Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA)

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi Appointed Curator of African Art

Nzewi will lead the African collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, starting August 1.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has announced the appointment of Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi as Curator of African Art, following an international search. He will succeed Constantine Petridis, the former African curator, who left the Cleveland museum after 15 years to join the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi will assume his responsibilities at the CMA on August 1, in charge of the museum’s outstanding collection of works of art from sub-Saharan Africa, comprised of a diverse selection of masks and figurative sculpture from West and Central Africa. More recently the collection has been significantly augmented by a group of Congolese sculptures.

“Smooth is an exceptional curator with a remarkably creative approach,” William Griswold, the museum’s director, said in a news release. “He has distinguished himself in the field of African art by juxtaposing historical objects with modern and contemporary art from the continent, highlighting the dialogue between the past and present. We very much look forward to having him as a colleague in Cleveland, and to experiencing the ways that he will encourage our audiences to engage with historic and contemporary African art,” Griswold added.

As Curator of African Art, Nzewi will oversee the care and development of the collection, working closely with the Director and Chief Curator on the identification and acquisition of works of art to augment the collection. He will guide and organize special exhibitions exploring all aspects of African art, from the historic through the contemporary.

Cleveland’s African art collection includes about 300 works of tradition-based art from Africa south of the Sahara. The core of this collection was donated to the museum in the 1960s and ‘70s by the late Cleveland collector Katherine C. White. Some of the strongest objects in the collection were created by the Senufo people (Ivory Coast), the Yoruba people (Nigeria), the Benin Kingdom (Nigeria), and the so-called Kwango-Kwilu region (southwest region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The past fifteen years represent a time of significant growth, including the addition of a distinguished ensemble of thirty-four Congolese sculptures acquired through a gift-purchase arrangement from the Brussels collectors René and Odette Delenne.

“It is a great honor for me to be joining the Cleveland Museum of Art at such an opportune time,” Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi states in the press release. “I look forward to building on the excellent work done by the previous curator of African art through cutting-edge scholarship in support of exhibitions, publications, and in engaging our diverse audience, working in concert with my colleagues. Ultimately, the goal is to expand the understanding of the arts of Africa through landmark acquisitions and innovative exhibition strategies that link together historical, modern and contemporary African arts, and placing them in local, transnational, and global contexts. I am really looking forward to forging a strong connection with lovers and supporters of African art in the Cleveland community and surrounding areas.”

As a curator and practicing artist, Nzewi brings a unique combination of experience and academic training in three different countries to the CMA.

Nzewi is coming to Cleveland from Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, where he served as curator of African art since 2013. He is currently curating the exhibition Feedback: Art, Africa, and the Eighties, which will be on view at the Iwalewa Haus Museum, University of Bayreuth, and will travel to other venues including the Hood Museum of Art starting in 2018. Prior to his employment at the Hood, Nzewi was a fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and a practicing artist and independent curator based in Nigeria.

Nzewi has also co-curated major international exhibitions including the Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal, in 2014, the major platform for contemporary art in Africa. He also served on the curatorial team of the 11th Shanghai Biennale in 2016–17, and is collaborating with the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain de la Région Centre (FRANC) Orlean, France, for its inaugural architecture biennale in October 2017.

In addition to his curatorial work, Nzewi has taught at the Institute of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Dartmouth College, and Emory University.  Nzewi holds a PhD in Art History from the Emory University and a PG. Diploma in the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Western Cape, South Africa. He also holds a bachelor’s in sculpture from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, where he studied under the globally renowned artist, El Anatsui.

Nzewi has been the recipient of fellowships, scholarships, and artist awards, including a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a TIAA-CREF Ruth Simms Hamilton Fellowship, a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship, a Robert Sterling Clark Foundation Fellowship, and Prince Claus Travel Award.



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