“A man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body” Chinua Achebe, The Role of the Writer in a New Nation, 1964
As we near the end of this second decade of the new millennium, we also move further away from a decisive turning point in the conception, distribution and reception of African art, that is to say the end of the 1980s, a moment when the artistic scene witnessed the appearance of a plethora of initiatives engaging with contemporary African art. This period was simultaneously marked by the geopolitical reconfiguration that was the end of the Cold War, and in turn by a rupture with dominant cultural and social paradigms. While this chronology, punctuated by the oft-cited Magiciens de la terre exhibition and the creation of the indispensable Revue Noire and Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, allows us to navigate within the framework of widely accepted narratives, thirty years on the time has come to interrogate the art histories of Africa that provide a more complex, nuanced, legitimate and rich understanding of how the discipline should be approached today. 1992 saw the creation of the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, a significant initiative that in 2018 celebrated its thirteenth edition but which is also rooted in the legacy of the first World Festival of Black Arts that was held in 1966. This symposium aims to reconfigure the parameters and potential of art history in Africa, moving from theoretical discussion on the discipline to in depth studies by art historians using Dak’Art as a point of departure for a new African art history.
Since the first edition of Dak’Art in 1992, the invaluable place of art history in societal reflection has continued to expand, as humankind has produced and disseminated more images and visual narratives than all of cumulated human history to the present day, the African continent being no exception. As a result, if we consider that art is an architecture of the habitat, the representation and the interpretation of the philosophical, political and religious imagination of a society such as a spoken language, cuisine and a sartorial culture are, it becomes fundamental for any society to participate in its story in a continuous enterprise of self-writing, as theorised by thinker Achille Mbembe. Additionally, the proliferation and present dissemination of visual culture, aided by technology, means that the still unsuspected issues of the world cultural ballet must be taken into account more intensively and more alertly. History of art, despite the attempts to integrate it into the larger field of cultural studies, remains a crucial and unique subject for the analysis of our societies, in that its focal point is situated in the space of the imaginary. Art historians deliberately put themselves in contact with this invisible force that governs us all, a task that is proving to be ever more necessary given rampant visual production across the planet, the growth of extremist discourse and the emergence of new geopolitical fissures on a global scale. In order to better understand what we are facing and how we arrived at this point, art history can provide the necessary tools.
On the African continent there are a number of art history departments, but they are still few and far between, small in terms of material and human resources particularly relative to the demographic power of the continent’s 54 countries and often subsumed as modules of study under larger fine art courses. Moreover, it is important to remember the acute economic pressure in Africa that is pushing large numbers of young students to move into academic fields that seem more lucrative in the short term. This disciplinary exodus gravely threatens the future of art history and is impacting negatively on the production and critical analysis of artistic production by African artists, affecting the well- being of art and society in general. While more and more examples of hybrid forms emerging from the mix of art history, curatorial studies and arts administration are integrated into just as hybrid curricula hosted in the wide spectrum of "humanities", it is fundamental to consider whether this approach is sufficient. Is it enough to make room for examples of African art in the grand chronologies of academia or shouldn’t we rather encourage a complete reconstruction of existing art histories?
Indeed, the majority of current African art historical production coming from the continent is taking place outside of the academic sphere, emerging within a creative ecosystem that is in turn informing the discipline and rooting it in local practice. With this in mind, in order to gage an understanding of what a contemporary African art history, or histories may be, it is also important to take into account the ecosystem within which these histories grow and that spans art collectives, commercial galleries, fairs, biennales, independent exhibition making and cultural journalism. Today more and more initiatives are cognisant of their roles as both creators of artistic movements and active witnesses to practice, archiving in an often unique and innovative manner. These organisations and individuals build a bridge between artistic production and its inscription in art history, serving as models for beginning to renegotiate and renew the entire discipline. The urgency of approaching contemporary African art history from a spectrum of different practices that go beyond the academy emerges as a lynchpin of this Condition Report.
While remaining committed to enquiry into practice taking place on the African continent, it is nevertheless necessary to acknowledge the weight of European and North American scholarship on the discipline. The challenges and best practice for African art historical research have been hotly debated on the pages of academic journals such as African Arts, yet methodologies and epistemological frameworks for scholarship have yet to shed their historical West-centric frames of reference. The emergence of African art history as a discipline coincided with the development of areas studies and consolidation of anthropology. As the historiography of African art history demonstrates, the field has drawn its tools of inquiry from anthropology and area studies, two academic disciplines that were established in essence to facilitate the understanding of non-Western cultures for Western economic benefits and political advantage.
