Urban Up Close: Being Black in a Spanish Museum

In All, The Story by Teju Adisa-Farrar

People staring at me, staring at the paintings: I guess they wonder what I could be doing in a place where none of the art or artists reflect my identity as a person from the African Diaspora. I sometimes wonder the same.

One day after my program had a technical visit to the Caixaforum Madrid, I went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of Madrid’s most famous museums along with the Prado and Reina Sofia. At one point it was the second largest collection in the world and still remains a very prestigious museum with original works from: Rembrandt, Francesco Guardi, Claude Monet, August Renoir, and Vincent van Gogh, just to name a few. On Mondays it’s free between 12-4pm and there is a long line around the block of people waiting. Once the clock struck noon, the doors opened and despite the long line it only took about 15 minutes to get in (after about 20 minutes standing in line). The museum features European paintings spanning about eight centuries and also includes a section on North American paintings from the 19th and 20th century with works from notables like: Copley and Winslow Homer.

I’ve been to many museums in my life. Every week when I was a child my mother would take us to a museum; wherever we lived and whenever we travelled we visited museums. My mother has always been a collector of art and in more recent years has worked as curator as well. Being in the Thyssen Museum produced a feeling in me of nostalgia and discomfort. Successful museums produce feelings of nostalgia even in those of us who are young and not art connoisseurs. However, the other feeling of discomfort came from being in a large building where I was acutely aware that during the time many of these works were created, my ancestors were being enslaved and colonized by the countries these painters come from: the Netherlands, England, France, Spain, etc. Yet, there would be no depictions or awareness of this history in this museum, which is one of the best museums in the world.

Street in Nassau, Albert Bierstadt (c. 1877-1880)

Allees et Venues, Martinique; Paul Gauguin (1887)

Summer in Nidden, Max Pechstein (c. 1919-1920)

Being who I am, I of course found a few paintings that hinted at some semblance of colonialism, but in a very romantic and benevolent way. Naked indigenous women sitting in the grass; presumably enslaved Africans or recently freed (given the time period) sitting under the trees in Martinique, and a couple others.

Even in Museo Nacional de Antropología de  Madrid (National Anthropology Museum) where there were photos of Congolese women there were problematics. I went to see an exhibit there about Congolese women, which is a collaboration between a Spanish photographer and Congolese journalist. It’s called “Mujeres del Congo.” The exhibit mostly focused on the violence women and girls experience during war in the Congo. There were a couple of photos that seemed more subtle, which showed “Ninas Brujas,” meaning Little Witch Girls. The photos below show girls who were accused of being witches by their families. I actually think these little girls are quite pretty.

The first floor of the museum was filled with photos, portraits mostly, of Congolese women. Each caption would say a name and then under it ” Mujer Victim,” which just means female victim. It’s troublesome that these women’s entire identity was boiled down to two lines: their name and “female victim.” This is clearly an issue of representation and the perpetuation of a single story. The museum has three floors: Africa, Asia, and America. I don’t understand why there is no floor for Europe? This seems like archaic anthropology, which only studies the “other.” It’s not a large museum. Each floor had various artefacts from different countries from each continent and pictures of people in “traditional dress.” I couldn’t even finish the Americas floor because upon entering there are pictures of White people dressed in, what I assume is supposed to be, indigenous clothing. I’m told this is because they don’t have any photos of actual indigenous people in their traditional dress. In addition to these two museums in Madrid I’ve been to theCentre Pompidou Málaga, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and Museo d’Historia de Valencia (the Valencia history museum) where there was a very interesting temporary exhibit entitled “Cartografia de Los Caminos: Dunhuang y el Romanico en el Peninsula Iberica.” This exhibit, Cartography of the Roads, used imagery to map two relevant cultural journeys: the Silk Road and the Journey of Santiago. These two journeys are visualized relationally and analogously. Sometimes museum exhibits do get it right, but when this happens these exhibitions are often temporary; like this one.

In many of the national and popular museums in Europe, whether they are about history, anthropology, or Fine Art, it is very unlikely to find (or even expect) adequate representation of non-Europeans or accurate depictions of Europe’s role in other parts of the world. As a postcolonial person of African descent, my identity, which is very much a result of European colonialism and its role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is completely invisibilized from the perenniality of museums. In many European museums people of African descent, and other postcolonial communities, do not exist… and when/if we do it is usually in the form of plantation fantasies or other romanticized versions of our oppression; or, possible, as the exotic uncivilized “other” with photos of starving, impoverished children and careworn women.

I love museums in Europe and in general. Their lack of representation is just an invitation for those of us who believe in multidimensionality, accurate portrayals of society and history, diverse artists and art forms, acknowledgement, equality and so forth to come forward and infiltrate these institutions. It’s a call to arms to resist from within and without. Their failure necessitates our presence and the work that we do with regards to subjectivity, identity, postcolonial artistry and so much more. As demographics in Europe and throughout the West continue to shift to reflect the rest of the world the narratives in museums and outside of them will also have to shift.