Colonial Collection/ Context and Narrative (Pinboard #1)

Fred Wilson "Colonial Collection", 1990

Fred Wilson is an artist of African, American Indian and European descent and was born in 1954 in The Bronx, NY.  He attended Purchase College, State University of New York where he received a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in 1976.  Wilson is best known for his site-specific museum installations and first rose to national prominence with his 1992 exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society, “Mining the Museum.”  In this and similar works, Wilson uses objects either not normally on display or typically displayed in a different fashion and juxtaposes them in a way that “alters their traditional meanings or interpretations.”[1]

“Colonial Collection” is part of the 1990 exhibition “Rooms with a View: The Struggle Between Cultural Content and the Context of Art” an installation in which Wilson took two works from 30 artists and then arranged them in three different rooms- a regular gallery space, a white cube and a room designed to look like an ethnographic museum.  This work comes from the ethnographic space. “Colonial Collection” features seven African masks hung on a rust colored wall.  Around each mask, Wilson wrapped French and British flags which cover the mouth, eyes and nose on the different masks.  Beneath the masks is a glass display case which features insect vitrines, a jawbone, Mylar labels, wood and glass vitrines and Harper’s lithographs depicting punitive expeditions between the Zulus and the British and the Ashanti and the British.[2]

Although the masks are trade masks and Wilson had the vitrines in the glass display box made specifically for the exhibit, Wilson’s presentation of the objects under “museum lighting” and within an ethnographic space led many visitors to believe they were seeing traditional ethnographic (or authentic) objects.  The work demonstrates the ways in which museums anesthetize and control the presentation of objects making them “hostages to the museum.”[3]  The masks are shown as objects, historical and yet devoid of context; they present the idea of a culture while obscuring the realities of how the objects came to be there in the first place.   Thus, Wilson demonstrates how context can control, co-opt or even create the narrative of a particular work.  In doing so, he raises not only the question of whether the meaning that’s being is correct, but also of who has the right to convey meaning.   Such questions arise most frequently in regards to ethnographic objects but are equally relevant contemporary art history.  When discussion art at the intersections of race and gender it is necessary to bear in mind not only what but whose story is being told.

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