Friday, December 11, 2009

Installation of Gallantry and Criminal Conversation

by Kevin Etherton

One of the things I like about working here is the variety of things that I do on any given day.  As Installation Coordinator, I oversee and plan the execution of installing the artwork here in the museum.  This involves coordinating with the various departments to plan, prepare, and install the art.  I also light and alarm the exhibits once they are installed.  My work day is quite varied which keeps things interesting and I get to work with some of the most talented and resourceful people, right here on our own staff.  For the Shonibare exhibit there was a fairly long lead time to think about and plan the installation.  Unfortunately, the time to actually install and light the show was only 10 days.  With the exhibit taking up three separate gallery spaces on two levels; 10 days seemed like a short time to execute a show of this size. This is where the talent, hard work, and dedication of our staff really showed up.  We also had the luxury of hiring some good contractors in addition to having some folks from Sidney Australia’s Museum of Contemporary Art (the organizing venue) show up to help out during installation.  It was a great team that worked well together.
Installation of Carriage

One of the more challenging objects to install was a replica of a 17th century horse-drawn carriage that is suspended about 6 feet above the floor.  It is part of the installation piece known as Gallantry and Criminal Conversation.  The object looks like it is a complete and fully functioning carriage but it actually hangs in three separate pieces that are connected with leather straps and metal supports.  There is no structural rigidity to it at all.  If it were to rest on the floor the whole thing would collapse under its own weight.   To start the installation process, I made a template with the eight hanging points of the carriage marked at their precise locations.  Once the template was in place on the floor, a laser level was used to shoot those points up onto the ceiling where the cables would eventually be attached.  This work was done in advance before the object was here.  The object arrived in four separate crates and once it was uncrated, the center portion was raised to height using a small forklift.  The pre-installed cables hanging from the ceiling were cut to length and attached to the hanging points of the carriage.  The forklift was gently lowered, allowing the carriage to hang as planned.  The same basic procedure was used to attach the front and back axles.  Once everything was hung, the leather straps and metal supports were attached along with various sundries that made the object look like a real carriage.  The whole process took about a day and a half with about 5 or 6 folks working on it at different stages.  It was a big relief once it was up.  For me, the rest of the installation seemed like it would be a cake walk.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Curator Karen Milbourne

The exhibition, “Yinka Shonibare MBE” opened last week.  As the curator of the show, an opening is bittersweet.  On the one hand, I am thrilled to see all our hard work come to fruition…  but, there is also something of a crash.  For months, my brain has been buzzing with ‘to-do’ lists and now I feel a bit at a lost. The art is on view – and looks great in my totally biased point of view, the party was packed, the press has come and gone…  Plus, now it’s time to clean my desk and get other projects in order, which just doesn’t seem as fun.

All that being said, this exhibition was both very challenging and rewarding.  Yinka Shonibare is a remarkable artist, working in paint, sculpture, photography and moving image.  Each of these media required special considerations.  For the films alone, we needed to make sure we got the right kind of projectors, tested the equipment, built rooms for them that were dark enough and sufficiently baffled the sound.  Each of these steps took months of trial and error to sort out.  One of the things I am the most proud of is that we managed to get one of Yinka’s films, “Odile and Odette” free of walls.  For the first time, this work of art is in the open, visibly in relation to his painting and sculpture and one can see the relationships between them all.  For instance, Yinka says that in paint, he layers color, in film he layers time.  And next to the dancers of “Odile and Odette,” two children dance atop the globe.  In the first work of art, the artist tackles racial assumptions, in the second, the perils of global warming.  And yet both are just beautiful, enticing works of art to gaze upon.

Back to the challenges of launching this show: in addition to figuring out HOW to install the works of art – what should go next to what, why, etc., we had to think about the fact that we were the fourth venue to take this exhibition.  This meant that many of the owners of the art works wanted their treasures back and it required us to engage in lengthy negotiations to keep the artworks or find replacements.  At the same time, we wanted our installation to look unique. What if visitors saw it at the Brooklyn museum?  How could we make it different?  So, since the summer of 2008, I have been working with designers to create a vision that both worked with The National Museum of African Art’s unique architecture and honored the artist’s vision.  I also traveled to meet with Yinka, his studio manager and gallery, and the originating curator of the exhibition, Rachel Kent of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, in order to make sure all were satisfied with our proposed design.

