Nichole Bridges curates the African collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum
“I took on this role because I love African art, I love museums and I love engaging with all types of audiences through African Art,” said Nichole Bridges, associate curator in charge of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. “And I love finding ways to introduce and make a bridge between Africa and our visitors.”
Most recently, Bridges curated the St. Louis presentation of the exhibit “Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa,” which was originally curated for the Cleveland Museum of Art by Constantine Petridis. It is the first African art exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in more than 15 years. Bridges will present a gallery talk entitled “Senufo and Beyond in the Permanent Collection” at 11 a.m. August 20 and 6 p.m. August 21. The show will be on display at the museum through September 27.
Bridges broke into curating with African art while earning Master’s and PhD degrees in Art History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. By chance, while she was there the university museum received on loan a huge collection of African artwork – roughly 600 objects – from one private collector.
“I was asked to handle everything, unpack everything and then create an exhibition – with the counsel of my advisor and some of the other faculty. I worked on that project for almost two years, and I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Bridges said.
“For me, it was the best of all the things I love to do. I love to engage with the public in a teaching capacity of some sort, both verbally and also in a written way. I love reading, researching and writing. But, most importantly, I get to live and work with the art all the time.”
Bridges said, as an African-American professional, she is a minority as an art curator – including as a curator of African Art.
“There are not many African Americans in curator roles in art museums and universities,” Bridges said. “Although I often get posed with, ‘Oh, there must be a lot of African Americans in the field of African Art,’ actually it’s not true. The fact is that it is a predominantly white field, and among the specialists who are black, more of those are African than African-American.”
In the field of African Arts there are a larger number of African scholars, but there are very few African Americans.”
She first studied African art as an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she received undergraduate degrees in Art History and French.
“Even though I started studying the history of Western art, my college had two professors who offered courses in African art – which is very unusual anywhere, especially for a very small college,” Bridges said. “I caught the bug then, and it just kind of kept going.”
She found the variety and versatility of African Art especially fascinating.
“One of the general perceptions that people have about African art is that it all looks alike – that a mask looks like another mask, especially if they come from one area. But, in fact, even if sculptors are working within one genre or type of sculpture, there is this huge range of invention and variability that you will discover the more you look.”
The “Senufo” exhibition currently on display at SLAM proves this point.
“The Senufo exhibition provides our audiences a rare opportunity to really explore how varied and inventive singular forms could be interpreted by artists,” Bridges said.
She also believes that visual art can help develop more positive associations between the continent and the rest of the world – African Americans, in particular – and offset common negative assumptions and stereotypes.
“Because Africa has this challenging history with the rest of the world and the political situations around the continent are so complicated, what most of people know about Africa is very negative,” Bridges said. “There is war, famine, corruption, poverty, slavery – I can’t blame a lot of African Americans for not wanting to think about it. But the reason I do the work that I do and believe in my work so strongly is that there is really visually stunning, dramatic, beautiful artwork made by African hands.”
The good news, she said, is in the art.
“African artists continue to operate in this world producing work that African communities have enjoyed and participated in these amazing forms that surround us,” she said. “There’s really great news – and incredible creativity – in Africa, and that’s what this is all about.”
Brent R. Benjamin, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said that Bridges’ scholarly background and curatorial experience “will be invaluable as the museum continues to develop collections, exhibitions and programs showcasing the artistic achievements of cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas” when she was hired in November 2013.
Previously she served as associate curator at the Newark Museum; head of the Department of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands at the Baltimore Museum of Art; and a museum educator at the Brooklyn Museum. She has held fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium; and the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She has received a Fulbright grant for research in the Republic of Congo and earned the 2010 Prix de Thèse from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
When she arrived for work in St. Louis, she immediately began immersing herself in the collection and making regular visits to storage to survey items that are not on view.
“I had never visited the Saint Louis Art Museum before and hadn’t really spent much time in St. Louis, and I was so pleasantly surprised to discover this city and the museum,” Bridges said. “The Saint Louis Art Museum prides itself on its incredible encyclopedic collection. SLAM has a world-class African Art collection that deserves more attention – and so that’s why I’m here.”
Bridges has the simplest of advice for those who are unfamiliar with the visual arts or the museum.
“Come to the museum and walk into the galleries,” Bridges said. “It’s free. Can you imagine that? This is a world-class museum with incredible art, and it doesn’t cost a cent to come in here. Just come and see how you respond. Be true to your own response. I promise if you come often enough, suddenly more things will start to catch your eye.”
She especially encourages artists working in other media to partake in the museum’s African collection for inspiration.
“Every mask that you see not only belonged to the artist who created it, but there were a lot of artists involved in the appearance of this object,” Bridges said. “The sculptor made the mask. The dancer wore the mask and performed. The weaver made the cloth that the masquerader wore. The musicians played the drums, and the poets wrote the songs or chants. All of those various elements came together as an ensemble, and surely they played off of one another.”
Surely, she said, something will inspire any artist who comes to the museum and looks at the African art. “Something,” she said, “is going to strike.”
For more information about the Saint Louis Art Museum, call 314-721-0072 or visit slam.org.