'Particular Histories: Provenance Research in African Arts' at The Fowler Museum at UCLA

The Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles presents Particular Histories: Provenance Research in African Arts (July 10–November 13, 2022)—an exhibition of early 20th-century African objects and accompanying archival materials that came to the Fowler in 1965 from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936). This project is part of a three-year initiative generously funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Five case studies—spotlighting a Nigerian helmet mask, a brass figure group by a Dahomey court artist, a carved wooden throne from Cameroon, a series of gold weights from West Africa, and a carved wooden house post from Nigeria—are presented alongside Wellcome Collection archives. Each grouping takes visitors through the process of tracing the history of these works, a journey that reflects their changing cultural contexts, and sheds light on shifting perceptions of their value.

“Particular Histories invites audiences to experience the challenge of reconstructing an object’s provenance when its history has been lost and or even omitted from past records,” said exhibition curator Carlee S. Forbes. “It is an exciting moment to redirect conversations about collections and collecting.”

While provenance is defined as a history of ownership, the research on view at the Fowler extends beyond a list of names and considers the complexity of objects’ trajectories across global political, cultural, social, and economic systems. Employing a combination of conservation, material science, archival research, and curatorial methods, the Fowler team unravels the histories of African works in the collection. In the process, they begin to reckon with the legacy of European colonization and its influence on the objects’ uses and evolving notions of worth.

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