So, as an “in-house” curator, my job was to juggle the many pieces that held the installation of this show together.  As mentioned, I worked with technicians to make sure we COULD present the works properly and learned about everything from projectors to water pumps; I collaborated with designers and colleagues on three continents to make sure the content and presentation of the material reached all of our standards; I coordinated the flow of information between our budget office, the registrars who move the artworks and oversee the crates and hotel bookings for the many people who traveled as a part of this show, the Educators who designed such great programs as a book club and original ballet inspired by one of the art works, the Installation department who had to realize the design, the editor and graphic designer to make sure all print materials were just right; and the fund-raiser to make sure we could pay for it all.  In addition, I wrote a gallery brochure, was interviewed by the press, and continue to provide a lot of tours.  I even had to come in one day with my two-year old daughter to make sure we suspended a carriage from our 25-foot carriage at just the right height.  She brought her plastic tools in case she could be of help.

Over time, I hope to contribute more to this blog, telling little stories of how we picked the replacement objects for the show and some of the unique challenges, like getting the right kind of circuitry for Yinka’s first work of art to incorporate moving parts, “The Headless Man Trying to Drink,” or deciding how to address the ‘mature content’ of some of the material, like “Gallantry and Criminal conversation.  This show is made up of many stories and I invite you to ask questions – I will try to answer them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Handling of Art

by Keith Conway

Moving the Shonibare “
Globe Children”, an art work that is hundreds of pounds and made up of a Giant Globe covered with global mapping, filled with buckshot, and topped with two child headless dancers, and then installing it 6feet 4inches on top of a flared pedestal, is one of reasons, why I wanted to work here in the first place.

What a challenge. There was an irony in us moving the art in position and the Victorian dressed children toying with the world atop the globe dancing to the tune of the technological changes and all I could think of was that this fork lift better be perfect. We had rehearsed the play but this was Showtime, Now it was time to set this piece on top of a perfect 6foot 4inch pedestal made and designed by cabinet shop master, Melvin Vega, the kind of guy who would never take credit for a piece of stunning work, and this is one.

Image taken by Jeremy Jelenfy

Well, here we were with a big heavy Globe filled with buckshot, that had a habit of shifting slightly during transport. After shifting the buckshot back to the center with the main shifting being done by Kevin Etherton, it was time to get the forklift right for transport & lifting. This meant making a giant pair of forklift shoes connected to a platform topped by a locking etha-foam cover. Etha-foam is kind of like Styrofoam, except it doesn’t break and it’s soft like the lining of a helmet, and you can carve it into shape.

A few years back I was enlightened to the use of a good forklift cover when Conservator Steve Mellor and were part of the group that installed African Art’s concrete Akanji screen sculptures in the Smithsonian Castle.

It was a great art handler lineup, Andy Sutton, Chi, Hen, & Craig from Bonsai and Dave & John, from J. McLaughlin Art. Anticipation filled the gallery and Don Llewellyn started the lift upward, Moving left, shifting right with precision. Then that magic feeling when everything felt perfect, (Checking once more to make sure no fingers were in the way), and “now”. Perfect, no adjustment. The globe was in. Once again we had gone into the magic zone where time speeds up and slows down at the same time, hours had passed in minutes, and the energy, to live for.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Colorful Prints and Fancy Cloth

But can kids get it?  Yinka Shonibare was announced last year as an upcoming exhibition at NMAfA.  I’ve been thinking about this exhibit ever since visiting the installation at the Brooklyn Museum.  Shonibare was one of the major artists that I included in my graduate university seminar, Issues in Contemporary African Art, when I taught at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).  His work speaks on many levels, and as an Education Specialist for Youth & Public School programs, I now had to find a way to present his work to young audiences.  Shonibare’s art brings adult and societal themes to the fore: social class, colonialism, aristocratic sexual abandon, race and identity through irony, puns, satire and paradox.   How to help children find a way into some of these themes presented a challenge.  


