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Washtenaw United: Art Exhibit At UM Museum Of Art Explores Intersection Of Art And Racism

United Way of Washtenaw County

America still struggles with reconciling its slave-owning past. An exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, entitled "Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism," is designed to open further discussion on the topic. WEMU's David Fair spoke with UMMA assistant curator of global contemporary arts Ozi Uduma about the impact art can have on how we deal with race and racism in our present and future.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Ozi Uduma is the Assistant Curator of Global Contemporary Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). Ozi is a graduate of the University of Michigan. She was born and raised in Detroit and is of Nigerian descent. Ozi is the curator of the exhibition Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism and the co-curator of We Write to You About Africa (opening fall 2021). Ozi’s art interest mostly focuses on modern and contemporary Black artists.


UMMA Exhibit: Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism

UMMA Exhibit: We Write to You About Africa

TED Talk - Titus Kaphar: Can Art Amend History?

Vulture: "The Instagram Account ‘Change the Museum’ Is Doing Just That"

Victoria & Albert Museum: "'Uncomfortable Truths', installation by various artists"


United Way supports and strives to achieve equity in all aspects of our lives – including the arts. The University of Michigan’s Museum of Art has on display an exhibition titled, “Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism." It is described on their website as “uncomfortable histories contained in our collections” and seeks to “challenge the public to probe the choices we make about those stories." Ozi Uduma will provide an interesting perspective of the art world and how the events over the past year have impacted people’s perceptions of US history as depicted in art. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of our Monday feature, Washtenaw United. Art has a way of connecting us. Go to a gallery, and you can be transported to a particular place and time. Gain understanding of the deeply personal introspection of a particular artist. And walk away, sometimes, with a better understanding of the history of that moment and its implications for our lives today. Our guest has made it her career to connect us in these ways. Ozi Uduma is assistant curator of Global Contemporary Arts at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She is curator of the ongoing exhibition "Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism" and curator of the upcoming exhibition, "We Write to You About Africa." Ozi, I'm so glad to have you with us today.

Ozi Uduma: Thank you for having me, David. I am excited to talk to you about all things art.

David Fair: In your estimation, Ozi, what role does art have in helping us better understand where we come from, who we are, and what we may have been missing in other parts of our historical educations?

Ozi Uduma: Yeah, that's a great question. Art, like you said in your introduction, has a way of connecting people. It also has a way of illuminating issues that are happening in real time or ongoing issues. Art can help us examine things that are going on around us. I think the importance of art and art education, as it relates to history, is that it gives it a catalyst or an avenue for folks to talk about difficult histories in a way that maybe reading text, watching a movie might not help folks connect with it. But looking at visual art, seeing what an artist is trying to say through their visual art, through canvas or photography or mixed media, can help us illuminate on darker histories and hopefully learn how to create a better future.

David Fair: You were born and raised in Detroit and are of Nigerian descent to areas that have certainly faced more than their fair share of hardship. Was the intersection of art and race a focal point in your upbringing?

Ozi Uduma: Uh, yes and no. So I grew up in what is now called midtown Detroit, and my parents took me to the art museum a lot--the DIA. We went to the Wright Museum. I went to school in that area, and so, it became an extra classroom for me. So my parents took my sibling and I a lot. And I also use art as a way to connect to my roots in Nigeria, because I didn't grow up going to Nigeria a lot as a kid. At the same time, my parents really never talked about race with us. It wasn't until I got much older that I learned about their experiences with race and racism and xenophobia when they first moved to the country. But it wasn't a subject that they wanted to talk to us about, because I think they were afraid of my brother and I not being able to navigate life if they dealt with these really hard subjects. And, in terms of art, my ethnic group is known for producing great writers like Chinua Achebe and the current writer Accumamanda Ngozi Adichie. And so, they use that type of art storytelling to connect to histories in a way that they didn't feel comfortable talking to us about. And, at the same time, you know, arts and our education and becoming an artist is not something that is not necessarily encouraged by our families, mostly because of the instability around having a job in the arts. And so, it's, yeah, so it's a mixture of yes and no.

David Fair: As you take all of that and put it to work for you, how did it shape how you curated the exhibition, Unsettling Histories: The Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism? [00:03:52][9.2]

Ozi Uduma: I have been interested in a lot of the conversations that have happened around museums and the way we tell stories. And so, we acquired the central piece of the exhibition, which is, by the artist Titus Kafar, who I should say is a Michigan-born and raised artist, as this like anchoring piece. Like, his work is all about unveiling and revealing really unsettling histories. And so, this brilliant idea came to put this in a gallery of 17th, 18th and 19th century art. And I began to think about what histories we're uncomfortable telling, what histories that I grew up really not learning about. And so, I began to think about what it meant to rewrite labels, to tell a fuller, maybe more complicated narrative what it meant to put more contemporary artists who are talking about issues of race and colonialism and slavery and the ongoing legacies of these things in their own artwork to create a space where, when people enter into it, that they know that these histories are forever reverberating, and we need to maybe sit back and really acknowledge or be open to having our minds changed about some of the stories that we've been told.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United guest on Eighty-Nine one WEMU today is Ozi Uduma, the assistant curator of global contemporary art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. And you mentioned one of the featured artists there, Titus Kafar from Kalamazoo, now working out on the East Coast. I had an opportunity to take in one of his TED talks, and he described taking his children to the Natural History Museum in New York, where upon entrance you find this rather breathtaking sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback. His children asked him why Roosevelt was on the horse, and there was a Native American and an African-American walking along side. The notion of confronting unspoken history right there in the question from his children. And he began to wonder, is there a way to amend our public monuments without erasing them, but amend them? So the truth is no longer unspoken. Is that a part of what you hope to accomplish in the greater sense of serving the UMMA?

