Perrin Lathrop *21: from A&A to Assistant Curator of African Art

April 27, 2023

Perrin Lathrop *21 joined the Princeton University Art Museum in 2022 as Assistant Curator of African Art at a decidedly dynamic moment; as the Museum takes its new shape, Lathrop is helping to define the African art galleries. She feels both the weight and exhilaration of her charge.  “It's a real responsibility,” she noted. She divides her time between researching provenance for the existing collections and proposed acquisitions, developing interpretive strategies and exhibition proposals, and working with the design team on the new gallery designs.  “We’re building a new institution from the ground up,” she said. “I am learning from the ways that things have been done and contributing to the new strategies that are being developed in real-time to facilitate this major project.”

Lathrop recently led a discussion with a group of undergraduate students on restitution and repatriation organized by the Princeton University Art Museum Student Advisory Board. She presented a selection of the Museum’s African art collection, examining the ethics intertwined with the display and ownership of museum collections - and exploring new models.  “In this workshop, I aimed to center our conversation about restitution on the specificities of individual objects and their trajectories,” said Lathrop. “Nuanced understanding and knowledge will enable informed action when contending with important questions about rightful ownership.”

Perrin Lathrop stands before an illuminated manuscript on a table with students looking on.

Perrin Lathrop examines an 18th-century Ethiopian Illuminated manuscript from the Princeton University Art Museum's collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Central to Lathrop’s role as assistant curator is caring for the Museum’s growing collection of art from Africa. She spends time in storage closely examining the works that will be on view in the African art gallery, working with Museum conservators Bart Devolder and Elena Torok to ensure objects’ stability. Expanding the collection requires dedicated research. “There are many potential avenues for growth,” she said. “Right now, I’m considering where we should lean in terms of collecting,” which involves continued collaboration with modern and contemporary art curator Mitra Abbaspour, photography curator Kate Bussard, prints and drawings curator Laura Giles, and ongoing conversations with chief curator Julie Dweck. Provenance research represents a major component of this endeavor, “my energy is focused on thinking about what it means to be an ethical collecting institution, collecting responsibly as it pertains to restitution and colonial legacies,” she said. 

“I’m thinking carefully about the future of the collection – how to continue to collect in a way that enables more art histories to be told. I’m hoping, especially, to advocate for bringing in more works by mid-20th-century artists from Africa--artists who were engaged in broadening our understanding of modernism and in foregrounding the value of indigenous knowledge and creativity.” – Perrin Lathrop

Two students peer at ornate bronze cylinder.

Two students examine an 18th-19th-century brass Edo bracelet from the Princeton University Art Museum collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Another area of focus for Lathrop is developing her interpretative strategy for the new galleries. “Interpretation is being re-thought across the board,” she said.  “In the fall each curator was asked to develop an interpretation strategy that articulated their plan for the different themes that were going to be represented in the galleries and the kinds of labels that were going to written about individual objects.” She’s working closely with the Museum’s cross-departmental interpretation team and education department to implement her strategy. As an exciting new component of interpretation, the Museum is inviting outside voices to speak about some of the objects on view, including artists, community members, faculty members, and specialists.  

Lathrop particularly enjoys the collaborative aspect of her work. “I’m really happy to be back on campus and to be able to meet with people in different departments, students, faculty, people across the museum,” she said.  “It’s really impactful, after the isolation of the pandemic, to be able to interact face to face. I feel very lucky to be in this position and to be at an institution like Princeton, where everyone is equipped with incredible experience and knowledge – being able to share in all of that is amazing.” Lathrop maintains a strong connection to her adviser, Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu. “I really value my conversations with Chika about our plans for the gallery and about the future of the field in general,” she said. “His perspective is vital.”

Perrin Lathrop and Ndidi Dike pose in front of two works.

Perrin Lathrop with the Lagos, Nigeria-based artist Ndidi Dike, who was commissioned to create a new work, The Politics of Selection, for the African Modernism in America exhibition (Photo/courtesy of Perrin Lathrop)

Lathrop’s commitment to art history grew out of her childhood interest in history. “I was fortunate to go to a high school where an art history course was offered. Through that introduction, I learned to appreciate art’s ability to tell history through nuance and subjective experiences - to see the world expressed through the perspectives of individuals,” she said. 

