Guest Voices : Georgina Owen

In March 2013, The National Museum of African Art built a collaboration with the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital that was centered on the Earth Matter’s exhibition. This collaboration resulted in an Earth Matters’ themed segment in this year’s annual festival. Also born from that collaboration is this week’s guest post, which comes from Georgina Owen, the festival’s Associate Director.

 

The Environmental Film Festival collaboration with Earth Matters

 

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In the summer of 2012 the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital was invited to collaborate with Earth Matters to develop a series of film programs as part of the 2013 festival that would herald the opening of Earth Matters at the Museum of African Art.  Through long-time EFF partner Jeffrey Stine, Chair and Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the American History Museum, who represented the NMAH on the Earth Matters Project Team, we were introduced to Karen Milbourne and Anthony Stellaccio.    As they described the exhibition I was struck with the amazing complexity of the exhibition and yet the elemental importance of its message – the significance of the relationship between humans and the earth we stand on.

The result of our programming was a rich and varied group of films that formed a major theme running through our 2013 festival.  The films were presented in collaboration with four different Smithsonian units and two external partners.  The films ranged from documentaries on mud masons in Mali, on the effects of climate change and drought on onion farmers in Niger, to an inspiring portrait film on Jane Goodall, and to a Gabonese produced family adventure film involving lions and stolen tribal artifacts.  Special guest speakers included Claudine André, who spoke about her work rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tony Huston, who presented classic films by his father, legendary film director John Huston, exploring the influence that filming on location in various parts of Africa had on his work.   The last film in our series was an intimate portrait of El Anatsui, one of the artists invited to create a land art piece in the Smithsonian Gardens for the Earth Matters exhibit.

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Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui

Credit: Icarus Films

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For the Best and For the Onion

Credit: Icarus Films

The success of our Earth Matters film series was a natural precursor to a new pan-Smithsonian collaboration for our 2014 festival, which will take place March 18 through 30.  This year we will be working with the Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia on “Living in the Anthropocene: The Age of Humans.”  Films we are planning to include are The Last Call, that revisits one of the most controversial environmental books of all time, The Limits To Growth, and redelivers its message that growth must be responsibly managed to avoid a global crisis.  We will also show Extreme Realities, narrated by Matt Damon, a new episode of “Journey to Planet Earth,” that explores the links between climate change, extreme weather and national security.  Other films will examine how man has reshaped the natural world – our landscapes, our rivers, our oceans, our atmosphere – even outer space.  The relationship between humans and the earth we stand on matters in unprecedented ways.

Georgina Owen
Associate Director
Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

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Sand Fishers

Credit: Sand Fishers

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The Future of Mud: A Tale of Houses and Lives in Djenne

Credit: Icarus Films

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The King’s Necklace

Credit: The King’s Necklace

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The African Queen

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Guest Voices : Candace LaRocca

Today’s guest post comes from Candace LaRocca, one of the docents at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and a great friend of the museum. During the years of preparation for Earth Matters, LaRocca has been involved in numerous aspects of the show, most notably helping to translate for our artists from Francophone Africa. In the following post, LaRocca gives a warm and personal account of her experience with working with two artists from Morocco, Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun.

From time to time, docents are asked to help out in other areas in which we have a special interest or skill.   I was asked if I could do a rough translation of the one-hour interviews that Karen Milbourne, curator of the Earth Matters exhibition, had taped with the artists Hassan Echair and Younes Rahmoun in Morocco.   I saw this opportunity as a “win/win” situation; it would allow me to brush up on my French at the same time that I would  get to know the artists’  work,  which would assist me in giving tours of Earth Matters!

By accepting this assignment I was able to become very familiar with their work.  The honor of transcribing Dr. Milbourne’s interview required listening to the audiotape a multitude of times!!!.  The benefit was that I felt that I actually was “on location” with her and the artists in Morocco!   I could hear birds chirping in the background during Echair’s interview, I could hear other conversations and work going on during Rahmoun’s interview, and these details made a powerful impression that transported me to Morocco and the artist’s studios. It was amazing to see how much they covered during their one-hour conversation: upon transcription, each interview would be about 14 typewritten pages!

