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Diverse and inclusive: just buzzwords?

Opinion

What do young people dream of when they think about art museums and the future KMSKA?

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Portret Somto Offor door Marco Mertens
Portrait of Somto Offor Marco Mertens

Somto Offor is 23 years old. She is studying Political Science at Leuven University (KUL).

What do young people nowadays expect of the KMSKA? That’s the question I was invited to answer for the museum’s magazine, ZAAL Z. I admit that I’ve often thought I don’t ‘get’ art: that it’s not my thing. On reflection, though, I was being too hasty. Good art always manages to draw an emotional response from the viewer: possibly admiration, but also confusion or indifference. I’ve come to realize that the way I used to feel about art might have less to do with my experience of it than with what museums and other institutions hold out to us as ‘art’.

It might be a cliché for me, as a black woman, to say that most of the museums I’ve ever been to offer their visitors an image of art that is Western or Eurocentric, but I stand by that. The same vision is deeply engrained in art histories as well: everyone knows Michelangelo, Van Eyck and Picasso, but how many influential non-Western artists or artists can you name? The global museum space is still dominated by men, but what about female artists? Women are certainly an integral part of art: they, or their naked bodies, feature often enough as subject matter. But they should be equally acknowledged as artists too.

Everyone knows Michelangelo, Van Eyck and Picasso, but how many influential non-Western artists or artists can you name?

Somto Offor

I’m not talking about setting quotas for art museums: that shouldn’t be where we start. We constantly hear about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ these days, but I continue to treat those terms critically: they often seem more like buzzwords than a fundamental recognition of how things are. Even though diversity and inclusiveness are really just the logical development of our steadily evolving society. The way we interpret art isn’t straightforward either: it should always remain open to what is new.

I was in Rotterdam last summer to visit the exhibition Street Dreams: How Hip Hop Took on Fashion at the Kunsthal. An event like that, which explored hip hop’s influence on fashion and pop culture, is easily pigeonholed as atypical and as ‘urban art’. But it was there that I finally felt a sense of ‘this is art’ on seeing a gigantic photograph of Christopher Wallace and Sean Combs – better known as The Notorious B.I.G and P. Diddy. It’s highly subjective, I know: I’ve been a fan of their music since I was a child. But what I’m also trying to express is that regardless of the past, it should no longer be up to one limited and privileged group of people to decide what is and is not art. Or that artists are mostly white men. That’s what I felt there and then.

The experience of art is as diverse as society. Reflecting that ought to be a museum’s ideal. And that’s what I hope to be able to see in the KMSKA’s future exhibitions.

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