Her focus on African art began as an undergraduate when she wrote her senior thesis on Malian studio photographer Malick Sidibé. “In addition to being captivated by his eye, through that research I was exposed to a whole world that forever changed my perspective,” she said.  When Lathrop earned her B.A. from NYU in 2009, the financial crisis was in full swing.  The lack of positions available in the culture sector in part motivated her decision to pursue an M.A. in the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. During that formative year-long program, she made connections that continue to influence her life and career. “So many of the people I rely on now, both personally and professionally, I met at the Courtauld,” she said. 

Her next position working with Christa Clarke in the Arts of Global Africa department of the Newark Museum of Art inspired her to pursue her Ph.D. at Princeton. “At Newark, I was given the opportunity to curate an exhibition of modern and contemporary art from Nigeria from the collection of Simon Ottenberg,” she explained. “That experience exposed me to Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu’s art historical work, in addition to his artistic work, and to the contributions of artists like Marcia Kure, Chinwe Uwatse, Obiora Udechukwu, Uche Okeke, and Akinola Lasekan--the artist on whom I eventually wrote my dissertation.”  At Princeton, Okeke-Agulu became Lathrop’s adviser, who, she confirms, “instilled in me the commitment to expand the stories told by African art history with rigor, depth, and careful attention to archival sources and the artworks themselves.”  The English department’s Professor Simon Gikandi, who served on Lathrop’s dissertation committee, substantially impacted her work, as well. “He was incredibly important to my experience as a grad student, inspiring me to think about the ways in which African literature and art go hand in hand and exposing me to literary traditions across Africa and the world,” said Lathrop. 

Perrin Lathrop speaking about objects in a glass case during a tour of African Modernism in America at Fisk University.

Perrin Lathrop speaking about the work of Ladi Kwali, Lamidi Fakeye, and Viola Wood during a tour of African Modernism in America at Fisk University (Photo/courtesy of Perrin Lathrop)

In addition to an appreciation for the complexities of form, creativity, history, and materiality embedded in the arts of Africa, she was drawn to the breadth of research opportunities the field offered. “Modernism in Africa is an area of art history that is growing. There is new research on a generation of artists who worked in the 20th and into the 21st centuries that can help us understand the landscape of art making in a particular place,” she said.  Lathrop also finds the convergence of art and politics in modern African art generative. “So much art was created as decolonization movements took hold in Africa in the mid-20th century,” she said. “It really responded to the context in which it was made, and its study enables us to grapple with the postcolonial realities that we all face.”  

Perrin Lathrop standing in a gallery wearing a billowing black dress.

Perrin Lathrop at the installation of African Modernism in America (on view through August 2023) at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis (Photo/courtesy of Perrin Lathrop)

For part of her dissertation research, Lathrop traveled to Fisk University in Nashville, where the Pan-Africanist scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois earned his undergraduate degree.  Fisk’s rich collection of modern African art includes the artist who became the subject of Lathrop’s dissertation, Akinola Lasekan. At the time, Fisk University Galleries’s director Jamaal B. Sheats and curator Nikoo Paydarwere new in their roles, and therefore especially engaged in their collection and receptive to research inquiries.  Lathrop’s relationship with Sheats  and Paydar resulted in their partnering on the exhibition African Modernism in America,  which opened in October 2022 at Fisk after five years of work and is in the middle of its four venue tour.  The exhibition and publication, which earned support from the Warhol Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, A&A’s Barr Ferree Foundation Fund, among other sources, examines the transcontinental networks that emerged between African artists and American patrons, artists, and cultural organizations in the 1950s and 1960s, amid independence movements in Africa, the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and the Cold War. “I’m really lucky to have been able to engage with this curatorial project at the same time as my dissertation,” she said. “The two informed each other in really productive ways.”

“Part of what is amazing about being able to do such dedicated research for your dissertation is the opportunity to spend time in various places and to meet different people. Sometimes those relationships lead to major projects.  Remaining open to the people you meet and maintaining relationships with those individuals is really important. It’s a key part of the work that we do.” – Perrin Lathrop

Opportunities available on Princeton’s campus were also beneficial. As a graduate intern at the Museum, for example, she built relationships with Museum staff that informed her present role.  And today, Lathrop looks forward to realizing her vision for the African art galleries when the new museum opens. “Installing is always an exciting moment because things that have been in your head actually enter into physical space,” she said.

To students considering concentrating in A&A, Lathrop says: “Even if you don’t go into museums or art history as a career, I think art history helps build so many critical thinking skills.  It really allows you to hone your ability to look closely at things, to read carefully, and to conduct research. Those are skills you need in life.”