While Echair was unable to come to Washington D.C. for the installation of his work, Anthony Stellaccio (the Earth Matters Project Manager) arranged for the installation of his work to be handled via “Skype,” another first-time opportunity for both me and the museum. We started at 8:00 AM.  The installation site was set up as a mini movie set.  I sat in a corner while the screen was focused on Echair’s work. I interpreted while he worked with our design team for the installation of “Ascension.”   I was quite relieved to see him smiling, drinking a cup of Moroccan mint tea and holding his little girl on his lap in his living room. It seemed such a nice family setting and so relaxed and charming. I shared with him that I was concerned for his personal well being since he had spoken so emotionally with Dr. Milbourne about his work and concerns.   His response was “Yes, my work is not a joy; but someone has to represent these people.”

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Gallery shot of Hassan Echair’s Ascension

Bamboo, quartz, cord, paint, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

I was able to meet Younès Rahmoun personally during the opening of the exhibition; he was equally kind and caring.   As soon as I introduced myself, he wanted to let me know that there was another French- speaking artist who might need some help.   I recalled that he and Dr. Milbourne had discussed the work of Wolfgang Laib during their interview and let Younès know that Laib’s Wax Room was on display at the Phillip’s Collection (a museum of Modern Art in DC).   He managed to see the work prior to his return home and commented that it was “awesome.”

As a docent, I now have the opportunity to add a personal perspective to my tours as a result of my meetings with these artists.  Both Echair and Rahmoun are very deeply involved in their work and committed to expressing the needs and concerns of the people they represent.

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Gallery shot of Younes Rahmoun’s Kemmoussa

Plastic bags and compressed nails, installed at NMAfA in 2013

Photograph by Franko Khoury

Guest Voices: Adejoke Tugbiyele

Todays guest post comes from fine artist Adejoke Tugbiyele. In 2013 Adejoke assisted world-renowned, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui with the installation of his sculpture “Ala”, in the Smithsonian Gardens.  As she prepares to show with artist Nnenna Okore at the Joburg Art Fair, Adejoke shares her experience working with El Anatsui in this week’s Guest Voices.

Working with El Anatsui

Working with El Anatsui was a dream come true.  It could not have felt any better to do so at The Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Before me stood, on the one hand, an artist whose reputation deems him an institution by himself, and on the other, an institution which promotes and preserves the legacy of artists like El Anatsui.  I do not come from a family of artists.  Like many children of Nigerian parents, I was encouraged to go into the medical field.  In fact, I went to college as a pharmacy major for two years right after high school. Clearly, that was not the role the universe intended for me.  I quit and eventually went on to study architecture.

Why is this significant?  It is significant because despite my telling him that I was graduate sculpture student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), El kept introducing me to people as an architect. As any graduate student would, I showed him images of my work during one of our strolls through the Museum’s African art galleries, asking for a critique of some sort. A man of few words… he merely smiled.  Sure enough, and before I knew it, he was requesting detailed sketches and technical drawings of his pryamid installation for the Smithsonian Gardens. This task was not as easy at it sounds.  I often had to switch back and forth between a metric ruler to one in inches and feet, the latter being the system I’ve used most of my life here in the United States.  El didn’t care and remarked that our system in the U.S was “very colonial.”

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Adejoke Tugbiyele

Water Go Find Enemy (2013)

Perforated metal (woven), palm stems, brass wire and copper wire

During the installation we became short on the mirrored plexiglass that was used in the construction of El’s pyramid, a delicate material which was meant to be inserted underneath of sheets of cassava graters in pre-specified areas. I sketched out a rough estimate on paper of the total number of existing mirrors and those needed, and sent them to Anthony Stellaccio, the project manager for Earth Matters.  We corresponded back and forth and a decision was finally made on how many more mirrors to purchase.  I was glad that my experience in design and construction management came in handy in supporting Karen Milbourne (curator), Anthony, and their team at the Smithsonian.