We created an education area off the main gallery which included a video screen with photos of selected objects in the exhibit and details of fabric panels….colorful and luxurious surfaces abound…a large sample board was attached to the wall with hands-on textile panels that were sent directly from Yinka’s studio…a wall of hangers were mounted (hand-painted in Ghana with beautiful faces – see photo) on which we hung a variety of dresses and shirts made from contemporary factory cloth – this has been a big hit!;  mirrors were installed  so one can have the opportunity to cross (or appropriate?) cultural identity through dress…we all do it….one of Yinka’s themes.   From previous exhibits we found that visitors enjoy sitting down!  We have paper and pencils to create designs inspired by the Dutch wax prints that are in the exhibition, either chosen by Yinka  or designed by him.  So far, we have had great results (see photo)!  More later…

Deborah Stokes, Education

Saturday, November 7, 2009

From MFM Design, design consultants for the exhibition

(Richard Molinaroli, Linda Heinrich, Harry Raab)

We worked with key people within the museum to try to bring out the poetry within Yinka Shonibare’s work in this particular installation. We started to understand the African Art Museum’s vision by talking with Christine Kreamer (Acting Deputy Director), Karen Milbourne (Curator), Lisa Vann (Head of Design) and Doug Johnson (Head of Production).  They gave us the freedom to try to imagine something new in the space.

The challenge was to tie an exhibition that was to be located on two separate levels into a unified experience.  We made this connection by placing the objects on the lower level in such a way that they reached up to touch the overlook.  Some of the pedestals and walls grew taller to fully inhabit the two story space. The lower and upper levels were then visually brought together.

We began by measuring the space, producing floor plans, and then trying out possible ways of placing the objects within the rooms. We worked closely with Karen to understand the possible stories that might come about through different juxtapositions. Together, we came upon a particular way that the objects could live in the space, tell an interesting story, and reveal some spectacular views.

Next, we modeled the museum in the computer, placed the objects into the space and virtually constructed what we had previously mapped out in the floor plan.  This helped us to see if the views we had established within the rooms of the museum had successfully tied everything together.  We also filled the drawn spaces with the colors of the exhibition’s objects, walls and platforms.

Although just a few still images are shown here on the web site, the scenes were all stitched together to make a short movie which enabled Christine, Karen, Lisa and us to all view the imaginary space together --- and fully understand the possibilities.  Karen sent packages of the sequenced images to Shonibare and the other museum venues so that they could see them as well.

Once the exhibition was under construction, we did a mock-up of some platform lighting with Doug and Don Llewellyn (Head of the Carpenter’s Shop)… to make sure that everything turned out exactly right.  Lighting is not as predictable as the plywood and drywall parts of the design, and Doug and Don felt that mocking up the real thing was the best way to figure out the solution.  The end product, (the platform for the piece Scrambling for Africa),only looks simple because there was so much careful thinking by the people who made it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


3 tractor trailers, 6 drivers, 6 art handlers, 3 registrars, two canine teams (Leroy and Shadow), and one plucky intern = 65 Shonibare crates unloaded, inspected, and dispersed around the museum waiting to be unpacked. Some were on the first sublevel; others on the second sublevel. Some in galleries, others in storage areas. All safe and secure until the first couriers arrived October 22.

The first crates to be opened contained a full-size model of an 18th century carriage in myriad parts. It was hard to imagine the body, various wheels, lamps, hub caps, steel perches and hooks, springs, leather straps with brass buckles, and trunks coming together to make a complete carriage, much less one suspended six feet above the ground in the piece entitled “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation.” Ten men and eight hours later the carriage was in place, trunks and all.

Friday, October 30, 2009


After arriving at work and doing a quick check of news: weather, sports, finance and world politics followed by the reading of and responses to emails it is welcome to another day in the life of a museum photographer.  It's the way every day starts.  The first of order of business for that day was to bring up to date the most recent ongoing project,  photography of African Printed Textiles.

Yesterday, in the film age, which ended about 5 years ago unprocessed film was sent to labs, it was processed and delivered by courier and the photographer was finished.  Today, in the new digital age, after shooting has taken place, digital processing and post production work follows in house.  It's fairly labor intensive yet the process yields a greater degree of quality control.  The last stage prepares compact discs with finished images including  recording data necessary to the archiving process.  That's what was happening when the  phone rang.  Ah yes,  being flexible is part of the  job.  It was Lisa Vann, our designer. "Franko we have an issue with Black Gold that you shot as an installation record."  So I went down to her office temporarily abandoning the on board project to deal with this priority.

