The accessibility of today’s diverse and profound art world is far too often taken for granted. Wherever you are in England, you can rest assured that within perhaps a one hundred mile radius a museum, big or small awaits your scrutiny. Whilst we marvel at art in established western institutions such as the British Museum and The Musée du Quai Branly, renound for their indigenous cultural collections, many people have retained the commonplace habit of incorrectly referring to these institutions as ‘Art Museums’.
Western colonial expansion dominated the continents of Africa, Asia and the Americas, in the process reaping the cultural spoils of the lands. Over time colonialists stole treasures, patrons brought treasures, treasures made collections, collections made museums and the museums made art. Along this journey the term ‘artifact’ has been overlooked. With the extensive developments in cultural appropriation and equality, the term ‘artifact’ still remains in parts obscured by its bigger, richer and omnipresent cousin ‘art’.
Although perhaps artistic in objective appropriation, the artifacts of indigenous communities were not made with the intention of being stared at from behind a glass screen. Since the late nineteenth century, African masks and their association with primitivism have provided landmark artistic inspirations for the west, exemplified in the Fauvist movement and Pablo Picasso’s many paintings such as the Demoiselles d’Avignon. African masks originated as objects intrinsic to cultural ceremonies and ritual practice, marking the daily lives of these indigenous communities.
When I visited the Quai Branly last year, I found this museum exemplified Edward Said’s notion of ‘othering’. This term has been developed by Said in attempts to convey the condescending attitude of the west to indigenous communities. The Musée de Quai Branly appeases the notion of ‘othering’, exemplified in their condescending display of African masks. The masks in question were from a variety of African cultures and geographic locations, however had found themselves grouped together as though to demonstrate a collective culture. Cramped in a freestanding glass cabinet, these masks were lit by a dim orange light and conveyed very minimal accessible information regarding the context in which they were used.
With the Musee de Quai Branly being an exception, Western institutions have become vastly better at recognizing indigenous products as artifacts, noting also their origins and uses, specific to the British museum in their self reference as a museum of art and artifacts. This to some extent gives viewers an insight into the various cultures at hand, however context in museums has by no means been exercised to the extent it should be. Without a thorough visual and contextual appropriation of these objects, what will enable the viewers of galleries to fully establish as the difference between art and artifact? The purpose of a gallery is to provide its viewers with a visual experience in the efforts of culturing its public. The British museum for example bares one of the most internationally superior collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Whilst the labels of these objects convey vital information, it is in my view that the object’s aesthetics are what immediately strike us. With no visual material to reinforce the contextual description on the labels, it is easy to leave a museum, taking away a primarily visual appraisal of an object’s appearance rather than its cultural implications.
Whilst the distinction between art and artifact has gradually come more into play over the past decade, contextual appropriations are essential not only to our understanding of indigenous cultures, but to ensure their survival outside their countries, as equal to the western concept of art.
Miles Knapp writes about art for The Manchester Magazine. He is a second-year Art History student at The University of Manchester