Over time, it became apparent why El valued my help.  While installing the pyramid in Washington D.C, he was simultaneously preparing for two other exhibitions in Amsterdam and London respectively.  That London project recently won him the prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for his work, TSIATSIA – searching for connection, 2013.  El took several breaks to his hotel room to manage the London project from D.C. and he must have anticipated that he would have to do the same in Amsterdam.  I was thrilled when he said I could join him in Amsterdam as his assistant (or architect, I suppose) to manage the installation at ArtZuid.  This was paid work, whereas at the Smithsonian I was one of the four or five volunteer assistants selected by Karen Milbourne.  I should also mention that the South African artist and one of the artists in Earth Matters, Ledelle Moe, initially recommended me to Karen.  Ledelle was a professor of Sculpture at MICA and gave me very inspiring critiques in my studio.

I can’t thank the Smithsonian Museum enough for the wonderful opportunity of working with El Anatsui.  The volunteer program is very special and one that I highly recommend graduate students should take advantage of.  The exhibition Earth Matters is genius in its selection of artworks that represent a continent whose land has, and will, always matter.

-Adejoke Tugbiyele

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Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui                                       Doug Johnston, Adejoke Tugbiyele and El Anatsui

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El Anatsui (b. 1944, Ghana)

Ala, Site-specific installation, 2013

Adejoke Tugbiyele

Master of Fine Art, Sculpture (2013)

U.S. Fulbright Student Fellow (2013-14)

Website: www.AdejokeTugbiyele.com

Guest Voices: Working with the Earth – Artist Margaret Boozer in Our Own Backyard

Today’s guest post comes to us from Anthony Stellaccio, the Project Manager for Earth Matters, who worked on the exhibit through its early research stages all the way to making the show a reality. Through this process, he met and worked with other artists to learn more about how the earth informs their work – read on to learn about one of these artists, Margaret Boozer. 

I am a ceramic artist, I work with clay. Better still, I might make the claim that I work with the earth. Let us consider that part of what qualified me for my job as project manager for the exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.

While working on the Earth Matters exhibition, steeped in research on mining, the environment, and all the other themes that the Earth Matters touches upon, I had the good fortune to be introduced to another ceramic artist, Margaret Boozer. Boozer is the founder of Red Dirt Studio, a collective of ceramic and multi-media artists just six miles from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where Earth Matters is currently on view.

Originally from Alabama, Margaret Boozer grew up surrounded by red dirt. When Boozer reminisces about her southern home, she recalls that red dirt with enough fondness to ensure that anybody listening will make an unmistakable connection between it and her identity.  Hardly surprising, then, that as an artist, Boozer has taken an interest in the raw and colorful clays that surround her wherever she goes. In fact, Boozer has made “the earth” her primary medium, often working with clays, minerals, and soils that come straight out of the ground and go straight into her art.

 Burst cotton bolls in a field in Auburn, Alabama

How does one work directly with the earth?

In some cases, Boozer “draws” with the earth. By creating compositions from the multi-colored materials that she extracts from the earth, Boozer creates what she calls “dirt drawings.” Despite being called “drawings,” these works of art are more like sculptural installations since what she draws on is not paper but the gallery floor. Boozer begins these installations by hauling buckets of different clays, minerals, and soils into the gallery. She then responds to the unique features of each space that she is asked to work in by creating a different work for each place. When the show is over she hauls the buckets of earth out and the pieces disappear. From then on the work she created will exist only in photographs.

Dirt Drawings by Margaret Boozer

Margaret Boozer also paints with the earth. Working with the same diversity of materials, Boozer creates rectangular compositions much the same way she creates her “dirt drawings.” Only with her “paintings,” instead of just brushing them away, she makes them permanent by building frames and backings, and then embedding the earthen material into them. Boozer refers to these as “rammed-earth paintings,” and they are paintings in the sense that they exist in frames and can be hung on walls.

Paintings from the Rammed Earth Series by Margaret Boozer

Last but not least, Margaret Boozer is also a ceramic artist. By saying ceramics, of course, I mean that Margaret also uses the clays and minerals that she finds to create two- and three-dimensional objects that she then transforms by heating them to high temperatures in a kiln. Once fired, the materials that Boozer works with have become something rather different than what they were when she first dug them out of the earth, and their new forms are far more permanent. Looking at all the different ways that Margaret Boozer works with clay, I find myself asking not only “how does earth matter,” but also “what can earth be?”

Ceramic Sculpture by Margaret Boozer

Be sure to check out more works from Margaret Boozer here, and stop by Earth Matters to see ways that other artists work with earth as a material and an inspiration.