist notion expressed by 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who said Africa “is no historical part of the world.”

Casely-Hayford understands the political dynamic that shapes perceptions of Africa, its past, its present, its art and culture.

“Any young person growing up with the received version of African history could quite justifiably feel somewhat jaded: colonialism, slavery, wars, corruption, atrocities, racism – it is easy to believe that there were no glorious chapters of our history,” he said by email.  “Perhaps some of greatest damage that the west has done to Africa is to its image, its narrative.”

He believes the museum, located at 950 Independence Ave SW, Washington, has a special duty to counter the “backward perspectives and poor art history” that have beleaguered the continent and its people.

“We are unlike any other institution on earth, not just unique in our collections, in our staff, in our libraries, in our archive, in our conservation and in our expertise, but also in our very remit to tell the story of African art and material culture from the very earliest times to the present,” he told reporters. “It’s unlike anything else offered not just within the Smithsonian family, but within any other national institution. But we are also unique in the spirit within, with which we have it truly engage with our remit. We’re deeply proud of that history. But we have to renew. We have to build our collections. We have to engage with a new generation of artists and audiences. We have to work with in partnership with Africa’s museums … and we want to build a 21st century beacon of African creativity. Yes, but we want to do it in the spirit of Warren Robbins.”

Robbins founded the African art museum in 1964 and died in 2008, but his spirit continues to inspire Casely-Hayford. He tells the story of Afo‐A‐Kom, a beaded, approximately 63-inch sacred wooden statue that was stolen from northern Cameroon. It turned up in a Dartmouth College exhibition. Robbins led an effort to return the figure to the Kom people.

“What I find interesting is what it says about our founding values, and it’s the reason that I keep wanting to retell this story,” Casely-Hayford said. “Our priority first and foremost is to preserve African art. Our loyalty even before to our collection is to African culture and heritage. We are even, when it matters, prepared to do that counterintuitive … thing of working to return objects when it’s the right thing to do. We genuinely care about people, about communities, about heritage, about history, about provenance, about the ethics of acquisition, about the morality of display. We work in partnership with Africa. We respect African art. We respect African artists.”

It shows.