Elizabeth Morton has curated an exceptional exhibit of African art that entices you with open arms.
That’s intentional—you know that, right?” says Associate Professor of Art Elizabeth Morton as she leads us into Dimensions of Power, the African art exhibit at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art. Art Director Becky Wendt and I had been marveling about the enticing entrance to the exhibit. Everything seems to say, “Welcome.” From the bright lighting, white walls with contrasting dark floors and ceiling, transparent cases, and large indigo robe posed with arms open, it was a reminder of the tradition of hospitality so pervasive throughout the cultures and countries of Africa.
“It was essential that the exhibit be visually engaging,” Morton explains, noting that parts of the collection had previously been displayed downstairs in a much more confined space. When a large number of objects were donated to the museum by collector Owen D. Mort in 2013, the museum wanted to highlight the collection. It decided to move the African works to this spacious area and to hire Morton, who spent a year and a half curating the exhibit.
“We knew we had to do something different with the African collection, and that’s when we found Elizabeth,” says Snite Museum Associate Director Ann Knoll. “We had seen the wonderful job she had done with the African collection at the IMA [Indianapolis Museum of Art]. She has a real clarity in the way she presents the information, and she does it in different ways that help viewers get familiar with the pieces.”
“It was an incredibly collaborative project,” says Morton. “We worked with Notre Dame faculty, the Africa Working Group, and I was granted two assistant curators. We did a social media campaign to learn how people would use the exhibit in teaching; how they wanted to see it presented. We heard from a lot of kindergarten through high-school teachers.”
Rather than organize the exhibit by regions, Morton decided to focus on the economic, political, social, and spiritual power the various objects possessed in their cultures.
“Much of what we now call traditional art in Africa was used for a very concrete effect,” Morton explains. “Even what appears to be decorative has a function.”
That approach meant the exhibit would need a map, which led to the exhibit’s most innovative feature.
“Without a map, Africa is meaningless to most Americans,” Morton explains. She envisioned a touchscreen that would help visitors locate where each item in the exhibit was from, as well as additional information about the culture that produced it. A proprietary app for the museum also allows viewers to scan a QR code at each object to see videos or other media to show how the object was used.
Photographer Michael Rippy made it all happen.
“I told him my idea; he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” Morton says. “He looked into the technology and made into reality a vision I had only obscurely articulated.”
Even the stands had to be thoughtfully designed, Morton explains.
“For example, there’s a figure that looks like the image of a nun, but it’s a power figure, and that is signified by a nail at the bottom of the figure. The nail connects her to the ancestors. Because professors here use that figure in their teaching, our mount maker, Aaron Nicholson, made the stand so that the nail was prominently seen.”
“I am very grateful to Elizabeth for bringing distinction to our African art collection and for making it more relevant to campus and community audiences,” former Snite Museum Director Charles Loving writes in the exhibit’s catalog.
“It really is an exceptional collection of art, and so many people made this happen,” says Morton. She struggles to choose a favorite piece, pointing first to a mask from the Ivory Coast she describes as being “as good as it gets” and a masquerade dress from Nigeria with layers of cloth and meaning that are “spectacular.” She fixes on a headdress for a married woman of the Herero people—next to it is a photograph of the same piece being worn by the woman who made it.
“This photo, taken by a British colonial officer in 1935, is of this exact piece,” she explains. “You just don’t find this sort of combination very often, but that’s the nature of this entire exhibit. It really is that remarkable.”