Johnnetta Cole addresses the elephant in the room

Distinguished lecturer talks historical African ivory and modern museums 

The Art of African Ivory exhibit at the Agnes.

Last week, educator Johnnetta Cole visited Kingston to share the need for museums in the modern world to engage with controversial issues and tackle the notion of institutional representation.

On Oct. 10, the Agnes hosted a free public lecture about the display of historical African ivory in modern museums. This event was held in conjunction with the Agnes’ current exhibition, The Art of African Ivory, which will be open until April, 2020.

Cole is an esteemed international educator, anthropologist, and humanitarian, and was the Director of the Smithsonian Institute of African Art from 2009 to 2017.

In her lecture, Cole explained the cultural significance of African ivory and its distinction from the controversial use of modern ivory.

Talking about the Agnes’ The Art of African Ivory, she said it’s “an outstanding exhibition. Small but powerful.”

The ivory displayed in this exhibit is what’s referred to as historical ivory. Cole explained that historical ivory consists of “ivory in art objects before African nations became independent.”

The educator went on to say “we make that distinction because Ivory formed or seen in art objects in recent times is very often the result of just the most horrific killing of elephants in order to get those tusks.”

Historical ivory is more acceptable to display than non-historical ivory in most modern museums, both for educational purposes and to honour African heritage. Ivory that has been acquired more recently isn’t displayed in museums because of the inhumane hunting and poaching practices that are involved.

New ivory has been subject to public destruction in ivory burns since 1989, and ivory crushes since 2013.  

“The position I take in my talk tonight, and the position that I take, is that we have the responsibility to continue to have exhibitions like the one here at the Agnes, simultaneously with educating the public about the modern killing and destroying of these regal animals,” Cole said. “What the Agnes is doing tonight in presenting this talk […] is in the interest of educating the public.”

Moving on from the broader explanations of both her lecture and the exhibit’s content, Cole addressed the role of educators in presenting such a rich yet controversial history to the public. 

“Museums are places that should convene courageous conversations,” Cole said.

She praised another of the Agnes’ current exhibitions, Let’s Talk About Sex, bb, noting that museums play an important role in breaking down intergenerational gaps by displaying uncomfortable subject matter.

However, this is far from a one-sided job.

“I hope that every museum goer looks at all works of art not with one absolute intention,” Cole said. “Art should speak in multiple ways to you […] we ought to at least acknowledge that art has the potential to be a very powerful medium for getting us engaged in issues.”

Linking the multiplicity of art to her own multi-faceted professional identity, Cole believes there are many ways museums can improve.

“My view—and it’s a strong view—is that museums have an absolute responsibility to be places where multiple expressions of human beings are welcomed, and that means on the boards, that means the staff, and it certainly means what is presented in terms of exhibitions.”

Cole supports the modernization of museums, if not in response to the interests of the younger generation, then to address the realities of the modern world.

“Why should museums tell only some stories? […] The human race—and we’ve only got one of them—consists of multiple stories, because of the multiple identities of human beings,” Cole said.

When museums display art with controversial histories and violent origins, they have an obligation to educate the public on every side of the story.

By inviting Cole to come speak, this is exactly what the Agnes is doing for the Kingston community. 

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