The Life and Legacy of Ota Benga

Posted on January 14, 2016 by Kristin Swan

A Special Installation and Panel Discussion

Ota Benga (about 1883–1916) was a grossly mistreated and mostly neglected figure in the history of our country. He was taken prisoner in the Congo and transferred to the United States for display in the 1904 World’s Fair and then sent to live in the Bronx Zoo with the apes; he eventually committed suicide in 1916.

One hundred years later, Fred Wilson discovered in the Hood Museum of Art’s storage a forgotten object that the museum had nevertheless chosen to hold in its care: a head sculpted using a life cast, labeled “pygmy.” Wilson dared to pull Ota Benga from the shelf and place him on a pedestal that brought his eyes to four feet four inches, the subject’s own height. The artist covered the hurtful label with a soft white scarf and restored dignity to the subject, and to the object. With that gesture, this artist made our museum a conduit for Ota Benga’s story.

Just as Wilson’s 2005 Hood exhibition SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD—Believe It or Not! shed new light on our purpose and practice as a teaching museum, it also inspired him to create a new work based on the subject, one that the Hood in turn acquired in 2012. That sculpture is now on view in the Hood’s lobby, and inspired a special panel discussion scheduled for Thursday, February 11, 2016, 4:30–5:30 p.m., in the Hood Museum of Art Auditorium. The panel will feature:

  • Moderator Mary Coffey, Associate Professor and Chair, Art History, Dartmouth College
  • Niyi Coker Jr., E. Desmond Lee Professor, African/African-American Theatre, Cinema, Directing, Playwriting, & Acting Center for International Studies Fellow, University of Missouri-St. Louis
  • Pamela Newkirk, Professor, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University
  • Fred Wilson, Artist

This panel discussion will present the biography and legacy of Ota Benga within the social, cultural, and political context of the United States in the early 20th century. The discussants—a playwright/filmmaker, a journalist, and an artist—have made Ota Benga’s story a major focus of their scholarly and artistic work over the past decade. The panel will also reflect on the 10th anniversary of the Hood’s collections-based exhibition curated by Wilson, while investigating the relevance of Ota Benga’s history to American life today. The event will include both a screening of part of Coker’s forthcoming documentary and a discussion of Newkirk’s recently published biography, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Amistad Press, 2015). It will conclude with a Q&A with the panelists.

This event is cosponsored by the Hood Museum of Art, the Leslie Center for the Humanities, and the Departments of Art History, Studio Art, and Film and Media Studies.

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Written January 14, 2016 by Kristin Swan