When Nii Quarcoopome arrived in the United States in 1979 from Ghana to begin graduate studies at UCLA, the first thing he perceived — the minute he stepped off the plane — was racial tension. It hung in the air thicker than L.A. smog.
"You could tell from the demeanor of the white immigration officer examining my passport," recalls Quarcoopome, now curator of African art at the Detroit Institute of Arts and mastermind behind the DIA's fascinating current exhibit Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present. "It was a mixture of disdain and discomfort, and I could see it in his eyes. I could see the attitude and I didn't like it, because in Ghana we do not treat people that way. So I didn't realize that was something I was going to experience in America."
Quarcoopome — let's call him Nii for brevity's sake — lived in Watts while earning his degree, which further informed his impressions of the nation. "You get a sense there are two worlds in America," he says. "You have the privileged white group, then on the other side you have blacks who are struggling. In Watts, I saw the difficult circumstances of African-Americans. Then traveling to Westwood and seeing the beautiful neighborhoods, it was like night and day to me. I said, 'Wow!'"
Thousands of visitors who've passed through the DIA since April have been saying "Wow!" to Through African Eyes, which concludes its successful premiere Sunday, Aug. 8, before moving to Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The first comprehensive exhibit to explore 500 years of cultural interactions between Africans and Europeans through the use of African art — thus, through the eyes of Africans — the collection represents a personal victory for Nii, a jolly, brilliant little man who has toiled for 10 years, overcoming funding challenges, scheduling woes and reluctant tribal elders to pull his show together.
"I usually operate under the radar, so I'm taking it all in quietly and feeling relieved that the years of hard work have paid off," says Nii, 54, in his soft, lilting accent. "I'm happy the public is receiving the show more as an educational experience, and I'm particularly happy some of the ideas we sought to project, people are beginning to appreciate. If it changes the way people look at African art as a whole, if they look at the same objects they've been looking at a long time differently, that's what I'm grateful for."
As global attention focused on Africa during the recent World Cup tournament, one timeless truth seemed to reassert itself: While Europeans warily viewed the "Dark Continent" from afar for centuries with a mixture of fear, fascination and derision, Africans — typified by Nii's initial perception of America at LAX — have been looking at the rest of the world the same way. That, in essence, is the message of Through African Eyes.
"Now people are beginning to see that we can't apply one brush to everything coming out of Africa," Nii says. "We need to acknowledge that Africa is not a single culture; we have different groups and each group has had a particular relationship with Europeans. And these experiences have in turn shaped the way they portray Europeans."
A dramatic example of that portrayal is what Nii deems "one of the most amazing pieces in the exhibition," among the nearly 100 carvings, paintings, artifacts and other pieces assembled from around the world: a 19th century carving from Republic of Congo, "European Trader in a Hammock." "The European looks so relaxed, and the Africans [one on either side, toting the hammock on a long pole] seem to be bearing the full weight of the European," Nii explains. "He's carrying a gun in hand, ready to fire, and he has a dog sleeping comfortably between his legs, and I thought that was really, really amazing.
"For Africans, who see the dog as performing two main functions, guarding the house and participating in the hunt, that kind of representation is, in my opinion, the ultimate insult," he says. "The African artist put teardrops on the figure behind the hammock, to communicate his own disgust with how Europeans were riding on the backs of Africans. I think it is one of the most powerful representations, especially for artworks created during or immediately before the Colonial Era. It's one way in which we introduce the era."
The exhibit itself is introduced by none other than Nii, or a holographic image of same, welcoming visitors with the provocative proverb, "When you speak of the beauty of the horizon, it is usually from your side of the earth." The occasion caused him to don what he calls his "decorative parachute," a ceremonial African robe, an uncomfortable role for a man who prefers working behind the scenes. "It was something suggested by my colleagues in the department," he explains sheepishly. "They thought having my voice at the beginning would set the tone for the whole exhibition, and I think it worked very well. But, yes, they had to talk me into it."
Supported by the rare double of major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as funding from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and other sources, the venture still endured demoralizing setbacks. When Nii moved his vision from the Newark Museum to Detroit in 2002, the DIA was in the midst of massive renovation that forced him to shelve the project for years. Still, he says being associated with the DIA "gave me a big stick to carry" in negotiating acquisitions and locations for the exhibit's tour. "The other issue was finding venues," Nii says. "The economic downturn affected multicultural institutions, and many had to turn us down, not because they didn't like the show but because they could not afford the fees we needed to pay for the movement of objects, couriers and so on."
Nii traveled extensively within the United States and throughout Europe, locating pieces from museums and private collectors, and made at least two trips annually to Africa in search of historical relics. And, of course, there was the schnapps.
"In Africa, especially in Ghana, when you go to the home of an elder or chief, the expectation is that you will carry a bottle of liquor," Nii says. "It's usually schnapps or gin, because those are colorless liquors used for praying. If you are conscious of that protocol, you'd be amazed how quickly it opens doors. They pray a little, take a tug or two, then tell you things that, under normal circumstances, they wouldn't. Every time you're going to have a conversation about the past that requires praying to spirits or ancestors, you really need liquor to go with it. Otherwise, I'm telling you, you will come out empty-handed."
Nii believes Through African Eyes has filled an emptiness in Detroit, and will do the same in successive stops. "I could see a yearning for a new way of looking at Africa within the community here," he says. "It really helped me to keep on working, because even though this exhibition is in place only a short time, it can be such an informative, powerful educational experience that hopefully will change a few people, change opinions about Africa and the relationship Americans have with Africa. I'm hoping, given the nature of our community, that we accomplish the goal that people no longer look at each other the same way. They will see that there are other ways for the races to examine each other."
Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Runs through Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 1-866-DIA-TIXS; dia.org.