Curator's Choice: Wayne Modest in the Horniman's African World gallery

Wayne Modest interviewed by Ben Miller | 01 October 2009
A picture of a man pointing at figures inside a cabinet

Curator's Choice: In his own words... the Horniman's Keeper of Anthropology, Wayne Modest, explains how making a Curator's Choice is a complex process – his immense passion for the collection means he holds numerous pieces in great affection.

He says Blue Earth, St Lucian artist Taslim Martin's sculpture marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, became a real highlight for the African World gallery when it was installed in 2007, alongside minkisi – used as 16th century spirit holders – and Afo figures symbolising the fertility of African lands and peoples. Here he tells us why…Minkisi (above, with Wayne Modest) – 16th century objects believed to contain powerful spirits

"We do have a small but very fine collection of minkisi from the Republic of Congo.

Basically they are containers of forces. They could be a force to heal, a force to ward off evil or a force to repair some kind of ill – that’s how they are used within the Congo.

There are different structures, many kinds of minkisi. The male nkisi is probably the most famous.

When you look at them you see a few important things – you can see medicine packs hanging from them, for example, that hold the medicine for curing the client.

But you also see the cloth that is associated with them. When it is being used and the person moves it in the air it represents the idea of the spirit figure in the movement of the cloth.

What is important and interesting is not only the minkisi, themselves, which I'd like to do a major exhibition on, but also their place within the Diaspora.

You see them in places like Haiti and parts of the US, where Africa and the Congo are in the Diaspora you find minkisi that have moved and been translated, but they still have the same relationship to function and form.

There are even some contemporary artists now who are inspired by this, the work of their ancestors. For me, these are also some of my favourite objects.

I would never disregard their sacredness, but whether they still hold power outside of their use is questionable, because of course if you put medicine or power into something, that power is for a specific purpose. If the work is not being done, the power is not potent.

A lot of our collections, apart from the items we got from Frederick Horniman as his original gift, came in the 1950s. We acquired them through fieldwork.

We want to signal them as a living thing, a living tradition. These rituals happen today, they are still a part of the contemporary Congo and the Caribbean."

A picture of a huge circular black stone sculpture

Blue Earth (Above, Taslim Martin, 2007)
"It was commissioned for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in South Africa in 2007, and it signalled an important moment for the museum, to be able to say that we understand the way in which globalism is implicated in the colonial regime.

It's made of the kind of black steel associated with the slave trade, and it's especially important for the people of the Diaspora whose lives have been touched and impacted upon by the slave trade.

We want to connect in physical and imaginative ways to the African community. It's extremely important to us to create a conversation between objects and communities – this goes beyond that, taking in populations.

If you think about people from places like Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados, they can even imagine themselves as being double Diasporic, because they've come from African and Caribbean Diasporas.

It also questioned individual perceptions – what did the bicentenary mean? There's tactility to it, it speaks to a particular kind of history. The Transatlantic slave trade was a traumatic encounter for Africa.

In terms of a piece of contemporary art – and I am particularly interested in this as a curator – it plays with memory, it works with memory.

If you see it after we clean it then you can see all the things inscribed in it, and that's from the slave ship, the continent, the lines of connection, the movements of enslaved Africans. That's when it's clean. But as time passes it takes on a pattern and you can't see it any more, and you have to clean it again.

Memory as a practice is something that has to be recovered – you have to clean it. That process of fading and recovery is an important part of remembering the traumatic past. It’s another connection with the African Diaspora.

We've had a mixed response to it for many reasons. It means such different things to different people. We also get visitors who say they just can't read it.

We think it's important to think about what it means for contemporary British society and ethnographical and anthropological collections. As a contemporary art piece I really love it."

A picture of two brown wooden maternal figures

Afo (also known as Northern Edo maternity figures)

"These are two maternity figures from the late 19th century. These are very important to our collection, they're two of the earliest items we acquired, but they came into the actual collection in the 1920s.

Their significance is seen in the fact that they have been at two major exhibitions in America and here at the Royal Academy.

Some research has been done on them – in terms of their use, they were taken out once a year in a celebration of motherhood, a celebration of maternity, the maternal spirit and the ancestral mother. It is also a celebration of fertility – the fertility of the land and produce.

They are signature pieces for us. They show the quality of collections we have here. In addition to the minkisi and the mask behind you, they show the quality of collections that we have here.

And I could do this with you for Asia, for the Pacific, for the Americas – if I were to take you into our Centenary Gallery (next door) you would see wonderful key pieces, not only from an aesthetic perspective but also, importantly, from the stories they create and the narratives we put them in."

Watch Wayne Modest talk about the ijele mask below

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

For more stories from inside the Horniman Museum, visit our introduction to the Designated collection series.

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