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Museum of Anthropology recentres Black perspectives in world premiere of "Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots"
Figures, maker unrecorded (Yoruba), 2019. MOA Collection 3406/1, 3406/2. Photos by Alina Ilyasova.

VANCOUVER.- The Museum of Anthropology at UBC opened the exhibition Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots, on display from November 4, 2021–March 27, 2022. The vital exhibition shines a light on the different ways of understanding the world through the lenses of African and Black communities by exploring the relationships between traditional and contemporary African art and Black Canadian contemporary art. The exhibition is a celebration of these diverse practices and the lasting legacy of African and Black Canadian artists. Sankofa is jointly curated by Nya Lewis, founder and director of BlackArt Gastown; Nuno Porto, MOA Curator, Africa and South America; and Titilope Salami, a PhD candidate at UBC’s Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory. It also features one installation curated by Oluwasayo Olowo-Oke, MA candidate at UBC’s Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory.

“Sankofa addresses the uncertain moment that many Black Canadians face when they enter a museum and encounter a historicized version of Africa — how can one relate to these objects that have been removed from contemporary Black culture?” says Lewis. “Sankofa provides a space for viewers to investigate the African collections at MOA and reflect on how the stories, creativity, and traditions that live in these items might be re-examined to find the truth and history of who Black Canadians are now. Sankofa aims to build bridges of recollection and forge new relationships between the many diasporic identities found across the city and beyond.”

Titilope says: “Rather than curate an exhibition that perpetuates the illusion of a monolithic African culture, Sankofa offers a glimpse at the endless possibilities of creativity through multiple Black lenses. We are visualizing fragments of many diverse perspectives, presenting a kaleidoscopic image so that visitors can construct their own relationships with the artists and the works on display.”

“We also want to welcome and encourage non-Black visitors to familiarize themselves with more nuanced understandings of our shared history — while looking toward the future,” adds Porto. “This is the core of ‘sankofa,’ a philosophy of moving forward while anchoring yourself in the rich traditions of the past.”

“Sankofa” is an Akan term, spoken in the region of what is now known as Ghana, and translates to “go back and get it.” The exhibition expands on this literal meaning, following on scholar Wazzi Apoh’s concept of “sankofatization,” or looking to the past to inspire a renaissance. The phrase has gained social currency in recent years, with sankofa becoming a word associated with pride in culture. For the exhibition at MOA, the curators turned to the museum’s collections to envision new futures, which are explored and delineated through the work of contemporary artists from Vancouver, BC and Lagos, Nigeria.

There are 30 works by 16 artists on display alongside more than 100 items from the MOA collection. The exhibition is focused on nine themes — recognition, rememberance, reconnection, restoration, reparation, reclamation, restitution, return, and reconstruction — which are articulated through sections dedicated to wealth, devotion to orishas, Islam, Christianity, looting, and repatriation. The curatorial variety affirms notions of diversity and resilience by visualizing the continued presence, vitality, and relevance of art from Africa and by Black Canadians. The featured contemporary artists from Vancouver and Lagos are a combination of emerging and established artists, many of whom directly and indirectly address the anonymous works in MOA collections.

One highlighted work from Vancouver is Chantal Gibson’s Souvenir (2017). The work confronts the intrinsic violence of “painting everyone with the same brush” while performing an exercise of inscribing – against intentional erasure – the continued agency of Black Canadians in our communities and in the history of the country.

A highlighted work from Lagos is Let the People Decide (2020) by Victor Ehikhamenor, one of today’s most important contemporary artists from Nigeria. Created during the pandemic at a time when protests were sparked around the world, including Nigeria, the work speaks to how much has been said by the people — the masses — and how much is still left to be said.

Of note from MOA’s collection is a delicate wood sculpture of the sankofa bird. The bird is depicted as moving forward while looking back, reminding viewers of the importance of re-centring our views of ourselves, our heritage, and our being in the world. The sankofa bird is a symbol of pride, and this work’s simplicity belies the rich significance of its form. The undated work is by an Asante artist, whose name is unrecorded, from the region of present-day Ghana.

Sankofa features work by Lagos artists Jelili Atiku, Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Layiwola, Onome Olotu, Onosanya Onolaja, and Stephen Tayo; Vancouver artists Berlynn Beam (Black Arts Vancouver), Michèle Bygodt, Chantal Gibson, Odera Igbokwe, Chase Keetley, and Nya Lewis; in addition to Yinka Adeyemi, Yekini S. Atanda, Z.K. Oloruntoba, Roodley Jeune, and more than 100 other works from MOA’s collections from Africa and the African diasporas.

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