Fred Wilson

Ota Benga


Not on display

Fred Wilson born 1954
Bronze with silk scarf on wooden base
Object: 1510 × 350 × 350 mm
Purchased with assistance from the American Patrons of Tate, courtesy of Pamela Joyner and Reginald Van Lee 2011


Ota Benga 2008 is a unique bronze cast sculpture of the bust of a young man. It has a wooden base which in turn is placed on a plinth. A white silk scarf has been tied around the pedestal of the bronze. The wooden base has been engraved with a phrase devised by Wilson: ‘I’m the one who left and didn’t come back’. The bronze is cast from a life-size plaster bust (based on a ‘life cast’) by the artist Casper Mayer dating from 1904. It shows the boyish features of a twenty-three year old Bachichi (meaning ‘bushman’) man named Ota Benga, who was part of an exhibit of so-called ‘primitive’ African peoples at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The white scarf added by Wilson covers the ethnic label that was added to each of a series of portrait busts of those included in that exhibit.

Wilson discovered the group of plaster busts by Mayer in the collection of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He included the original busts in his exhibition So Much Trouble in the World – Believe It or Not! at the museum in 2005. He subsequently obtained permission to make a cast of the bust of Benga, whose harrowing story had particularly fascinated him during the preparations for his exhibition. After being ‘displayed’ at the World’s Fair in 1904, Benga was given to the Bronx Zoo in New York, where he was given accommodation and put on show in a cage with an orang-utan. A committee of the Coloured Baptist Ministers’ Conference protested and demanded his removal from the zoo. He was subsequently placed first in an orphanage in Brooklyn and then in a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. Finally, he was employed in a tobacco factory in Virginia. Wilson’s work draws attention to Benga’s geographic, cultural and linguistic isolation, a condition which led to his eventual suicide in 1916.

Ota Benga exemplifies Wilson’s practice of appropriating museum objects to explore ideas of racial identity and history, as well as the politics of museum culture, collections and display. He has become known for his site-specific interventions in museum collections and ‘faux’ museums, simultaneously employing and undermining curatorial practices to function as institutional critique. In this way, he examines both the politics of museum collections and wider issues of cultural representation. His work highlights how changes in context can radically change the meaning of certain objects. In Ota Benga, he appropriates a previously overlooked and devalued object, yet one with a controversial genesis and history. In contrast, for his earlier work Grey Area (Black Version) 1993 (Tate T13632), he employed one of the most famous of museum objects – the ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti – but one which subsequently became controversial due to disputes over rights of ownership.

Wilson is one of a generation of American artists from the 1980s and 1990s who encapsulate a new direction in American art. For these artists, a critical politics, while less vehement than previous generations, is still a necessity. This generation includes a number of other African American artists who, as well as Wilson, have gone on to have influential careers, such as Kerry James Marshall, Coco Fusco, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Renée Green, Ellen Gallagher and Gary Simmons.

Further reading
Lisa Corrin (ed.), Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, exhibition catalogue, The Contemporary, Baltimore 1992.
Fred Wilson: So Much Trouble in the World – Believe It or Not!, exhibition catalogue, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover 2006.
Doro Globus (ed.), Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, London 2011.

Tanya Barson
July 2011

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