Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Curated by Christa Clarke, R. Tripp Evans, Ellen McBreen, and Fanny Wonu Veys, with Vivien Greene

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, February 15–June 14, 2020


From February 15 to June 14, 2020, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection presents Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy Guggenheim challenged boundaries as a patron and collector and is celebrated for her groundbreaking European and American modern art collection. This exhibition focuses on a lesser-known, but crucial episode in Guggenheim’s collecting: her turn in the 1950s and ’60s to works created by artists in Africa, Oceania, and the indigenous Americas.

Migrating Objects represents a remarkable occasion to view 35 rarely seen non-Western artworks Guggenheim collected, shown at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection as a cohesive whole for the first time. This exhibition presents Guggenheim’s African, Oceanic, and indigenous Americas objects in groupings privileging their original contexts or, alternately, in dialogue with European works from her collection by avant-garde artists who appropriated ideas from cultures beyond Europe’s borders. These opposing approaches enable an exploration of the flawed narratives that Western culture imposed on objects of this kind.

Migrating Objects emerges from an extended period of research and discussion on this largely ignored area of Guggenheim’s collection ‎by a Curatorial Advisory Committee of experts, which has led to exciting findings, including the reattribution of individual works, among them the Nigerian headdress (Ago Egungun) produced by the workshop of Oniyide Adugbologe (ca. 1875–1949), which is on view in the exhibition.

In 1959, Peggy Guggenheim purchased a group of non-Western objects from the New York dealer Julius Carlebach, with works ranging from a Baga D’mba headdress from Guinea to a malangan maramarua funerary carving from New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. “I could not afford to buy anything that I wanted, so I turned to another field…I began buying pre-Columbian and primitive art. In the next few weeks I found myself the proud possessor of 12 fantastic artifacts, consisting of masks and sculptures from New Guinea, the Belgian Congo, the French Sudan, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and New Ireland. It reminded me, in reverse, of the days when Max [Ernst] had left our home…and removed his treasures one by one from the walls. Now they all seemed to be returning.” (Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. New York: André Deutsch, 1979). Guggenheim had already shown interest in such works thanks in particular to her brief marriage to the artist Max Ernst, who in the 1940s obsessively collected pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and especially Native American art. Ernst’s collection was installed alongside works made by the couple’s artist friends in the house they shared in New York.

Later she also bought examples in Italy from Franco Monti and Paolo Barozzi. Her dealers must have guided Guggenheim’s selections to some extent. But she followed her own vision when installing these objects in her Venetian palazzo, alongside paintings by Pablo Picasso and Ernst, among others. Her engagement with artists such as Picasso, Ernst, and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock would have made Guggenheim aware that these artworks, brought to the Western world, represented a direct migration of ideas and impacted the very foundations of modernism. As these avant-garde artists acknowledged, modern art in Europe and the United States was shaped by constructs and motifs purloined from cultures beyond its borders.

Migrating Objects—through its contrasting modes of display, addressing the works’ original meanings as well as their later reinterpretations—locates Guggenheim’s treatment of these objects within the broader, problematic Western tradition which paired modern Western art with non-Western art based on perceived formal and conceptual affinities. These purposely divergent methodologies allow the exhibition to consider how the works, whose intended uses were frequently misunderstood, were deployed in studios, galleries, museums, and homes to different, often contradictory, ends. Tracing these objects’ trajectories reveals entangled histories of colonization, annexation, migration, and reinterpretation, in tandem with biographies of individuals both well-known and unrecorded.

The exhibition’s Curatorial Advisory Committee comprises Christa Clarke, Independent Curator and Scholar, Arts of Global Africa, and Affiliate, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; R. Tripp Evans, Professor, History of Art, Wheaton College, Mass.; Ellen McBreen, Associate Professor, History of Art, Wheaton College, Mass.; and Fanny Wonu Veys, Curator, Oceania, National Museum of World Cultures, The Netherlands; with Vivien Greene, Senior Curator, 19th- and Early 20th-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who edited the exhibition catalogue.

Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, has received the patronage of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Carlotta Sami, Senior Public Information Officer for UNHCR, declares: “This exhibition represents an exceptional opportunity for the UNHCR to expand and ameliorate the general public’s perception of refugees. They are not only desperate people seeking protection, but above all individuals forced to flee their homelands bringing with them a rich combination of culture, talent, and dreams to be shared with the countries that welcome them. As these objects of art from apparently distant places dialogue with Western works, they remind us that ideas migrate with people and through them foster exchanges of equal dignity and value. There is a third alternative to rejection and assimilation, and it is the most enlightened one: that of a society in which, every day, cultures and languages are multiple and hybrid. Even now, our ways of living are mutually influential, provoking an invaluable wealth of viewpoints."

The exhibition program of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is supported by the museum’s Advisory Committee. Educational activities related to the exhibition are underwritten by the Araldi Guinetti Foundation, Vaduz. Exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection are supported by the Institutional Patrons—EFG, Lavazza, and Sanlorenzo—and the companies which comprise the Guggenheim Intrapresæ group.