UNCG art history professor Elizabeth Perrill’s courses in African art often start with the oldest symbolic objects ever created by human beings. They may span 750 centuries, and 54 countries, within a continent more than three times the size of the United States. Perrill is a Zulu ceramic specialist, but her overall knowledge of African art goes far beyond her specific research area.
Her museum training and curatorial work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Des Moines Art Center, the Faulconer Gallery of Art and the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum has led her to become a major force behind the planning and upcoming opening of a brand new African art gallery in the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA.) As consulting curator, she has been at work on a thorough plan for the new gallery, which will be three times as large as the current one and display almost twice as many works, including many newly acquired pieces purchased or donated during her time as consulting curator.
For a collection such as that of the NCMA, Perrill has to determine which objects are museum-worthy. They must be exemplary for the type of work they are, formally and aesthetically the best.
“More than anything you’re trying to show the aesthetic norms and best version of that art work from the culture it came from,” says Perrill. The expert knowledge that Perrill has developed to make those decisions is something UNCG students can benefit from, in tremendous ways.
“I learn more about objects I’ve been teaching about for years,” she says. “But now I know one more aspect about how it was used or who made it. And I can share that with my students.”
Last spring, her African art history students were able to gain curatorial and conservation experience by working with objects from the newly gifted Warren M. Robbins and Lydia Pucinelli Collections at Bennett College. The students completed detailed condition reports about each object. They also became aware of each object’s provenance, or object history—what country it came from, who or which cultural tradition made it, how it was made, and any history available about its owners following its creation—details that establish the legitimacy and value of art objects for any part of the world.
Provenance histories are crucial for works of art in museums like the NCMA. The African pieces that have been acquired come from a variety of sources—international galleries, private collections, or even the attic of a Greensboro resident with a great uncle who was part of the South African Gold Rush of 1885. Perrill says that Greensboro connection yielded some of the best pieces added to the NCMA collection during the past five years, such as a headrest and a snuff container. She hopes these works will be featured in the North Carolina Collections Wall in the new African reinstallation at NCMA.
Preparing museum objects for an exhibition was something Perrill herself experienced in a college course, and she wanted to give that valuable experience of art history research training to her own students. Bennett’s collection provided the perfect opportunity. One of the most challenging tasks Perrill had her students perform was to write wall texts describing the pieces.
She says, “I wanted to share my own experience working as a curator—how selective you have to be was something I wanted to show the students.” Students were each allowed 200-250 words to discuss what they saw as the most relevant details form library and archival research on their assigned piece. “They were frustrated, but persevered. I actually cut them some slack. I’m only allowed 160 words on most object labels.”
Perrill has been working with the North Carolina Museum of Art since 2012, when she began helping with exhibition rotations and African art acquisitions proposals. In 2015, when the museum received a grant from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, she became a full-fledged consulting curator. She has been requested to write and will soon publish an exhibition preview of the gallery in African Arts, the lead journal in her field.
Next week: A detailed look at Perrill’s work on the new NCMA African art gallery, opening this summer.
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Visual: Perrill shows a design component of the new gallery space.