The community spotlight highlights the achievements of the MSU Africanist community.
After more than two years of preparation, the MSU Museum's quilting exhibit, Ubuntutu, opened in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2016. The installation, jointly curated in collaboration with the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, originated as a result of the Museum's efforts to deepen its relationship with colleagues on the African continent. The exhibit was installed at the Mandela Gateway Museum and displayed more than 40 quilts from the United States and South Africa designed to highlight the 'Tutu's love for each other, in addition to their unrequited love for humanity.'
We recently had the opportunity to gain additional insight into the project during a conversation with Visiting Curator at the MSU Museum and Visiting Scholar in the Department of History, Dr. Aleia Brown.
TM: Can you tell me a bit about how the idea for this project originated?
AB: The MSU Museum has deep roots in South Africa, having previously curated an exhibit honoring Nelson Mandela's legacy. The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation expressed an interest in a similar project. The idea presented an opportunity to deepen MSU's connection to Tutu, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university and we determined that the exhibit would be a fitting way to honor his legacy.
TM: What was the Museum's role in the project?
AB: The museum's curator, Marsha Macdowell, utilized existing networks to send out a call to artists, collect the work, curate it, and install the exhibit. We also helped plan and participated in the learning event.
TM: How did the process of curating an exhibit in South Africa differ from experience of doing so domestically?
AB: I had never been to South Africa. It is very different when you read about the history and political ideas of a country but it is different when one is actually in a space. As a curator, one needs to know the dimensions of the space. Our South African colleagues would skype the space to me but seeing it in that manner is very different from being there and being able to ensure that everything fits and tells the narrative of what I want to share.
TM: How did you determine which artists/ pieces to include in the exhibit?
AB: We were determined to select quilts created by both US and South African artists because we wanted to create the idea of both countries working together. We wanted the pieces to reflect the diversity of experiences that unite quilters in both locations. In the US, artists were drawn from the Women of Color Quilters Network, an organization known for creating narrative quilts reflecting social commentary. We were interested in quilts that told the story of the Tutu family's love for each other and their love for humanity in general. I think the beauty in this exhibit is seen through the various ways artists interpreted this. We wanted to show various visualizations of what 'Ubuntutu' or love looks like and they came up with some great ideas. In particular, I was very pleased that many of them included Leah Tutu because she is critical to the story as well.
TM: Can you describe the exhibit to those of us not fortunate to see it personally?
AB: The quilts are hanging by translucent filament. From far away, it appears that the quilts are just floating in air. In its entirety, the exhibit looked like a collage of masterfully quilted blocks. At a closer distance, the quilts are very much distinguishable and have their own perspective.
TM: If visitors take away one important point about the importance of quilts and quilting as an art form, what should it be?
AB: I would hope that they see quilting as a creative political action. Historically, especially when women did not have the right to vote, or possess political or economic influence, they could use their artwork as an expression of soft power to influence people. I would hope that it would inspire people to get creative regardless of what you feel your limitations are. There is always a way to be involved and a way to resist. More broadly, I hope they would understand how committed the Tutu's have been to preserving and caring for humanity.
TM: What was your favorite memory of the experience?
AB: Desmond Tutu was in the hospital for a while and the exhibit marked his first public appearance upon his release. It was a huge honor.
TM: What Africa-related Museum projects should we be on the look-out for?
AB: We have an exhibition on Ruth Simms Hamilton and the African Diaspora opening spring 2019.
 a combination of Tutu's surname and Ubuntu, a relational ontological approach to African identity.