Happy Birthday, Simon Ottenberg!
If his 1,700+ pages of typed notes on Nigerian contemporary art are any indication, anthropologist Simon Ottenberg has an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge—not to mention intellectual stamina. Dr. Ottenberg’s endless curiosity and genuine interest in the arts of Africa, and in the individuals behind them, is obvious in the works he chose for himself in his more than fifty years of collecting African art. Dr. Ottenberg’s important 2012 gift to the Newark Museum has transformed our modern and contemporary African art collection, doubling it in size and expanding its representation of African modernisms. Our current exhibition The Art of Translation: The Simon Ottenberg Gift of Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art honors Dr. Ottenberg’s generosity and highlights the collection’s strength in the modern and contemporary arts of Nigeria. But here I want to take the time to honor the man himself, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
I feel very lucky to have met Simon last October on a visit to his home in Seattle with Senior Curator, Christa Clarke. Christa and Simon were both fellows at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in the 1990s. Then a senior fellow researching artists working at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for his seminal 1997 exhibition The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group, Simon introduced Christa, a junior fellow working on her doctorate, to artists like Uche Okeke and El Anatsui, who have inspired her acquisitions and curatorial projects here at the Newark Museum. The Museum’s demonstrated commitment to exhibiting both modern and contemporary art from Africa encouraged Simon in his decision to make Newark the permanent home for his collection. While in Seattle reviewing the works in preparation for their arrival at the Museum, I was impressed by Simon’s personal connections to each one. As he recollected meetings with the artists and related anecdotes about his travels, I scrambled to take notes. Ever a scholar, Simon’s academic motivation remains unwavering. During our visit, he even admitted to staying up past his bedtime to work on a paper.
But don’t think Simon’s intellectual curiosity begins and ends with his own scholarly pursuits. On his recent visit to the East Coast in May to receive the Collector’s Award at the Museum’s gala, Simon and his wife Carol made a first stop at the opening for artist Marcia Kure’s exhibition Tease at Susan Inglett Gallery in Chelsea. Kure and her husband, Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is now an art historian at Princeton University, were both trained at Nsukka and met Simon during his fieldwork there in the early 1990s. Simon collected the work of both artists, which is now on view in The Art of Translation. At the opening, Simon gravitated towards Okeke-Agulu’s graduate students. His excitement was obvious. After posing the question, “If you could write your dissertation on any topic, what would it be?” he eagerly and intently listened to their answers. You got the feeling that he would give anything to join them in their research.
While organizing The Art of Translation, I cannot overstate Simon’s generosity, openness and encouragement. Simon remains personally invested in the continued research into and interpretation of modern and contemporary Nigerian art and in nurturing the next generation of African art historians. Simon’s genuine enthusiasm at seeing some of the works from his collection up on the Museum’s walls was clearly evident, as was his receptivity to my framing of them. He read every label—and was quick to point out pieces of information that he thought I should have included—and nodded a silent goodbye to each of the works. Slight criticisms aside, Simon put it plainly, and memorably, in a later email to me, “Well, if the exhibition was wonderful for you, it was also wonderful for me!” I can’t have asked for a more promising assessment from such an inspiring figure as I myself take the next step into academia. I hope you will all join me in wishing Simon a very happy 90th birthday!
– Perrin Lathrop, Curatorial Associate, Arts of Africa
Please join us on July 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm for a lecture by Dr. Simon Ottenberg at the Newark Museum.
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