By Hartog Jager, Hans
Artforum International , Vol. 50, No. 7
Vincent Vulsma's exhibition "A Sign of Autumn" looked like a design shop gone native. The walls of the bare, austere space were hung with tapestries in black-and-white patterns of unmistakably African origin. There were also four plain wooden sculptures (all about two feet in height), making the works Socles a c b and Socle d, both 2011. Each part is composed of pairs of stools, one inverted atop the other: a classic walnut stool designed by Ray Eames for the Time & Life Building in Manhattan and an early-twenteeth-century stool from what was then the Belgian Congo. The showpiece of the exhibition, however, was an antelope mask, made at least eighty years ago by an anonymous member of the Baule people of Ivory Coast. This piece--normally in the collection of Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum--is renowned for its subtle, refined facial features, hut they were not on display in the Stcdeiijk's show. Vulsma had turned the mask around, revealing the inventory numbers, labels, and stamps that it had accumulated on the back during its eighty-year journey through Western culture--markings that found a surprising echo in the Vitra label reading authentic ray hames on the base of one of the Eames stools. This move dispelled the usual warm, comfortable sense of manageable exoticism. Vulsma's exhibition made an unequivocal statement about authenticity, appropriation, context, and, above all, power--the power to decide what constitutes art, and the colonial power of the West over other cultures.
"A Sign of Autumn," curated by Kerstin Winking, also included digitally altered versions of photographs taken by Walker Evans at "African Negro Art," a 1935 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where the same antelope mask was shown, marking one of the first times non-Western art was prominently displayed in a museum of contemporary art. Yet after the exhibition, most of these objects were swiftly relegated to the relative obscurity of ethnographic collections. …