Jet-lag and a throbbing sore throat are not ideal conditions for experiencing any art museum. Or any public venue, for that matter. I had few expectations for my first visit to a museum outside the borders of a city like New York, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Rome, Berlin, London or Paris. But, behold: I think I have found, what comes mighty close to, an ideal environment for absorbing visual art. It is within the double hangars of the North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh).
Naturally, I don’t expect everyone to share an identical experience when it comes to visual art. The beauty is in the variety of reactions humans have to art, presented to us en masse. What I loved about this museum most is that it’s figured out a way to present a robust, well-maintained collection of historical works, and gently usher them over into the tangled web of conceptual art, abstraction, expressionism and multimedia that congeals into contemporary art. For me, the best kind of museum presents a visual narrative that’s informative, but not patronising. This one gave me the space to develop my own reflections, rather than having dictated what I should see or feel. The collection, as a body of individual works, was inclusive while guarding extremely personal identities. In other words, without prodding the ‘cancel culture’ vultures out there, you can be considerate of the plentitude of a community’s traditions and their histories while revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly that’s baked in. An example is a scale model of a traumatic site for victims of the transatlantic slave trade, Elmina Castle — Elmina (1482 Portugal – 1637 Netherlands – 1872 Britain), 2004–5, 2014. Ghanaian artist Joseph Tetteh Ashong (aka Paa Joe) recreates this literal ‘Gate of No Return’ not just as a testimonial, but a reclamation of the agency and humanity lost by those who came before him. In all of the adjacent rooms to this searing monument: lovingly-made masks, urns and weapons meant to embody sources of tribal African pride, now scarce treasures of cultures slowly eroding away, thanks to time and human cruelties.
The East wing (a repurposed aviation hangar) was devoted to contemporary practices, and often put local artists in the most prominent display areas. World-renowned names like Ed Ruscha, Kehinde Wiley and Barbara Kruger were visible, but were interwoven so tightly within the presentational framework that they did not – and could not – overshadow names like Stephen Hayes, Natalia Torres de Valle and Ursula Gullow.
The West wing was a sweeping, chronological survey covering five continents and nearly every conceivable medium: masks, textiles, sculpture, weapons, paintings, films, religious objects and imagery (the museum has one of North America’s only two dedicated galleries to Judaic art), miniatures, glasswork…the list continues. A particularly clever employ was the physical and conceptual bridge built between Ancient Egypt and Africa, as one introductory panel exclaimed, “Yes, Egypt is in Africa!” It felt like a justified dig at institutions like The British Museum and the Louvre that often segregate the worlds of the pharaohs from the worlds of tribal chieftains. Paa Joe’s aforementioned work was spliced into this bridged section to great affect and effect.
Only a few, minor shortcomings stood out to me. Most notably, the overall space needed improved lighting design: the stunning Botticelli tondo looked shrouded and the magnificent Roman floor mosaic deserved increased luminosity. But overall, my first visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art restored my faith in curators and artists working in harmony to produce an enriching encounter that every citizen of its city has rights to possess. If the aim of every museum is to engage and inspire its visitors, no matter what age, background, nationality or education level they hail from, I’m confident that this museum has done it.
I’m not sure who to thank – the directors, the curators, the onsite educators, the conservators, the front-of-house staff…You know what? I’ll just say, thank you. A job well done.