The issue was as follows:  the image was being pulled off an installation shot.  These are shot as records.  They differ from publication quality photography which are photographed after carefully creating and sculpting with light to produce a "publication quality" picture.   After an exhibition is set up,  a set of "installation shots" are shot anywhere from 30 to 100 showing many views and details as a historical record.  It was decided that the image of Black Gold I, a temporary wall painting, was needed as the signature image for our new show Yinka Shonibare MBE.  So now I was asked to convert a record shot into a publication quality signature image.  I consulted with and was aided by Lea Ingold, my colleague who is currently under contract with our museum.  She is a regular photoshop whizz.  We worked together to extract a publication quality product from an installation shot.  Success was achieved after several hours of work.  After another much smaller fire was put out for another publication,  the day ended with closure on the African Printed Textile project.

The examples include Black Gold I shot as an Installation photograph and the digitally re-mastered version as a Publication quality example. 

Before work started

Publication quality

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The National Museum of African Art Production Shop

One of the things people may not realize is that most everything you see in our galleries is built in house.  This is certainly going to be the case for the Shonibare exhibition.  We are building the platforms on which the artworks are display; even an open theater.  It is a team effort.  Some of us have spent a fair amount of time lifted ten feet in the air as we get beams in place.

The production shop consists of two areas, Cabinet shop and Paint shop. The cabinet shop employs two full time journeymen exhibit cabinet makers. The shop is fully equipped with the state of the art equipment, Computerized Panel Saw, Tables saws, Planer, Jointer, Band saw, Radial arm saw and a complete dust system. Hand tools are a must in fabrication and the shop has a complete inventory that any craftsmen would dream to have.

The cabinet shop takes on all exhibit fabrication ranging from custom built cases, platform, label rails, graphic panels and other components for the exhibits. Our exhibits are rotating exhibits the change out every three to four months and they are located in four major galleries on first floor and one on second floor of the museum.  Some of the outstanding exhibits this year are Disney African Vision, Artful Animals, and Yinka Shonibare. All of these are first class jobs.

The paint shop employee’s one full time painting specialist. The shop is also fully equipped with the state of the art equipment. Computerized paint mixing machine, spray booth, and top of the line spray guns, a painters dream shops.

The paint shop takes on all exhibits ranging from the prep work and painting of cases, platforms, wall panels, graphic panels, and all other components.  The painting specialist provides the top of the line finishes of galleries and the public space of the museum.

Enjoy some images from the initial exhibit construction.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The installation of Black Gold, again...

The thing that I find most interesting about the installation of the Yinka Shonibare piece Black Gold is that it is an installation piece that changes to the space it is being installed into. The back "spatter" on the wall is painted so every time it is installed that part has to be re-done by the installers.

We have a full size plastic template that the artist made that we layout and determine the location where we want to paint black splatter. The template is just a big sheet of clear plastic with a magic marker out line of the painted part of the piece. Since the template is considered to be part of the object we can't cut, draw or paint on it. So what we do is once we have it positioned we project an image of the finished piece and use the template to locate and size the projection.

Once that is done we take down the template and draw the out line of the splatter with pencil onto the wall. Once it is drawn onto the wall the curator will decide how it has to be modified to fit the space it is being installed in. These changes are then run by the artist.

This goes back and forth until all parties are in agreement. we have only installed this piece twice and both times the spaces were bigger that it was originally designed for so the painter had to grow the "splatters so they would fill the space.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We're going to do something a little different

On November 10 the National Museum of African Art is proud to open an exhibition showcasing the multi-dimensional work of the artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

Instead of one voice talking about the exhibition we have invited our staff to post comments particular to the contributions they give.

I serve as Webmaster for the museum and since I created this blog I've decided to make the first entry. In the future, you will hear from the curator of the show as well as conservators, design staff, administration, our cabinet shop, everyone. Our hope is to give you a glimpse into how a national museum decides, designs and builds an exhibition and since Sir Shonibare's work speaks on many levels we thought it was a perfect show to talk about.

Please contribute to the conversation. On Nov. 10, we will be launching a web site devoted to the show and conversations will be possible through Facebook and Twitter.

Stay tuned!