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Co-curators Nya Lewis and Nuno Porto at the entrance of the exhibit.

New UBC exhibit sets the stage for future projects on Black history and visibility

From bringing in more Black artists to rewriting object descriptions, there is more to be done on decolonizing Black representation in museums, experts say.

By Hafsa Maqsood , in City , on November 23, 2021

Curators and experts say the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s new exhibit is just the beginning in a movement towards Black visibility and racial reckoning in Canada.

The exhibit, titled Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots, opened at the start of the month. It displays historical objects with installations from contemporary African and Black artists. It also features objects from the ongoing Decolonizing African Collections project.

“[The project and exhibit] have definitely started a movement and I hope it doesn’t stop here,” said Nuno Porto, co-curator of Sankofa and director of Decolonizing Africa Collections project.

Nuno Porto and the Sankofa bird.

One UBC PhD candidate in the department of art history co-curating the exhibit said the responsibility of creating Black visibility and fighting injustices doesn’t just fall on cultural institutions like museums.

“There is need for other institutions, for example: schools, hospitals, news agencies, corporate agencies, and individuals to start supporting this course. The conversation has to continue for there to be positive results,” said Titilope Salami.

A decolonial “shift”: Rewriting history to be more accurate and representative

“Sankofa” is a phrase from present-day Ghana that means “go back and fetch it” symbolized by a bird with its head turned back. It means moving forward while reaching back to connect to one’s heritage.

The Sankofa exhibit comes on the heels of an ongoing project taking a closer look at how African historical objects are talked about and displayed.

Decolonizing African Collections and Displays was a two-year project at MOA with UBC undergraduate students reclassifying the African collections at the museum by rewriting object descriptions. It is set to conclude in March.

“The longer-term project is to do that for all objects in the collection and to change the displays accordingly,” said David Morton, professor of African history at UBC.

“The whole process of MOA acquiring these objects is just drenched in colonial-era bias and colonial-era realities.”

The process of Sankofa doesn’t stop with this exhibit but is part of a greater movement “of systematically and very critically working with our collections,” said Porto.

The project is currently funded by UBC. Once that comes to an end, Porto aims to examine the rest of the MOA catalogues, continuing the work started with the project and the exhibit.

Porto said around 1,000 items in the Africa collections have been reclassified so far. He hopes to continue doing this for the rest of the collections and the displays at the MOA Multiversity Galleries.

An installation at the Sankofa exhibit.

“Decolonial work is never finished. It is not a task, [it] is a critical attitude. It is about a shift.”

Sankofa is open from Nov. 4, 2021 – Mar. 27, 2022 with events from Black artists occurring throughout this month.