This writing responds to artist Marta Rodriguez Maleck’s exhibitions Morir es Vivir and Vivir es Morir mounted at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the New Orleans Public Library, respectively. As the Community Engagement Curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I worked with her in different capacities on both exhibitions and through her provocative prompt that is the foundation of both exhibitions — “What must die to thrive?” — I developed my own answer.
Art and artists need to die.
When I say that “art and artists need to die,” I mean the concepts and foundations of these two things as manifestations of imperial-induced greed and elitism need to die, in order to be reborn. Prior to the term “art” being defined as “skill resulting from learning or practice” in 13th-century Middle English (which was in turn derived from the Latin ars meaning “skill” or “craft,”), art in communities such as Ifẹ̀ (an ancient Yoruba city in southwest Nigeria) was simply a translation of a feeling or experience into a physical object to be shared with others — sometimes having a royal or spiritual significance. Through this lens, art was understood without the pretense of pseudo-superior thought and existence.
Several years ago I learned that instead of the term “art,” in many African and Indigenous languages there are words that describe beauty or creative expression and those who engage in this practice. One of my favorites is amewa, from the Yoruba people of Africa. Amewa translates to “connoisseur” or “knower of beauty,” beauty within the ideal of iwontúnwonsi: that sweet spot between not too much or too little (i.e., not too short or too tall). These types of words and roots are what I believe to be more resonant with prioritizing what is good for the collective and communally shared experience and understanding.
Before there were “curators,” there was amewa. Before there was a multi-trillion-dollar unregulated global art industry there was empathy and humanity. Before there was greed, hypercapitalism, and gaudy overabundance, there was iwontúnwonsi.
New Orleans is a prime location for a revolution that challenges artists and curators to return to more humanistic roots. Through New Orleans’ existence as the most African city in North America, our collective pathway back to the essence of the “art” within our humanity is much clearer here than other places. To get there, institutions within this field will have to adopt the thinking of New Orleans native artist and legend John T. Scott. He once said, “I am not an artist until the community tells me that I am. I can’t call myself an artist.” This quote resonates with me through time and can be applied to not only artists, but anyone who works in the art world — be it a curator, art handler, program manager, gallery attendant, or museum director.
Perhaps museums can’t be museums until we in the community tell them they are that.