Christa Clarke

Christa Clarke


Senior Curator, Arts of Global Africa at the Newark Museum
The Activist Collector: Recovering the Story of an African American Woman in Pre-Apartheid South Africa
Hutchins Fellow
Academic Year 2017-18


Christa Clarke is Senior Curator, Arts of Global Africa at the Newark Museum, where she has organized numerous exhibitions ranging from men’s fashion to Nigerian modernism since her appointment in 2002. Clarke’s scholarship on the history of collecting and display and the politics of representation includes Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display (co-edited with Kathleen Berzock; 2010), which examines the impact of museum practice on the formation of meaning and public perception of African art. Her recent book, African Art in the Barnes Foundation (Rizzoli; 2015), received the James A. Porter and David C. Driskell Book Award for African American Art History and a First Place Award for Excellence from the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC) in 2016.

Clarke has held fellowships at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Clark Art Institute, and teaching appointments at NYU Abu Dhabi, University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Rutgers University, Purchase College, and Drew University. In addition, she was a Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellow in 2012 and currently serves as President of the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC).

Project Description

The Activist Collector: Recovering the Story of an African American Woman in Pre-Apartheid South Africa

“After twenty-eight years of desire and determination, I have visited Africa, the land of my forefathers.” So wrote Lida Broner in 1939 at the conclusion of travels in South Africa. Broner, an African American resident of Newark, NJ, funded the nine-month journey working as a housekeeper and hairstylist.  She was motivated equally by ancestral heritage and grassroots resolve to connect the political and social concerns of African Americans with those of black South Africans. Her activism had emerged through her involvement in the African American women’s club movement, her work in the black beauty industry, and her association with the nascent Council on African Affairs, an anti-colonialist organization led by Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois. During her travels, this woman of modest means circulated among South Africa’s black intellectual elite, including many leaders of South Africa’s freedom struggle. Her lectures at black schools on “race consciousness and race pride” had a decidedly political bent, even as she was presented as an “American beauty specialist.”

How did Broner – a working class, divorced mother of a grown son– come to be a globally connected activist? What were her experiences as an African American woman in segregated South Africa and how did she further her work after her return? Fortunately, Broner left a rich archive, the core of which is a collection of more than 150 objects, ranging from beadwork and pottery to mission school crafts. For the most part made and/or given by South African women whose names were documented by Broner, the collection embodies a diverse web of personal relationships reflecting the breadth of her experiences. The objects are supplemented by a trove of personal documents that include her diary, correspondence, scrapbooks, and – importantly – hundreds of photographs, many with handwritten notations. My book project draws upon this extraordinary visual and documentary record to recover her story and to consider what the collection says about her experiences there and how it was used in the context of her social activism upon return home. A cultural biography of this “activist collector” offers an important counterpoint to the dominant narrative of the collecting African art, animating the respective experiences and aspirations of South Africans and African Americans during a time of struggle and oppression. 

Academic Year 2017-18: Hutchins Fellow


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