Students at KAM: Research Reflections by TJ Bayowa

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Photo of the face of a young African man in a white collared shirt.
TJ Bayowa, curatorial intern at Krannert Art Museum, 2020. Photo provided.
Student Engagement

KAM Curatorial Intern TJ Bayowa is studying for his BS in Architecture in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and his BA in Art History from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Class of '21). He reflects on his research experience with the African art collection and his early planning for an upcoming African Gallery Forum at Krannert Art Museum.

My first semester as a curatorial intern at Krannert Art Museum has been filled with excitement. At KAM the faculty and staff have created a welcoming and educative space that fosters student involvement in the research and work that happens there. This semester I worked with the African collection alongside Dr. Purpura, curator of Global African Art. Approaching the collection from my architectural background, the role has widened my perspectives and understanding of the transcendental qualities of art and design. Each artwork in the collection is imbued with a power to form communities through the translation of the stories embedded within them. My research focused mainly on artworks and objects from West Africa, such as a carved equestrian figure and adire cloth made by Yoruba peoples in Nigeria, and tent poles made by nomadic Tuareg peoples from West Africans. 

Perhaps the clearest characteristic made visible from my research has been the transcendental qualities of these objects. Evident in these objects is their ability to be intimately personal and simultaneously a tool of connection to others. From the Tuareg tent poles used by nomadic West Africans, to the gelede dance bags used in southwestern Nigeria, these objects all share a similar quality of translating shared experiences, beliefs, and cultures of the people who make them. In the same way these objects fostered community in their original context, they continue to make new ones in their current environment—the museum. By bringing together students, faculty, and contemporary artists and artworks committed to creating a decolonized space, the fraught history behind the forced removal and presence of some of these objects are addressed. This shared commitment reveals the objects’ continued lives and abilities to make community. 

An example of an endeavor to foster community and a decolonized space took shape this semester in planning an African Gallery Forum that was set to take place in the Spring semester. Due to COVID-19 and social distancing protocols our plans for the event were halted. We plan to re-group once the pandemic has been resolved and we can move forward with hosting the Forum. The Forum plan brought together a culturally and ideologically diverse group of artists, students, professionals, and staff from different parts of the Champaign-Urbana area. Our discussions revolved around the relationships of identity, social media, and immigration to museums. The relationship between immigration and the museum was a topic which I took a keen interest to. Through research and discussions with immigrants around campus, I noticed similar processes of exploitation that impel immigration and prompt the presence of African objects in museums across the global North. It is a complicated idea which I have begun to explore in more detail and greater delicacy.

Not only has the planning of the Forum, and ultimately the objects in the collection, allowed me to create new relationships with my peers, they have also connected me to a broader African community in and around the campus. By working with this community and including them in the work that takes place in the museum, we hope to bring this forum to life and continue the work of creating a space in which all feel and know they are welcome.