African art history as a result continues to be dominated by Western scholars who set the tone for the field. Their cultural frames of reference, which they cast as universal come to bear in the interpretation of African art, social conditions, and cultural milieu. What’s more, the knowledge produced in most academic institutions, academic presses, or independent presses outside of Africa communicate the extant system in place in those localities and reflect less on Africa. In other words, the audience for this type of knowledge production is not in Africa. In addition, much of the extant scholarship is based on field research that is obviously dated, conducted when the scholars were at their prime but not offering any caveat for the reader. The research therefore becomes misleading for readers, presented as if it is the current situation on the ground. There is also a contradiction born of this state of affairs; most contemporary Africans do not necessarily find themselves in what they are reading yet tend to hold this material as truth. This leads us to a number of key questions: To what extent does Africa have a say in the way it is produced and consumed? To what extent are the nuances of Africa as a thriving space conveyed in the knowledge produced about Africa that serve interests elsewhere, be it for academic promotion or intellectual legitimation? How does the circulation of objects inform or disrupt the ways in which artistic practice on the African continent is read and codified by competing stakeholders? What strategies and methodologies exist that are countering and rebelling against the dominance of a Western academic status quo? These are profound questions that will be examined during Condition Report 3.
These questions will be explored by a multi-disciplinary panel of art historians, artists, curators, critics and collectives whose innovative practice is reshaping the perceived parameters of the discipline. The keynote will be given by Salah Hassan and speakers will include Abdou Ba, Hamady Bocoum, Babacar Mbaye Diop, Ntone Edjabe, Elizabeth Giorgis, Paul Goodwin, El Hadj Malick Ndiaye, Peju Lawoyila, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Sean O'Toole, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Sylvain Sankale and Susana Souza. The city of Dakar will also feature as a protagonist, the symposium enquiring deeply into the histories of its locality and bringing these to the fore through site visits and a commitment to holding discussions in spaces that are the stages of new art histories.
Condition Report 3: Symposium on Art History in Africa
20 - 22 September 2018
Thursday 20 September:
Art History and Africa
Venue: Musée des Civilisations Noires
08:30 – 09:30 Registration and coffee
09:30 – 10:00 Welcome remarks & General orientation
Abdoulatif Coulibaly, Minister of Culture, Senegal
Thomas Wixler, Deputy Chief of Mission at German Embassy, Dakar
Koyo Kouoh, Founding Artistic Director RAW Material Company
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Curator, Cleveland Museum of Art
10:00 – 11:00
In and Out of Africa: African Art History as a Paradox!
Salah Hassan, Cornell University
This keynote lecture hopes to address the need for an innovative framework that is capable of critically unpacking the paradoxes of current and historical African art history, and to offer a critical analysis of not only contemporary African and African diasporic artistic production, but also the discipline of African art history in and out of Africa. In doing so, the importance of movement, mobility, and transiency will be asserted in addressing issues of contemporary African artistic, cultural and consequently knowledge production.
11:00 - 13:00
SESSION 1: 1992 – 2018 : Dak’art Biennale and bending the arc of art history
The opening session considers an arc of art history in which Dak’art plays a central role. During the twentieth century, Western interests in African art expanded, and exhibitions became the primary site of exchange for negotiating the value of African art. Scholars have suggested that the crystallization of contemporary art at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s resulted in a seismic change in the way in which art constitutes and addresses its viewer, and finds a parallel with other contemporary hegemonic configurations such as globalization and neo-liberalism. As the preeminent exhibitionary platform in Africa, Dak’Art provides a context to map the changes in the topography of contemporary African art since the 1990s. Its emancipatory vision and postcolonial discourse can serve as useful frameworks in writing a global art history from the continent’s perspective.
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Curator, Cleveland Museum of Art
Sean O’Toole, journalist, art critic and editor
Dominique Malaquais, Institut des Mondes Africains
Moderated by Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi
13:00 – 14:15 Lunch break
14:15 - 16:30
SESSION 2: LOCALIZING ART HISTORIES
The second session considers art histories that take into account national boundaries and sovereignty as frames of reference and locus of inquiry. The aim is to think beyond the meta-narrative or broad rubric that African art history suggests and to consider forms of art historical narratives that carry within them local memories and cultural experiences and national consciousness. In this regard, the panel examines specific trajectories of artistic production focusing on the countries of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Angola.
Peju Layiwola, University of Lagos
Elizabeth Giorgis, Addis Ababa University
Susana Souza, ISCTE-University Institut of Lisbon
Moderated by Ruth Simbao
17:30 - 19:00
SESSION 3: PENC, A SENEGALESE ART HISTORY
Venue: Village des Arts
Building on the previous session, this panel focuses on local Senegalese art history dominated by sweeping narratives of the institutionalized Negritude-inspired Ecole de Dakar and the iconoclastic Laboratoire Agit’Art that challenged it. Arguably, the two strands form the basis on which Senegalese art is canonized and written into art history. This panel thus asks: what are the other contending or competing narratives that are either ignored or suppressed ? How might they better provide a fuller or more compelling picture of Senegalese artistic modernism and contemporaneity?
