THE CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART announced the appointment of Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi as curator of African Art. The museum has a significant collection of more than 300 works of traditional art from sub-Saharan Africa, including a broad selection of masks and figurative sculpture from West and Central Africa. An artist, art historian and curator, Nzewi will be charged with overseeing and expanding the collection and organizing exhibitions, presenting both historic and contemporary works.

Nzewi, who goes by “Smooth,” officially joins the museum on Aug. 1. His appointment is particularly significant. He is the first black curator hired by the Cleveland institution since it was founded more than a century ago in 1913.

“Smooth is an exceptional curator with a remarkably creative approach. He has distinguished himself in the field of African art by juxtaposing historical objects with modern and contemporary art from the continent, highlighting the dialogue between the past and present. We very much look forward to having him as a colleague in Cleveland, and to experiencing the ways that he will encourage our audiences to engage with historic and contemporary African art,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“[Smooth] has distinguished himself in the field of African art by juxtaposing historical objects with modern and contemporary art from the continent, highlighting the dialogue between the past and present. We very much look forward to having him as a colleague in Cleveland,…”
— William M. Griswold, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art

NZEWI HAD BEEN SERVING as curator of African art at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth University since 2013. He is currently curating “Feedback: Art, Africa, and the Eighties,” which will be on view at the Iwalewa Haus Museum at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. The exhibition will travel to additional venues, including the Hood Museum in 2018. Prior to his tenure at the Hood, Nzewi was a fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Earlier, he was a practicing artist and independent curator based in Nigeria, his home country.

Nzewi has also co-curated major international exhibitions, including the Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal (2014), and the 11th Shanghai Biennale (2016–17). He is also collaborating with the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain de la Région Centre (FRANC) Orlean, France, for its inaugural architecture biennale (October 2017).

He has lectured widely and taught at the Institute of African Studies, University of Bayreuth; Dartmouth College; and Emory University. A prolific writer, he has contributed essays and chapters to many publications.

Nzewi holds a Ph.D. in art history from the Emory University. He also received a diploma in the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Western Cape, South Africa, and a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria. He has earned academic fellowships, scholarships, and artist awards.

THE CLEVELAND MUSEUM of Art was one of the first U.S. museums to acquire and exhibit African art. It began doing so in the 1920s and 30s. Several works from the collection were featured in “African Negro Art,” the landmark exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 1935 exhibition presented 603 objects, primarily from West Central Africa. A partial version of the show traveled to Cleveland in the same year.

The core of the collection was donated in the 1960s and 70s by the late Katherine C. White, a local collector. The holdings include works by the Senufo people (Ivory Coast), the Yoruba people (Nigeria), the Benin Kingdom (Nigeria), and the so-called Kwango-Kwilu region (southwest region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Over the past 15 years, 34 Congolese sculptures were added to the collection through a gift-purchase arrangement with René and Odette Delenne of Brussels.

Nzewi is succeeding Constantine Petridis, who served at the Cleveland museum as curator of African art for 15 years before accepting a position at the Art Institute of Chicago. Noting the calibre of the Cleveland museum’s collection, Nzewi said it is an “honor” to come on board at such an “opportune time.”

“I look forward to building on the excellent work done by the previous curator of African art through cutting-edge scholarship in support of exhibitions, publications, and in engaging our diverse audience, working in concert with my colleagues,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal is to expand the understanding of the arts of Africa through landmark acquisitions and innovative exhibition strategies that link together historical, modern and contemporary African arts, and placing them in local, transnational, and global contexts. I am really looking forward to forging a strong connection with lovers and supporters of African art in the Cleveland community and surrounding areas.” CT


IMAGE: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. | Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art


Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi co-edited “New Spaces for Negotiating Art (and) Histories in Africa.” MoMA has made the catalog for its 1935 exhibition “African Negro Art” available online. Co-edited by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Contemporary African Art Since 1980” is “the first major survey of the work of contemporary African artists from diverse situations, locations, and generations who work either in or outside of Africa.”


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