"Magic Ladders" Brings Visitors Closer To Barnes

Peter Chawaga, for GPA -- In his own time, Albert Barnes was considered an eccentric. As an art collector, he sought avant-garde pieces that challenged the artistic establishment and he was an outspoken critic of contemporary museums and approaches to art history. His distaste for traditional art criticism prompted him to create his world-famous foundation, where a new generation of scholars could see the work of a diverse group of artists without the input of institutional curators. It also led him to champion the work of artists who went overlooked because they defied the white, male dominated standards of the art world.

Barnes’ renegade collection and his progressive interest in African-American and international art has served, in part, as the inspiration for the Foundation’s current exhibition “Magic Ladders,” featuring sculptures, paintings, photographs and a room installation by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

“I thought it might be interesting to see Yinka's response to the Barnes Foundation,” said Judith F. Dolkart, the Barnes’ chief curator. “Not necessarily a response to the collections we have here, but to Dr. Barnes’ interests in education, enlightenment and social mobility. These seemed to be things that Yinka addresses in his work.”

Dolkart went to London to meet Shonibare, an artist famous around the world for his explorations of cultural identity and colonialism and use of brightly colored fabrics. She sent him a catalog of the Barnes Foundation’s holdings and some of Barnes’ correspondence with his contemporaries.

The foundation’s library became a principal feature in three works from which the exhibition derives its name. They feature child-sized mannequins climbing ladders, the rungs replaced with books from Barnes’ collection. The faceless mannequins, clad in Shonibare’s signature African fabrics, stand atop the works in a commentary on knowledge’s power to transcend cultural barriers.

The exhibition also features work from earlier in Shonibare’s career, including the 2003 piece “Scramble for Africa.” A table of headless mannequins sit in debate as a representation of The Berlin Conference of 1884-85, where Western powers regulated their colonial interests in Africa.

“I think it’s a very powerful work that calls us to think about the ways in which collectors like Dr. Barnes got the collections they did,” said Dolkart. “Not only did he collect American and European paintings, but he collected African art and there are other cultures represented in the collection as well. In that regard, his collections had very international reach. I think it’s important for us to present exhibitions like ‘Magic Ladders’ that can compliment the international art we present in the permanent collection gallery.”

In the museum's first partnership with an artist since the founder commissioned Matisse’s triptych “The Dance” in the ‘30s, Dolkart has been encouraged by early success.

“I think the response from the public has been wonderful,” she said. “What this exhibition has brought to our visitors has been a new lens through which to look at the collections as well as the mission and history of the Barnes Foundation.”

The Barnes Foundation will be hosting “Magic Ladders” until April 21. For more information, visit http://www.barnesfoundation.org/exhibitions/shonibare.

Photo courtesy of uwishunu.com.