Treasures in Store at the Newark Museum

By Linda Arntzenius

The late Michael Graves, the subject of this issue’s cover story, was Newark Museum’s master planner, architect and interior designer since the late 1960s. As such, his firm has worked on dozens of projects there, including a 175,000 square foot renovation that garnered an AIA National Honor Award and a new master plan in honor of the Museum’s centennial in 2009.

There is so much to see in the state’s largest museum that a visit always yields some surprises. In addition to mounting new exhibitions, Newark Museum has fine collections of American, decorative and contemporary art, as well as artwork from Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the ancient world. Its Tibetan galleries are considered among the best and it has paintings by such American masters as Hiram Powers, Thomas Cole, John Singer Sargent, Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Tony Smith and Frank Stella. And it’s not just for art lovers. The museum boasts a planetarium and regular displays from its 70,000 natural science collection in the Victoria Hall of Science.

Established in 1909 at the Newark Public Library by John Cotton Dana who, as its founding director, turned it into one of the most progressive cultural institutions in the country, Newark Museum got its own building courtesy of a gift from department store magnate Louis Bamberger in the 1920s. Since then, it has expanded several times and was redesigned by Graves in 1990s.

Currently on view is a stunning series of recent portraits by the award-winning Nigerian photojournalist George Osodi, who has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, leading UK newspapers and international magazines and media.

Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria’s Monarchs presents forty of Osodi’s images, shown for the first time in the United States. They feature Nigeria’s ruling elite in their palaces and throne rooms. The photographer has captured each of his subjects—sometimes alone, sometimes with a retinue of staff—against the backdrop of their office. The word “splendor” springs to mind in viewing these works, which have been clearly staged for the camera. Osadi offers a unique and intimate perspective that is astonishingly rich in detail and revealing in personality. Here is a privileged visual documentation of the palaces of more than 20 kings and queens. One can look at these portraits on many levels, as works of fine art, as visual documentations of political power and aspiration, as moments in history that reveal long standing tradition and cultural connections.

The photographer’s eye has captured not only the embroidered silks and intricate elements of architecture that reveal the influences of Christianity and Islam in Africa but the dignity of his subjects. His aim, Osadi has said, was to show individuals such as His Royal Majesty Agbogidi Obi James Ikechukwu Anyasi II, the Obi of Idumuje Unor, and Her Royal Highness Queen Hajiya Hadizatu Ahmedu, the Magajiya of Kubwada, in the way in which they would see themselves. Each image is intended as a celebration of Nigerian culture. By holding up a mirror to the modern-day descendents of traditional rulers going back centuries, Osadi is speaking to their custodial roles as keepers of the country’s cultural heritage.

“Some of them have had ancestors who were kings in the early days of slavery. Some were kings in the early days of the Europeans capturing various kingdoms. Some were heavily humiliated, and they were photographed in ways that were dehumanizing by some of these captors in the early days of colonialism. I wanted to now show them as true kings of the 21st century,” said Osodi in an interview with Slate photography critic Jordan G. Teicher.

One other aspect of the exhibition is a document of the cultural complexity of Nigeria, which has a sad history of ethnic and religious conflict. Osodi hopes that his images will have special relevance for Nigerians who have left their homeland and for their children who may never have been there. “I feel that it’s high time we as a country see this diversity as a point of unity in Nigeria rather than something that divides us,” he told Teicher. While some of Osodi’s subjects present imposing figures, it must be said that one or two look quite bored by the process of sitting for the photographer. Nonetheless, Osodi has a knack for engaging his viewers and holding them enthralled. The near life-size portraits are shown alongside examples of dress and regalia from the Museum’s own celebrated collection of African art dating back to 1917. Together with an exhibition of work by the Moroccan-born UK artist Hassan Hajjaj, titled My Rock Stars, Osodi’s Royals and Regalia is part of a twoyear celebration that will culminate in a major reinstallation of African art in 2017. Hajjaj’s work complements the Osodi exhibition with images and videos of contemporary African musicians and singers influenced as much by hip hop and jazz as by traditional North African songs. Like Osodi, Hajjaj is personally connected to his subjects, these are the performers he admires, and the exhibition is by way of tribute. Osodi’s photography is in the collections of major European museums and the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C., as well as private collection. He has been commissioned by the likes of Nestle Switzerland, Bilfinger Berger Germany, Schlumberger Nigeria, Oxfam USA, and Amnesty international and has had solo exhibitions in Europe, India, Africa and the United States. In 2004, he was FUJI African Photojournalist of the Year and in 2008, he was a nominee for the Prix Pictet Photography prize. As a United Nations special court photographer, he observed the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor in 2006. His books include the 2011 Delta Nigeria: The Rape of Paradise, Nigerians Behind the Lens in 2010, and Lagos: A City at Work in 2005. For more of Osodi’s work, visit: www.georgeosodi.com

Splendor of another kind is on display in Newark Museum’s ongoing exhibition, City of Silver and Gold: From Tiffany to Cartier, which recalls Newark’s heyday as the center of the nation’s precious metal industry. For more than a century, the city was home to the design workshops of famed jewelry goldsmiths and silversmiths such as Tiffany & Co. and Krementz. City of Silver and Gold showcases more than one hundred of the Museum’s holdings. At its heart are unique Tiffany & Co. pieces that can be found nowhere else, including a massive seven-light candelabrum designed by Paulding Farnham that was shown in the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Other highlights of the show are a jewel-encrusted coffee set in the “Viking” style that Farnham designed for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and a pair of art-deco candelabra that were custom-made by Tiffany for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Royals and Regalia: Inside the Palaces of Nigeria’s Monarchs and Hassan Hajjaj: My Rock Stars will be on display at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark, through August 9. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and closed on public holidays. For more information, call 973.596.6550, or visit: www.newarkmuseum.org

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AREA EXHIBITS

Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton: Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is extended to July. Also Jae Ko: Selections features the work of the Korean-born artist, Jae Ko, including a major new commission in the East Gallery that is more than 80 feet long: Force of Nature, Shiro 白 transforms over 20,000 pounds of recycled paper in shades of white into the artist’s largest and most ambitious piece to date. Inspired by the natural world—Shiro 白 means white, pure and clear‑the glacier-like installation continues in the Domestic Arts Building. The full exhibition opens on May 9 and will be on view through February 6, 2016. For more information, admission and hours, visit groundsforsculpture.org.

James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine St., Doylestown: The Artist in the Garden continues through August 9; Rodin: The Human Experience — Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Collections and the companion exhibition The Rodin Legacy through June 14. For more information, hours and admission, call 215.340.9800 or 800.595.4849, or visit: MichenerArtMuseum.org.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 to 128 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia: The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement (1887-1920) through May 24. For more information, call 215.972.7600 or visit: pafa.org.

Morven Museum & Garden at 55 Stockton Street: Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th Century New Jersey Chairmaking, from April 24 through October 18 with an opening reception Thursday, April 23, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, hours and admission, call 609.924.8144 ext.106 or visit: morven.org.