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Silvia Forni to step in as new director of UCLA’s Fowler Museum

The Fowler Museum at UCLA has a new director, Silvia Forni, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture has announced. Forni comes to the museum from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She replaces Marla Berns, who retired last year after steering the museum for two decades.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA has a new director, Silvia Forni, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture has announced. Forni comes to the museum from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She replaces Marla Berns, who retired last year after steering the museum for two decades.

Forni’s curatorial work parallels the mission of the Fowler, whose exhibitions showcase the arts and culture of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Indigenous Americas. At the Royal Ontario Museum, where she’s worked for 14 years, Forni served as senior curator of global Africa and, for the last five years, deputy vice president of the museum’s Department of Art & Culture as well. While at ROM she co-curated a multiplatform project, “Of Africa,” from 2013 to 2018. The “museological intervention,” as she refers to it, included exhibitions, performances, screenings and symposiums that collectively questioned historical and contemporary representations of Africa. She’s also been an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and has taught African art courses at Ontario College of Art & Design University.

“My vision for the museum,” she said in an interview, “is to try to identify what are the next push points that are important to go through — where is the envelope now — and what does the Fowler need to do to continue to be at the forefront? This is a difficult moment for museums of world arts and culture because the premises on which these museums were built are being contested. I think there’s a very strong awareness, for everybody in this field, that we need to understand what are the next steps in terms of being socially engaged and responding to the needs of society.”

Forni, who grew up in Turin, Italy, and has lived in Toronto for the last 15 years, said she first became aware of the Fowler Museum when she was a graduate student at Indiana University studying cultural anthropology. She regularly looked to the museum while later pursuing her PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Turin.

“For me it was always an incredible point of reference and it was always an institution that pushed the envelope and did unconventional things,” she says. “It was always exciting to see what their new projects would be. And to learn from their research. The publications they were developing alongside exhibitions were always really amazing, super well researched and very insightful.”

Forni has spent nearly three decades researching the arts and culture of Cameroon and Ghana, traveling frequently to Africa to meet with artists, academics and historians, make studio visits and attend exhibitions. Much of her research focuses on “challenging the ways in which Africa has been constructed in the Western imagination,” she said.

“When I started working as a curator at the ROM, the majority of the public that I was engaging with still had a very primitivist approach to African art and culture. So I immediately started collecting contemporary art there and building a collection of art that would show a very different aspect of Africa.”

Forni’s appointment ends a yearlong international search by the Fowler. Brett Steele, dean of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, said in an interview that Forni is particularly well suited for the job.

“Her experience combines not just deep scholarly and curatorial work around world arts and its audiences but, in addition to that, she understands well the role we play in museums for bringing people together in shared experiences,” Steele said. “Arguably, in 2022, the arts’ role in bringing the world back together will be bigger than ever — in different ways and in advancing audiences of all kinds.”

Recent exhibitions Forni co-organized at the ROM include 2018’s “Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art,” which explored Black Canadian identity; “Kent Monkman: Being Legendary,” which opens in October at the ROM and addresses indigenous knowledge and questions institutional and museum practices; and the 2023 exhibit “Being and Belonging,” showcasing work by 20 contemporary female artists from the Islamic world in North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Indonesia.

Forni also co-curated the Fowler exhibition “Art, Honor and Ridicule: Asafo Flags From Southern Ghana,” which opens Oct. 23. The exhibition, which Forni co-organized with Fowler curator of African arts Erica P. Jones, will showcase historical and contemporary military flags from the museum’s collection — emblems of military companies in the Fante states in southern Ghana. Forni co-curated a companion show at the ROM that opened in 2016, featuring flags from that museum’s collection, organized with former Fowler director Doran H. Ross.

Both flag exhibitions “show different aspects of this really interesting, fun and thought-provoking art form from Ghana,” Forni said. “The flags bring different perspectives and display the arts of different workshops. You can see different hands interpreting similar motifs, you can see all these variations. We take a very deep look at the differences and nuances and also the history of this art form.”

That the exhibition debuts at the Fowler just weeks before Forni assumes her post on Dec. 1 is particularly exciting, she said.

“It’s really fantastic that this is all coming together,” she said. “I look forward to many more shows at the Fowler and working with the curatorial teams to develop new projects and new ideas.”

Los Angeles Times

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