Colored People Time: Quotidian Pasts
April 26 – August 11, 2019
In 1971, leadership at both the Institute for Contemporary Art Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), proposed the idea of collaborating on a project that would bridge ethnographic objects and contemporary art practices. It wasn’t until March 2018 when Assistant Curator Meg Onli joined forces with anthropologist Dr. Monique Scott that such a collaboration would come to fruition. Colored People Time: Quotidian Pasts is the second chapter in Onli’s trio of consecutive exhibitions (all in 2019), which includes Mundane Futures, Quotidian Pasts (February 1 – March 31) and Banal Presents (September 13 – December 22). Each chapter aims to examine the everyday ways the horrors of bondage and colonialism have informed the subjectivities of Black people across space and time. At first glance, Quotidian Pasts appears sparse. A group of white sculptures sit atop glistening aluminum pedestals. To the right, two TV screens flash images of dancers, ritual objects, and footage from a post-war game show. An adjacent wall has been painted green to mimic the palette of a natural history museum and bears a single photograph. In the rear, two vitrines of archival materials are unassuming while still somehow reminding the viewer of their presence. The exhibition initially conveys sterility, but what is absent here prepares the viewer to carefully examine what is present.
“Colored people’s time” is a racist phrase associated with the stereotype of poor work ethic among Black people specifically and people of color generally. The choice to remove the apostrophe from the exhibition title is an intriguing one. Although I relate to the urge to associate the apostrophe in the original phrase with a sense of agency and ownership, its removal makes a different statement, not necessarily about reclaiming one’s time, but instead about claiming presence. It is always “colored people time.” In this way, Onli leans into an ongoing concern with language, specifically, the socio-temporal limits built and manipulated by conjugation, in this case, disappearing the other via past tense. Time is crucial here, as Onli situates conjugation, specifically the past tense, as an act of violence.
Onli includes footage from What in the World?, a post-war game show hosted by archaeologist and then-director of the Penn Museum, Dr. Froelich Rainey. It is easy to be sucked into the glow of the screen, and grow enraged, as guests are invited to identify ethnographic objects and their uses in this clip, but on an adjacent wall, a single photograph invites closer inspection.
Explorer Amandus Johnson is seated at the center and gazes toward the camera with other explorers standing or seated nearby. On the ground, two “native” Angolans sit on a woven mat, one holding a small figurine in his palm. The composition of this photograph clearly denotes a hierarchy of personhood, with the rugged, White explorer as the intended focal point. It is tempting to zoom in on Johnson as a placeholder for whiteness, as well as the capitalist mechanisms of accumulation and subjugation through which it operates, but what I am more concerned with as a viewer is the men on the mat. Understanding the image to be staged, I find it a worthwhile exercise to examine the ways these unnamed men have asserted agency in the capturing of their likenesses. Neither looks toward the camera, and while one appears to be offering the figure, are we (and the white men nearby) sure it’s the best they have to offer, or of any value at all? In looking at the photograph, I’m forced to push aside my initial reaction—disgust at the exploitation of these men—and reach down into myself for a new potential, to be amused. In a February 2019 essay in The New York Times Magazine, writer and photographer Teju Cole remarks, “This was one of the repeated interactions between imperial powers and the populations that they sought to control: The dominant power decided that everything had to be seen and cataloged, a task for which photography was perfectly suited.” What is amusing is not the violence of colonial image-making Cole describes, but instead the truth Black people have always known: there are some things that cannot be claimed.
Students of anthropology and frequent visitors to ethnographic museums might find familiar imagery in the sculptures of artist Matthew Angelo Harrison, which speak directly to ritual objects of the Edo, Bundu, and Kisi ethnic groups of Nigeria, Liberia, and Tanzania respectively. Presented as all-white ceramic replicas of objects from the collection of the Penn Museum, these sculptures betray the artist’s hand. In works such as Queen Mother adapted (Edo, Oldman) (2019), Harrison has exaggerated, compressed, doubled, or otherwise distorted both the scale and features of these ritual objects to raise questions of authenticity and assigned value. By warping these objects, Harrison destabilizes the narrative of the bygone African civilization and re-charges these visual references for a different context.
Positioned confrontationally, Queen Mother (Edo, Oldman) faces vitrines of field notes by former Penn Museum curator Henry Usher Hall and his wife, Frances J. Hall, as well as correspondence between Hall and noted ethnographic collector W.O. Oldman. This juxtaposition couldn’t be more transparent, but what it unearths is a relationship between the Penn Museum and other ethnographic institutions across the world that have benefited from Oldman’s voracious accumulation of material culture. Understanding this relationship means delving into an ethos of not only collecting, but of stealing presupposed by colonial exploitation. Indeed, one vitrine features a word list written by Henry Usher Hall with translations for phrases such as “I take,” “You take,” and so on. Still, the concern here is not with rehashing narratives of victimhood, but with ruminating on and grappling with the performance of refusal across space and time.
Quotidian Pasts feels dense, but never cumbersome. Like a meditation, it is not an exhibition to breeze through. As a series of exhibitions, Colored People Time is self-referential in its form as ideas languidly roll out over the course of three chapters. They are distinct yet build on one another, reminding the viewer that articulation takes time, and often births more questions than answers.