Ozi Uduma: Yeah, unsettling histories. We started thinking about the project towards the end of 2019, and then 2020 happened with COVID, the, you know, racial reckoning, and then the questions of monuments came back up again. And so, I think what we're trying to do is to tell our audiences that all of these things don't happen in a vacuum, right? Monuments--this type of like 19th, 17th, 18th and 19th century art--served a purpose to tell a story of triumph, a story of which gave legitimacy to a very young nation. Museums helped to bolster that narrative while also kind of hiding the darker parts of how we became a legitimate country, how some of these monuments and some of the people depicted in the monuments have very complicated, problematic, unsavory legacies that we don't really talk about. And so, what my hope is, ultimately, that, again, we just complicate the narrative a little bit more. Not everything is black and white. I think what I want people to realize is that these things don't exist in a vacuum. Our historical narrative and the historical narrative are very much one and the same. They complement each other. They complicate each other. And we can't be afraid of the unsavory parts of our history. We need to confront that. We need to learn and and think through them and examine them and have conversations about them.

David Fair: And that's just it. It used to inspire thought and dialog. Do you find yourself ever eavesdropping occasionally and listen to what kinds of conversations are being stimulated with the unsettling histories exhibit?

Ozi Uduma: Yes and no. You know, I, you know, the museum recently opened to the public. And so, most of the conversations that I've had have been through my amazing colleagues in museum education, who are having these conversations with teachers in both Ann Arbor public school system and Ypsilanti public school systems. And so, I've been privy to seeing and hearing people grapple with some of these issues in real time has been really fascinating. It's forced me to also think about my position as a curator and as a person who's also viewing this and thinking through these histories and realizing that the conversations are hard, and we need to give ourselves and each other grace. And, at the same time, we need to push ourselves to realize that part of the reason why it's hard to talk about these conversations is because some of these histories, some of these more violent histories, should have never happened. And there are people who are still being affected by them in real time. I think if we want to create a better world--a more just, more equitable world--we kind of have to wrestle with these histories.

David Fair: I can hear the weight of it in your voice. Once again, we are talking with UMMA assistant curator of global contemporary art Ozi Uduma on Eighty-Nine one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And, Ozi, in the fall, you're going to open another exhibit called "We Write to You about Africa." What can we expect?

Ozi Uduma: Oh, wow. So I'm really excited to talk about that one. I am co-curating that exhibition with our interim chief curator and curator of African art, Laura De Becker. We've been working on that exhibition since I started in 2018. And we're really excited because there have been calls from students, especially, to expand our narrative around the African continent. So much of what people see in African art galleries are only a slice of what the artwork in the art historical narrative coming out of the continent. And so, we'll see more modern art, contemporary art. We will see conversations on repatriation and restitution of artworks back to the continent. And we'll also see art from artists of the diaspora who are putting themselves in conversation with some of the historical artwork and also modern and contemporary artists. We have a section that is dedicated to the arts from our Department of Afro-American and African Studies. They were founded in 1970, and since then, they've been really big champions of Black artists, both emerging and also established. And so, we're really excited for the public to relearn a lot of the art, to relearn the space, and to hopefully enjoy what I hope will be a beautiful exhibition.

David Fair: It's no secret that, throughout history, Black artists have been overlooked and underappreciated as a whole. What opportunities do we collectively miss by not expanding what we look at and who and where it comes from?

Ozi Uduma: Oh, we miss out on a lot of opportunities. Some people might believe that they're first, not realizing that there have been artists existing prior to them decades, centuries who have helped to lay the foundation of their art practice. I think about the fact that, right now, in the last couple of years, we've seen a higher attention to Black abstractionists like Sam Gilliam, like Jack Whitten, I believe his name is, Al Loving, who is also a Detroit born and raised artists who went to U of M in the 60s, I believe. We are paying attention to their work so much more. And some of these men and women who have created art since the 50s and 60s are only getting attention from the art world while they're in their 80s and 90s. And so, it's a bittersweet moment to see this happen where they've been producing some of the most brilliant art on the margins, and yet, it's taken them in their older age to kind of get the flowers that they so rightfully deserve. And so, when we fail to see these artists, we miss out on expanding this canon of art, like this art historical narrative. We failed to really examine things about history, about art practice, about, you know, legacies of artists and art movements. And then I think, finally, for younger Black and brown artists, I think you miss out on seeing yourselves reflected in art and art historical narrative. I think there's a tendency to believe that you're the only one, or you can't do this type of thing because there's no one who looks like you doing it. And so, I think it's really important that we not only give attention to emerging and mid-career artists, but we also look back at the artists who haven't been printed in our textbooks, whose names are not well known as, like, Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso and really, you know, pay homage to their work and the foundation that they played.

David Fair: Much like the exhibits, I think the conversation you've had with me today will provoke thought and stimulate conversation. Thank you so much for sharing.

Ozi Uduma: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Ozi Uduma, an assistant curator of global contemporary arts at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She is curator of the ongoing exhibition "Unsettling Histories Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism" and co-curator of the upcoming exhibition "We Write to You About Africa." For more information on the exhibit and on Ozi's work at UMMA, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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