Abdou Ba, Babacar Mbaye Diop, Zulu Mbaye, Abdou Sylla, Sylvain Sankale & artists of Village des Arts
Moderated by Massamba Mbaye
Friday 21 September:
Old and New; Praxis and Contexts
Venue: Musée des Civilisations Noires
9:00 – 09:30 Registration & Coffee
9:30 - 11:30
SESSION 4: HISTORY OF AFRICAN ART HISTORY
The challenges and best practice for African art historical research have been hotly debated on the pages of academic journals such as African Arts, yet methodologies and epistemological frameworks for scholarship have yet to shed their historical West-centric frames of reference. This panel examines the development of the field of African art history, tracing its colonial origins at the turn of the twentieth century, highlighting the various forces that have shaped it in more than a century, and examining the various criticisms that have plagued it as a field of knowledge that to all intents and purposes is yet to depart from its Western roots.
Yaëlle Biro, Metropolitan Museum
Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi, Emory University
Emi Koide, Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB)
Moderated by Dominique Malaquais
12:00 - 13:00
KEYNOTE 2: Korabra: Reflections on “returning”, curating and transnational African art histories
Paul Goodwin, Professor of Contemporary Art and Urbanism and Director of TrAIN Research Centre (Transnational Art, Identity and Nation), University of the Arts London
This paper will describe and analyse the curatorial intervention I led as part of the Black Artists and Modernism (BAM) project in re-presenting four of the original seven works by Gavin Jantjes’ Korabra series in an exhibition at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry in 2016. In particular the paper will discuss the notion of return embedded in the very idea of “Korabra” and in the works themselves. In thinking about this curatorial and research intervention as series of “returns” - to the art object, to the fundamentals of curating and to transnational art histories linking Africa and the diaspora - the paper will reflect on the opportunities and perils that can be identified as part of the process of returning. How do we return to the work of art? And what are the implications of this return for creating radical and “recalcitrant” forms of curatorial and art historical practice?
Respondant Dulcie Abrahams Altass
13:00 – 14:15 Lunch break
14:30 to 16:30
SESSION 5: Modalities of Art Historical Production
This panel session considers activities and platforms that are generating art historical content and theoretical frameworks that center Africa. It is the case that Africa is approached as a space of anomie to be studied and researched using analytical tools that are often forged elsewhere. This session thus examines independent initiatives upending or expanding conventional praxis of art history through methodologies and modalities that carry grounded experiences from around the continent as well as those that assume pan-African, intercontinental and international ramifications.
RAW Material Company, Eva Barois De Caevel
Center for Contemporary Art, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha
Chimurenga, Ntone Edjabe
Savvy Contemporary, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
Moderated by Koyo Kouoh
17:00 – 18:00
Musée des Civilisations Noires and Art History
Conversation between Hamady Bocoum and El Hadj Malick Ndiaye
Saturday 22 September:
Perspectives on Knowledge Making
09:00 – 10:30
SESSION 6: The IFAN MUSEUM and Senegalese art history
Venue: Musée de l’IFAN
A visit with curator El Hadj Malick Ndiaye
11:00 - 13:00
SESSION 7: Situating Africa as the Legitimizing Site of Knowledge Making
Venue: Musée des Civilisations Noires
The 1962 International Congress of African Cultures at the then Rhodes National Gallery (now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe), signaled a radical departure from the colonial style of representing African art as the spoils of the European conquerors, exemplified in colonial expositions which thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is arguable that the successes of ICAC and subsequent pan-African festivals and other cultural events in the early postcolonial period in situating Africa as a site of its own knowledge production and affirmation have not been sustained or replicated decades later. Yet, with the emergence of a fresh wave decolonial turn in the last few years globally, what are the emerging strategies that can help to best situate Africa as a legitimizing site for its own art historical knowledge production?
Ruth Simbao, Rhodes University
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, ANO, Accra, Ghana
Moderated by Paul Goodwin, Professor of Contemporary Art and Urbanism and Director of TrAIN Research Centre (Transnational Art, Identity and Nation), University of the Arts London
13:30 – 15:00 Lunch
15:00 – 17:00
SESSION 8: PLENARY
This session will recap the high points of debates and discourses that have emerged during the run of the symposium
- Paul Goodwin
- Salah Hassan
- Koyo Kouoh
- Peju Layiwola
- Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi