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Moving mUSEUMS Forward: Tayana Fincher

A Written Interview


What you do and what are your dreams?

My name is Tayana Fincher, and I am currently the Nancy Prophet Fellow in the Costume & Textiles curatorial department at the RISD Museum. I studied pan-Islamic and African art and history, and I tend to gravitate towards diaspora arts and developments. At RISD I've been collaborating with colleagues to create public programs and gallery rotations for student and public audiences, and have made several lasting friendships with local partners, artists, and practitioners. My dreams consist of traveling to North Africa, mastering multiple (since all won't be possible in this lifetime) languages, and owning land for hundreds of dogs to live freely. On a more work-related note though, I aspire to find a way for curation, education, cultural competence, and human rights to come together under one role. I’m not really sure of what I want to do in the future, but I know that I love Muslim and diaspora cultures, and dream of working with creators to help their perspectives become more mainstream in art and visual culture.

What drew you to your interest in art history?

I always loved history, so art history kind of fell into my lap as a logical addition in college. It was easy to double major at my school, and one of the general suggestions for first year students was to take Art History 101 and 102 at some during their undergraduate career. The classes were titled, “Aspects of Western Art,” so I’m glad I didn’t stop there. A requirement in the Art History major was to take a class outside of your intended region of focus, so since I was originally going for European art, I took “Afro-Islamic Art” during my second year, and felt like I was unlearning all of these classical notions of what made art beautiful and worth studying, or seeing in a museum collection. I then shifted my studies to focus on Asian and African continents, using Islam as the connecting thread between countries and both majors. I think art is a wonderful way to see how regime changes, social movements, and generational knowledge is documented over time, so studying it has allowed me to almost vicariously time travel and understand the now.

What has been a project that makes you proud?

Since starting my fellowship at the RISD Museum, I’ve developed an exhibition set to open some time this October. It’s a multimedia exhibition called, It Comes in Many Forms: Islamic Art from the Collection, and highlights a lot of the nuances and confusion in categorizing artworks and objects under one religious identity. One photograph was taken by a contemporary artist, Fazal Sheikh, who is ethnically but not personally Muslim, and the subject matter actually involves refugees fleeing from Muslim hegemony in Sudan. I’m interested in how different objects within one collection can hold so much diversity and meaning, sometimes contrasting its outward appearance. There’s another object, a lebba or necklace crafted by Amazigh silversmiths in what is now Morocco. Although the country today is majority Muslim, as it has been for several centuries, the Amazigh are indigenous to northwestern Africa and were most likely Jewish at the point of the lebba’s creation. Metalsmithing was not a normal occupation for Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries, so it's important to have as much context as possible. Being able to bring out objects to show students and audiences how multicultural and multivalent the “Islamic world” is has to be my proudest feat thus far. I feel like unlearning biases and misconceptions has been a big part of my studies, so I'm happy that I'm able to highlight this in the show. 

Since you are from Texas, what lessons have taught you the most?

I’m from McKinney, but was born in NY to New Yorker parents, so I feel conflicted answering this! I went to school with people who looked like me, and graduated with people I’d known since second grade, so I feel like my childhood and teenagehood was very family- and friend-oriented. In keeping with southern hospitality, I also said “hi” to everyone I passed on the sidewalks and “yes sir/ma’am” to older folks. Leaving Texas to study and work in New England was weird, and I definitely felt like an outsider adjusting to new standards of community and communication, such as dropping sir and ma'am. In undergrad and in work, I think being from Texas taught me to seek out deeper relationships and connections, and not to stay so insular or shy away from change. I had only known people from around the south or Mexico, so befriending students from around the world after leaving was illuminating, and I'm not sure how fast that would have happened if I stayed. I think I needed to leave McKinney, at least, to know what else was out there, and I have a lot more I want to see and do before returning. Texas is difficult to stay away from for too long, though.

How do you see the future of museums?

That’s another tough question. I’m not sure what the future of museums will look like, but I have a few ideals. Like my field of study, Islamic Art, there are way too many identities and types of productions under too limited of a category. When starting out, the earliest questions revolved around why all art from one country in West or South Asia would be called "Islamic," when objects from one country in Italy could be "Renaissance" or "Baroque," you know? I see departmental restrictions collapsing in on themselves, especially since the naming of art movements surely has to end soon. What comes after Post-Modern and Contemporary? Futurist is a greatly growing sphere already, but even that will become reality soon enough. So yeah, maybe with collapsing, a more representative group of employees to bring out certain narratives. There's only so far school training can get someone, and even colleges have their supremacist values. For graduate studies in Art History, I'd have to learn German as one of my two languages, even though Arabic, Farsi/Arabic, Urdu, or French would more so align with the countries I'm interested in visiting. It bothers me that lived experiences and perspectives aren't valued as much as PhD's are, so I'm imagining museums to drop that expectation in the coming years. I think it'd account for so much more truth telling, and allow for real engagement with audiences.

What must museums commit to doing as we move forward?

Museums should definitely commit to owning problematic histories, actions, and processes, and should look for overt and subtle ways to rectify them. Sure, it may seem improbable to return every looted or unfairly compensated-for object to particular groups of people, some of which may not exist in the same way today. But with the amount of object, provenance, and artist research curators and educators do on a regular basis, I'm unconvinced that more well-rounded and representative organizations of people and knowledge can't be referenced or brought in for dialogue. The RISD Museum is in the process of deaccessioning a Head of an Oba, looted from the Benin Kingdom at the end of the 19th century. Staff are in active communication with both the Nigerian government and Benin royal palace to discuss where it should go once repatriated. The Williams College Museum of Art had a recent program with Michael Rakowitz, a contemporary artist working to reinsert an Iraqi and Assyrian presence into museum galleries with illicitly-traded or looted apkallu and lamassu works. Monumental stone reliefs are reconstructed by him to note their absence in Iraq following wars, and I think it really brings American and European audiences and complicitness to the forefront. I think these types of conversations and programs can help give agency where it is due, and should take more precedence in all levels of public programs and exhibitions. I don't know much about hiring practices, but maybe in addition to less attention towards graduate degrees, there could be termed positions? I saw that suggestion somewhere, and it seems like a good way of ensuring that staff members are always bringing in relevant matters, so that they don't become complacent. That seems far-fetched, but at the very least, frequent training for cultural competence and anti-racism should be mandatory. 

What resources (books, websites, other forms of communication), you would recommend to someone interested in your field?

I don't know nearly as much as I should, but several things I've found conducive to my career path or wanted to learn from include:

- All articles on BidounIbraaz, and Muqarnas websites and annuals

- The Whole Picture by Alice Procter

- This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew

- The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality by Nicholas Mirzoeff

- The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy

- On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed

- Islam in the Indian Ocean World: A Brief History by Omar H. Ali

- Can Non-Europeans Think? by Hamid Dabashi

- The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa by Timothy Insoll

- African Print Fashion Now!: A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style by the Fowler Museum of Art

- Contemporary Muslims Fashions by Reina Lewis and Jill D'Alessandro

- Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress by Elizabeth Bucar

- Muslims in the Western Imagination by Sophia Rose Arjana

- Islamic Art: Past, Present, Future (The Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art) by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair

- Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image by Christiane Gruber

- Collecting Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: A Curatorial Perspective by Linda Komaroff

- What is Islamic Art? Between Religion and Perception by Wendy M. K. Shaw

- From Institutional Critique to Institutional Liberation? A Decolonial Perspective on the Crises of Contemporary Art by MTL Collective

- Museums Inside Out: Artist Collaborations and New Exhibition Ecologies by Mark W. Rectanus

- Radical Museology by Claire Bishop

- "Tell Them, I Am" podcast by Misha Euceph

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