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Senior Women Web Interviews: Sharon Patton, Part 2

by Mary McHugh

She discovered a book, African Art, by Frank Willett, which emphasized the aesthetics in cultural and social contexts, and she was eager to learn more. Frank Willett taught at Northwestern, so I applied there and got a graduate fellowship to study for my doctorate in African art history. Because of one of my history professors, I became fascinated by the culture and politics of the Asante people, the Akan, in Ghana, so I decided to focus my doctoral research on them. I studied their language called Twi and lived in Ghana from 1975 to 1976.

Her dissertation was on the regalia of Asante chieftains in Ghana, but she soon realized that as a woman, she would not be given access to certain ceremonies or shrines that contained ancestral objects because she had menstrual periods, considered contaminating in many African societies. My male professors at the Northwestern couldnt understand why I was unable to obtain certain data for my dissertation because they didnt anticipate this taboo among the Akan people. They thought my being African-American would make it easier to obtain information. They didnt realize that my gender and age would hinder access to some information.

She did discover that there was a female counterpart to chiefs called the Queen Mother, the sister or aunt of the chief, who also had regalia. I knew about Queen Mothers, but not that they had a panoply of objects and attendants, Sharon says. The Asante are matrilineal so women are influential, with the power to nominate the next chief. By then it was too late to switch research in mid-stream, but I wish I could have studied the women who were the caretakers of ritual objects. I think my being a woman would have made this an easier subject to research.

Sharon, who had grown up in the north and experienced prejudice when she traveled through the southern United States, expected to be accepted in Africa as an equal. But you are either African or a foreigner, she says. I was grouped with the Germans, New Zealanders, British and Indians. Even so, it was a good feeling to be in a place where blacks were in the majority and whites the minority. Being an African-American, this had a positive psychological effect. It was a difference in culture, not in color, that made us unusual.

After her year in Africa, she returned to teach at the University of Houston in 1976. It took me a while to adjust, she says. To see pickup trucks with their rifle racks on them and signs that said, Check your firearms at the front door, was a bit of a culture shock.

At the University of Maryland where she organized an exhibition of African art for the art gallery, Sharon was out of work for a year before an opportunity to be the Director of Galleries at the School of Fine and Performing Arts in Montclair College in New Jersey was offered. I didnt have a degree in museum studies, but I had organized this exhibition at the University of Maryland, and the dean took a chance on me. It was wonderful experience. I brought in traveling shows of contemporary art and organized faculty biennials. I did an exhibition of contemporary South African artists called Voices from Exile. I had an East Indian textile show, and presented local artists working in glass and ceramics. I wanted to include many different media, not just painting and sculpture.

This experience led to her appointment as the Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. There, she organized exhibitions on black photographers, a 20-year retrospective of Artists-in-Residence at the museum, and most notably, the art of Romare Bearden, on whom Dr. Patton is an expert, having written a book about him in 1991. What is it about this artist that she finds so intriguing? He depicts African-American people doing ordinary things by painting with bits of paper cut out of magazines to achieve a collage-like effect. He just pulls in what it really means to be an African-American. Theres a sense of continuity of American culture in his work, a sense of loving jazz, truly an American musical idiom, and yet hes got the classical grounding too.

Examples of Beardens work are to be found in Sharon Pattons book, African-American Art. My favorites are Three Folk Musicians that is on the cover of my book and his Prevalence of Ritual series, including the collage Mysteries. There will be a retrospective of his work in the fall of 2002 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

At this point in her life, Dr. Patton found herself at a crossroads. I took a week-long workshop on museum studies at the Smithsonian, she says. I wasnt sure whether to return to academe or apply for a position as a director of a museum. My dilemma was solved by an offer from the University of Michigan inviting me to establish a Ph.D. program in African art and African-American art. I accepted and found the research very stimulating, the environment competitive. I continued my interest in African-American art, especially contemporary artists and women who were seldom mentioned in earlier published books on African-American art.

The only drawback, experienced by many female professors at that period, was the constant demand on her time from students in need of a mentor. Women were much more likely to take on this responsibility than male faculty members, she says. I didnt have a moment to myself. It took me a while to say, No, but I had to learn to do that. Now, at my age, I think, Maybe Im not a good sport. Im not afraid of being unpopular, but I have to get on with my life.

After seven years in Ann Arbor, Dr. Patton was offered the position of Director of the prestigious art museum at Oberlin, where she is the first African-American to hold this position. I do not miss academe any more, she says. I like the academic environment and the cultural events that happen here, but I do not miss teaching. If you are anywhere near Oberlin, you can see the exhibits organized by Dr. Patton: A Matter of Taste: The African Collection. (this is only the second African art show at the museum in 45 years); Past, Present, East, West, which displays sixty works from diverse cultures; Art for Teaching, which gives the public the opportunity to see how the faculty use art in their classes; and old masters, Rubens, Monet and contemporary art.

I wondered what Dr. Patton thought about the controversy surrounding two black painters, Chris Ofili and Renee Cox, who exhibited their work at the Brooklyn Art Museum, causing Mayor Guiliani to set up a decency commission to protect us from paintings of the Virgin Mary daubed with elephant dung, or a photograph of a black female representing Christ.

I think they are making a mountain out of a molehill, Sharon says. If Ofili hadnt said what materials he had used, no one would have been upset. They werent upset over the Virgin being black, which you would think they would get upset over. Its the fact that he used elephant dung. I dont know what the fuss is about. Ofili, is a West African artist living and working in Great Britain, after all. He refers to cultures where people still use elephant dung for building and fuel. There are no longer elephants in West Africa. Ofili consequently appropriates a material that ostensibly represents Africa. It is an overly simplistic, primitivist view and sign about Africa. Does this make his work more authentic than one that could have been made by a white British artist?

Dr. Patton pointed out something I had not realized about the nude photograph of a woman representing Christ by Renee Cox. Its healthy to have this debate, she says. Particularly in the African-American community, because for so long the image of the black body has had associations with sexual exploitation and slavery. We dont want to show our nude bodies. We want to keep it quiet. When I was Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, we couldnt show a work like that because there would be so much protest from parents groups. Its a much bigger issue in the black community than in the white.

Sharon Patton has had a long and distinguished career in art and has made an important contribution to our knowledge of African-American artists. African-Americans bring their own perspective to culture in paintings and sculpture, tapestries and furniture, jewelry and quilts, that enrich all our lives. We hope to have piqued your interest so that you will seek out the work of the artists Sharon Patton has spent a great deal of her life telling the world about. You will be rewarded.

Part 1

 

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