Questioning the place of black art in a white man’s collection

PHILADELPHIA – Dazzled by the famous paintings of Cézanne, Matisse and Seurat, most visitors to the Barnes Foundation overlook the African sculptures. But for Albert C. Barnes, the founder of the collection, they were central. He began acquiring African sculpture in 1922, the year he established the foundation, because it had inspired Picasso, Modigliani and many other artists in France whom he supported. “When the Foundation opens, Negro art will take its place among the great art manifestations of all time,” he wrote to his Paris dealer in 1923.

Barnes thought an appreciation of African masterpieces would also advance the cause he passionately promoted alongside modern art: the advancement of African Americans in society. As a testament to his dedication, African sculpture was the subject of the first book published by the foundation, and the entrance to the original museum in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, featured tile and terracotta designs modeled after African pieces in the collection.

But the patronage of black art by a white millionaire is complicated, then as it is now. The acquisition of cultural assets from an oppressed or impoverished society raises ethical questions. And when African sculpture is removed from its functional context, what role does it then play? And whose interests does it serve?

Commissioned by the Barnes to mark the foundation’s centenary, black English artist Isaac Julien created a five-screen black and white film installation, Once Again… (Statues Never Die) that explores the place of African art at the Barnes and other Western ones Museums.

In two adjacent galleries, he complemented the film with a sculpture exhibition featuring eight African artworks removed from their usual places up in Barnes, accompanied by three bronzes with African-American motifs by Richmond Barthé (1901-1989), a prominent Harlem artist Renaissance and five contemporary works by Matthew Angelo Harrison, cut-up African tourist sculptures embalmed in polyurethane resin and enclosed in aluminum-framed showcases.

The protagonist of Julien’s film is Alain Locke, an African-American writer, critic, and teacher who is considered the spiritual father of the Harlem Renaissance. It was through Barnes that Locke had his first significant exposure to masterpieces of African sculpture. Locke, in turn, gave Barnes access to black writers and artists. Julien examines the real working relationship – both cooperative and antagonistic – between these strong-willed men. Each educated and mistrusted of the other. On a personal level, their exchange reflected the sensitivities and injustices surrounding the adoption of black African art by dominant white culture and the struggle by black Americans to claim and use this heritage as their own.

“I call this the poetics of redemption, something I try to explore in my work,” Julien said in a telephone interview from London. “The debates that we are having today and that are appearing at the same time took place 50 years ago, if not earlier. I find that really interesting.”

In a way that most viewers don’t realize, Once Again… (Statues Never Die) is effectively a sequel to two films: Statues Also Die, a 1953 short film directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, which continues to brood the shipment of African art to Western museums by imperialists who degraded the cultures and peoples they colonized; and Julien’s groundbreaking 1989 film Looking for Langston, which he describes as a “meditation” on poet Langston Hughes’ ambiguous queer identity. Locke, who was discreetly but unmistakably gay, was romantically pursuing the teenage Hughes. In Once Again… (Statues Never Die) Julien incorporates footage of Harlem gay balls he directed for Looking for Langston and a musical setting he formerly composed of Hughes’ famous line “What does to a dream deferred.” “ used ?”

In Once Again… (Statues Never Die) Julien, a queer black artist, looks with sensitive curiosity at Locke’s – sporadically sexual – friendship with the younger African-American sculptor Barthé. The film contains some archival footage but relies primarily on staged scenes by actors playing Locke, Barthé and Barnes. The recreations are often very precise, for example when, mirroring the filmed documentary of Locke and Barthé, the actors reproduce their original positions and facial expressions while smilingly examining Barthé’s art.

One of Barthé’s major works, Male Torso, is a nude that deviated from the Greco-Roman ideal in search of an alternative black prototype. It was, writes Jeffrey C. Stewart in his authoritative Locke biography, The New Negro, “a sculpture that visualized a new black masculinity” that was “leaner, leaner, leaner” and “an icon of black homosexual desire.” was. The nude model in the film eerily conforms to the sculpture. (Julien confirmed he did “body casting” to find him.)

But in a half-hour film, the question of what it was like for a black gay man like Locke in the first half of the 20th century intertwines. “Once Again… (Statues Never Die)” cuts reenactments of Locke with a fictional character who describes Julien as his “second protagonist,” a major African curator who first appears in a scene filmed on the Pitt Rivers and plays an anthropological and archaeological role in the Oxford Museum, where it testifies to the wounds suffered by civilizations deprived of their cultural treasures.

Towards the end of the film, historical photos of the 1897 British raiding expedition that destroyed Benin City in present-day Nigeria and brought a treasure trove of bronze and brass masterpieces to the British Museum are accompanied by excerpts from the expedition’s diary Chief of Staff. Julien also adds footage from You Hide Me, a 1970 documentary filmed in the basement of the British Museum in 1970 by Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo that follows a young black man and woman as they unpack African artifacts that are kept in boxes.

These scenes reinforce Julien’s theme of African art’s troubled journey to western lands, while a re-enactment of Locke gazing fondly at Barthé as he sleeps feels like a clip from Looking for Langston.

In the interview, Julien chided Barnes for limiting his support of black arts to the work of African civilizations and not collecting the work of his own African American contemporaries. (Barnes did, however, purchase and exhibit the Horace Pippin paintings.)

“Someone like Barnes wasn’t interested in the sculptures of Richmond Barthé, they’re not in his collection, but they were of great interest to Alain Locke,” Julien said. “Why are we not familiar with the works of Richmond Barthé? He didn’t do many works, but he was an important African American artist. You can feel the sensuality of Richmond Barthé’s sculpture. The reason they’re being disavowed, could it be because they resonate in the way of something questionable?” Even today, Julien said, homoeroticism is a touchy subject for many African-American art historians.

But Barnes ignored Barthé for other reasons. Barnes favored innovative modernism; Neither a folk artist nor a cubist, Barthé was stylistically closer to Rodin than Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko, and the other sculptors Barnes collected. But for Locke, the primary importance of African art was its power to enliven the flourishing of black consciousness in the present. This important distinction can be lost in the flood of supporting material in Julien’s film.

Unlike the British raiders in Benin, Barnes did not burn down a town to get his sculptures. Nonetheless, his admiring acquisition of African art, plundered from the society that supported it, continued a process that began with the shipments of the Benin bronzes to the British Museum in the late 19th century. Julien’s installation poses these questions in a compelling film, highlighting Barnes’ treasured body of African art—and the long shadows it casts.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die)

Through September 4, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pa.; 215.278.7000;

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