Visiting MoMA While Black

When I moved to New York as a PhD student in philosophy, the first thing I did was buy a membership to all the major museums. I make weekly excursions to them, but the experiences are not always uncomplicated. A few months ago, I attended the exhibition Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on a busy Thursday afternoon. As I entered the sterile white space through the heavy glass doors, I noticed something haunting the room. It was clear to me that the work was influenced by African art. It immediately reminded me of vases and clothing that my grandmother had in her home from Africa. Yet this connection, so clear to me, was chillingly neglected by the curators.

During this visit, I also realized I was the only Black person there for the exhibition. This is not a unique occurrence. To be clear, there were other Black people in the room. But they were not there to observe the art; they were there to guard it. I had to stop myself several times from approaching them, pulling them over to a piece, and asking, “Does this look familiar to you?” It is lonely as a Black student of art: You are already an outsider and then you see your culture on the walls, and the museum does nothing to validate your interpretation. 

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Lack of representation is a psychological torture tactic. As I walked through the first three rooms of that exhibition, I felt that I was having an experience of vertigo. I searched and read all of the descriptions on the walls and none mentioned African influence. I thought to myself: Am I crazy? I must be tripping, this is straight out of Africa! Through years and lives lived with systematic racism, Black Americans grow into a psychological state of constantly doubting their intelligence and abilities. 

Installation view of Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art (photo Ela Bittencourt/Hyperallergic)

Of course, I wanted to believe that the art I was looking at was African-based, but a little voice in my head was telling me: It’s probably just a coincidence. These textiles, necklaces, and sculptures of masks are just the pure brilliance of this White artist. I did not know about the major influence that Africa had on the European Dada movement until after I left the exhibit and contacted a professor from my university to verify my suspicion. He pointed me to the 2017–2018 Dada Africa exhibitions in Paris and Berlin, and I was shocked by not learning about this from the exhibition at MoMA. As a Black person, that was truly disorienting, isolating, and it honestly hurt my feelings. 

To learn that my culture influenced this artist, I had to read articles on my own written in different countries. This influence Africa had on the Dadaists has never been taught to me in the many art history classes that I have taken. It was not presented at this exhibition anywhere except for passing mentions in the exhibition catalog. The ghost of Africa haunted Taeuber-Arp’s exhibition at MoMA. You could feel its presence lingering in each room. 

In a New York Times review of the show by Jason Farago, he acknowledges this haunting absence, “the show’s indifference to her cross-cultural influences started to feel more like a conspiracy of silence than a choice of emphasis.” Later in the article, he mentions that the exhibition’s curator Anne Umland said she did not include Taeuber-Arp’s earlier work, which has a direct connection to the Native culture of the Hopi because it was “not essential to the thesis of the exhibition.” To me this sounds like whitewashing; Taeuber-Arp’s early work is so similar to the work of the Hopi tribe that the museum would have had no choice but to acknowledge this influence, had those early works been shown. I guess the major African influence didn’t even cross their mind. 

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, left: “Necklace” (c. 1918–1920), glass beads, thread, cord, and metal findings, 15 3/8 inches, right: “Geometric Forms (necklace)” (c. 1918), glass beads, metal beads, thread, and cord, 13 3/16 inches including cord, 33 7/16 inches including cord (photo Sydney Harvey/Hyperallergic)

To whose thesis are these works and their acknowledged influence “not essential”? Is it the entirely White curatorial team who put this exhibition together? Yes, I can see that would not be important to them. Then again, this exhibition is put together with the public in mind, and the public they envision is clearly not a public that would identify this influence and feel that their culture needs to be acknowledged for it. Why should we celebrate Taeuber-Arp and not those from whom she took inspiration?  

Perhaps “inspiration” is even a euphemism here. Like so many modernists, the uncredited use of African visual culture is appropriation, and the Museum is complicit in that a century later. Despite placards by each work, and walls of text celebrating Taeuber-Arp’s achievements, there is no mention of the dark-skinned cultures that helped her arrive at her visual language. Anyone with a sense of Native culture or African textiles will notice the resemblances quickly, but curators evidently aim for a different “thesis,” a different narrative. 

This isn’t about “cancel culture”; it’s about truth. I love MoMA, and I go every week. I simply want them to know how it made me feel, as a visitor of color. The recent effort to cash in on Black artists can give the false impression that Black people have only recently contributed to the art world. It implies that we are finally catching up when modernism was actually shaped by African aesthetics. We have been present all along; we just don’t get the credit. Up through the 1980s, those debts were a bit more clear, under the label “primitivism.” That offensive language has been abandoned but replacing it with silence may be even worse. It is immensely important for White museum-goers to understand where Taeuber-Arp’s visual language comes from. It is equally important for the rare Black museum visitors like myself to learn that this art reflects something about them. This is among the reasons museums continue to be white spaces. As a lonely Black woman in their exhibitions, I hope MoMA comes to recognize this missed opportunity and the harm that their omission can cause. 


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