Curating African Art in a Pandemic

Irma McClaurin, PhD

The Afripedia virtual event occurred on Thursday, May 21, 2020.

Want something exciting to do in the midst of a pandemic, while practicing #socialdistancing and following the advice to stay home? How about taking a trip to Africa to learn about African art?

Photograph. Irma McClaurin. From NCMA African Art Gallery. Raleigh

That’s what North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA)’s African Art Curator, Amanda Marie Maples, thought might get people excited  in the midst of this pandemic. She is finding ways to keep audiences engaged with art collections they can no longer visit.

Her response to the pandemic is Virtual AfripediaIt is a series of online screenings and discussions around “a new documentary series offering compelling, intimate stories told by African visionary artists who are pushing the boundaries of creative self-expression.”

The Curator’s Vision 

The COVID-19 state of affairs might have shaken up some, but Maples is used to challenges. She joined the NCMA two years ago as its newest and first African Art Curator. Challenge #1 was to convince NCMA patrons and visitors that African art was worthy of their attention. Challenge #2 was having to answer the question that inquiring minds wanted to know: “in the 21st century, why was a white woman hired as the inaugural African Art curator?”

Maples’ response is action: build relationships in the African community in North Carolina and abroad, design programs to attract regulars and new visitors, expand the NMCA’s permanent African Art Collection, bring unique exhibits to NCMA that disrupt people’s conventional ideas about African art, and hire student interns who reflect the diversity she knows is needed if museums are to change from being perceived as “public white spaces.”


Photograph: Omar Victor Diop, Mame. 2014: Courtesy Magnin-A Gallery. Paris

Says Maples,

“I’m very interested in the way we think about and display cultures from other parts of the world, particularly in this country. I think it’s very problematic and so I put a lot of my energy into rethinking that and trying to find ways to make it more dynamic and a bit more representational from the standpoint of other voices, and not just the curatorial powerful voice.”

Photograph: Irma McClaurin. The African Art Gallery at North Carolina Musem of Art occupies the entire first level of the old wing on NCMA

Maples also wants NCMA visitors to understand the complexity of Africa as a continent comprised of countries, many cultures, many religions, and many cultural traditions that reflect a variety of art and creatives.

Photograph: Irma McClaurin. Contemporary African Art. NCMA African Art Gallery. Raleigh

Her goal is to shift the image of Africa as stuck in time and demonstrate “…that Africa is …many countries that have been part of a larger global dialogue for thousands of years.”

The Journey Home to North Carolina

Maples has been preparing for her role as Curator of African Art for a while. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a BA degree in anthropology, she began a journey to develop curatorial skills that would lead her away from North Carolina to Chicago where she worked in Cultural Resource Management, a stop for two years at the University of Kent where she received a Master’s degree in visual anthropology, and then to California where she gained experience by volunteering at the Hearst Museum two days a week, and four days a week working as an interior repair person to pay her bills.

At Hearst, first as a volunteer and later as a paid employee, Maples curated 1200 pieces of Yoruba art collected by renown anthropologist, William Bascom who worked in Nigeria in the 1950s.

Photograph: Irma McClaurin. Amanda Maples lecturing at NCMA.

From there she went to work as a Museum Assistant and Researcher at Yale University Art Gallery. Frustrated with being stuck in low-level positions, Maples headed back to California and enrolled in a PhD program in Visual Studies focused on African art and museums at University of California, Santa Cruz; she finished in 2018.

This prodigal daughter of North Carolina never imagined that African art would bring her home. In fact, it is a fulfillment of a dream. She says,  “It was a no brainier to come home and be close to family. I had been telling my family for years that there was no work for me here, no African art in North Carolina and now I am eating my words.”

Photograph: Irma McClaurin. Amanda with Mother after NCMA lecture, July 2018

Reflecting on her long journey home, what it means to develop a robust African art collection in North Carolina, and her vision for the future, Maples muses “I am so proud to be a native and to see all the energy and money that [NCMA] is putting into displaying and representing African art. …I used to think that North Carolina is not a place to talk about African art, and that is changing. It’s really becoming a destination, I would argue.”

With tattoos gracing her arms and legs, Maples is a far cry from the traditional academic museum art curator. And she carries that non-traditionalism into her practice into how she thinks about building the NCMA’s African art collections and exhibitions.

Her mission is to change how African art is viewed by introducing visitors to a range of African aesthetics that include traditional carvings and contemporary mixed-media forms comprised of recycled circuit chips or cast-off bottle tops and labels.

Photograph: Irma McClaurin. Amanda Marie Maples, African Art Curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, July 2018

Curating African Art in a Pandemic

The BIG runway event for Maples was slated for April 4, 2020. She had designed an expansion of an exhibition that originally opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” would have showcased fashion and jewelry by African creatives like Selly Raby Kane, Khadija Ba Diallo, and Rama Diaw, and NCMA had built hands-on station where visitors could touch gold jewelry. COVID-19 changed all that. The exhibition is postponed until September.

But true to form, Maples has met this pandemic challenge head on and adapted. Her response is Afripedia; a virtual program that she believes is forcing her, NCMA, and other museums to “…consider digital experiences to be authentic experiences of the arts.” For Maples, the pandemic is an opportunity and not a barrier.

Staying home has allowed her to catch up on reading and write articles. It may be a good thing, “I think this pandemic is making us curious and making us look around outside of ourselves much more, which naturally creates connections and increases mutual understanding and respect” says Maples.

#afripedia #africanisnotacountry #citeblackwomen #diversitymatters #COVID19 #africanart #museums #NCMA #pandemic #globalafrica

(c)2020 Irma McClaurin


Irma McClaurin ( ) is an award-winning writer, consultant, activist anthropologist, community engagement and DEI specialist, leadership coach and a past president of Shaw University.

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