Ethics Around Campus: ‘Americanah’ at the Nasher Museum of Art

Blogger’s note: As we move into the fall, I’m going to use the Insider space occasionally to investigate “Ethics Around Campus.” This includes events, talks, exhibitions, performances, and general Duke campus happenings outside of Kenan that align broadly with our thematic programming and focus on engagement, analysis, and debate of ethical issues. If you’re savvy with our website, you’ve likely seen “Ethics Around Campus” highlighted before—it’s at the bottom of our main page, in RSS feed form. Throughout the semester, as usual, the feed will be updated with links to various campus events. I’ll highlight a few here—partly out of my own curiosity for what ethics can be and look like at a university, and partly to connect Kenan’s work with other campus work, and vice versa. 

Adichie’s novel. Image courtesy of NPR.

I, like many others at Duke right now, am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. It’s kind of a neat feeling, to read a book alongside a huge network of people, many of whom I don’t know, as we all spend our 9-to-5s doing and studying ostensibly quite different things. Doing something in common—like reading a book, or, say, playing on a kickball team—can blast us out of isolation and into the sudden, personal sharing of something. You dog-eared that passage, too? How did it resonate with you?

David C. Driskell, Woman in Interior, 2008. Screenprint with mixed media on paper, 37 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (94.6 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Gift of Franklin and Sheila Jackson, 2008.12.1. © David C. Driskell. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

If we’re lucky, we can come together through these mutual realizations. Duke has done something clever in the past few years by building the Summer Reading selection—typically reserved for first-year bonding exercises during orientation week—into a university-wide conversation. Faculty and staff book clubs (including Kenan’s), as well as initiatives like DukeReads, read and discuss the book together. The author comes to campus for a lecture in the fall. And beginning with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (the 2011 selection), the Nasher Museum has curated a small exhibition in tandem with the Summer Reading Book’s themes. This year, the exhibition—on view in the Nasher’s Academic Focus Gallery—includes works from the Nasher’s permanent collection, ranging from West African wood tools to contemporary paintings, photographs, and mixed-media works by the likes of Jasper Johns, the Guerrilla Girls, and Henry Clay Anderson, among others. The curated collection gives life to Adichie’s story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerian lovers growing up in recent decades between Nigeria, the United States, and the U.K. Together and apart, the pair navigate displacement, immigration, race, and identity. The novel takes its title from the term “Americanah”—used to refer to a native Nigerian who emigrates (often to the U.S. or U.K.) and returns to Nigeria with foreign affectations. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after several years abroad—during which she becomes famous as the blogger behind “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”—some friends call her, mockingly, “Americanah.”

The Nasher exhibition interprets these themes broadly and pulls together a sharp collection of works. The hallway is spatially tight, which gives the exhibition a conversational effect: Dan Perjovschi’s Postcards from America sits opposite Vik Muniz’s American Flag; a Nigerian Janus Headpiece looks diagonally toward Dan Driskell’s Woman in Interior. Pieces talk across time, as if saying, hey, this is what being an outsider in America felt like to me then, and here’s what a barbershop—in London, or Durham, or Lagos—looks like to me now. The gem for me, though, is the accompanying gallery guide. A handful of Duke administrators, faculty, and librarians were asked to respond to various works in the exhibition, drawing in their experiences reading Adichie’s novel. The respondents, and their responses, are wonderfully diverse. Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of  English and Professor of Law, unpacks Driskell’s painting via quotations from Toni Morrison, Destiny’s Child, and Ralph Ellison. She likens Adichie’s Ifemelu to the “quilted concoction,” the “diasporan woman” of Driskell’s painting. Li-Chen Chin, Director of Intercultural Programs, writes—in response to Vik Muniz—about immigrating to the United States from Taiwan. “The last thing I did before I left Taiwan was learn to ride a bike because in many university brochures I had received, the ‘American’ students were always smiling and either standing next to or riding their bikes on campus.” Her words push us to consider what it means to “look American,” or to “be American.”

Guerrilla Girls, Pop Quiz from the portfolio Guerrilla Girls’ Most Wanted: 1985-2006, 1990 (printed 2008). Print on paper, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Museum purchase, 2011.6.1.12. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

The final work on the first wall is Hurvin Anderson’s 2010 Barbershop Print. Ben Adams, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, wrote a long anecdotal piece in response, recalling trips throughout his childhood to the hair salon with his grandmother. He ties in one of the main plot points of Americanah: Ifemelu travels to Trenton, NJ from Princeton (where she is on a humanities fellowship) to have her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. “What Ifemelu had hoped would be an afternoon of braiding,” Adams writes, “turns into a detangling of hair, race, and the immigrant experience in America.” Adams then talks about his grandmother’s own conflicted salon experience, and the function of the salon or barbershop generally: it can be a space of both community formation and community unraveling, where the individual can “literally or figuratively look in the mirror” and draw a distinction between “‘us’ and ‘them.'” In similar ways, Americanah—both the book and the exhibition—remind us of both the precariousness and power of community. It dares us to form our own, too.


Americanah is on view in the Academic Focus Gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art through October 12.