How An Exhibition Comes Together

Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Art of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University

Ever wonder what goes into planning and installing an exhibition at a museum? Today’s blog post answers that question. Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, takes us through the process of envisioning and installing the museum’s new Focalpoint exhibition Hats as Materials of Culture on view now through May 7, 2017 in the museum’s third floor gallery of Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas.

The Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery houses the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection of art from Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas. While the vast majority of the objects in this gallery remain on continuous display, the Focalpoint section features a series of rotating exhibitions. Here we create two or three exhibitions a year on a range of topics. Recent displays include the art of ancient Peru, a look at fakes and forgeries, costumes and ornaments from New Guinea, and an investigation into tradition and authenticity in Native American art.

When deciding on a new Focalpoint exhibition, we first consider whether the topic can be linked to another exhibition, an event occurring on campus, or a new collection that has come to the museum. Our current Focalpoint, Hats: Materials of Culture, corresponds with the course Art, Craft, and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is being offered by the Department of Art History this spring. Even after the topic was selected, there was still a lot to narrow down. For example, would the exhibition look at one type of material or one kind of technology? One of the ideas I considered was a focus on beadwork. I would have looked at a wide range of objects from across Africa and made by a variety of peoples, but out of a single material—beads.

In preparation for Focalpoint, I put together several proposals, one for each of my exhibition ideas. They included 20 to 30 objects that could be used in the exhibition along with a short paragraph of the ideas and topics that could be addressed. Interestingly, this step in the process often reveals whether or not an exhibition will work. As it turns out, the beadwork idea did not work. While the objects were extremely interesting, they did not work together as well as I had hoped. As it turned out, a different idea worked much better—to create an exhibition centered on a single object type, but featuring a wide range of materials and a number of different techniques. In this case, the object type was hats.

Continue reading “How An Exhibition Comes Together”


Motherhood, Femininity, & Strength: Carving the Female Figure

Luluwa peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Female Figure, Lupinga lua Luimpe
Nineteenth century
Wood, incrustation, kaolin
H. 17 in. (43.2 cm)
Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection
Indiana University Art Museum, 75.91

A woman does not always have to be soft and delicate. This statement seems self-evident, yet, as a student of gender studies, I am always amazed at how often modern American media equates femininity with delicacy and softness. Many times, you will find television shows or magazine articles about wedding dresses and cupcakes directed at the female population from early childhood through young adulthood. These media streams are what teach women to be “correct” mothers throughout their lives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, there is something fascinating to me to see how gender roles throughout the world have evolved and changed during the course of history.

This is probably what led me to Female Figure (Lupingu Iwa Bwimpe) by the Luluwa peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tucked away in the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, this sculpture is as distinctive as it is beautiful. It was created around the second half of the nineteenth century and portrays femininity and motherhood within the Luluwa culture, which made me want to learn more about it.

The figure, made of wood, incrustation and kaolin, is a fertility figure used amongst the Luluwa peoples as part of a cult directed toward mothers and their newborns. This cult is a small religious group that uses the carved figures as a way to protect the fertility of the mother and to ensure the beauty and health of the newborn child. Spiritually charged—and recharged when necessary—the figure is said to protect the mother and child from harm and is a conduit for ancestral aid.

The notions of motherhood portrayed in this piece are similar to how we typically think of motherhood in America today: the mother as the nurturer, the selfless beacon, the caretaker. However, there is a particular look of power and determination in the eyes of the figure that tells that there is more to the story of Luluwa motherhood.

In the Luluwa culture, a woman who is a hard worker is often favored. This is portrayed with the large head (which symbolizes intelligence) and the muscular arms and calves of the figure. Motherhood is more than being gentle with the Luluwa; it is also about being strong and powerful.

This, to me, is powerful imagery. It is a great reminder that femininity and delicacy are not the only traits women and mothers possess—despite how our media might portray women in current American society.