But why persist then in characterizing these supposed divides or alignments between subject matter, methodology, and theory? Is it only to encourage us to definitively carve out a distinctive “field” for the contemporary; a field to be viewed as more “rigorous” (again, not my favorite term but one bandied about so much in these discussions), more methodologically advanced, politically astute, or theoretically sophisticated? It is a pity that as moderator Chika couldn’t engage in these discussions because I suspect he would have many important observations on these questions.
I realize now that my resistance to labeling a field had less to do with a fear of canonization and more to do with an aversion to erasing histories of scholarship, intellectual arguments that have had relevance to their particular historical junctures as well as our own moment, and visual pursuits that may appear “dated” but, again, require our careful attention. The “contemporary” need not be distinguished as “better than” what has come before (in scholarship or practice). Indeed, a recognition of these histories, with their political, ethical and methodological prejudices, shortcomings, or remarkable insights laid bare for us to now reflect upon, is critical if we are to inform our scholarship with the kind of subtleties, flexibility, and capaciousness we seek. (I’m thinking here, for example, of Rasheed Araeen’s upcoming Third Text issue on Negritude revisited but Okwui’s Short Century also played a similar role). It is crucial, I would argue, to teach of the many ways of producing narratives about art, tradition, innovation, modernity, modernism, and notions of the contemporary. And I don’t think limiting either our resources or our voices will be helpful in this regard.
Susan Vogel’s provocative response about the geographies of scholarship on contemporary art suggested an ongoing, underlying sense of unease about the politics of representation that have informed the field of African art studies. While she chose to characterize the silence of participants as reflective of some kind of communal disavowal, I would argue it suggested a rather refreshing pause to think through the implications of these charges of intimate outsiderism, especially in light of the globalized framework of the contemporary art world in which we now work. The true breadth of the conversations we now find ourselves in with our scholarship and the complexities of visual practice and intellectual arguments of contemporary artists from, of, and in Africa require such a pause. Okwui’s detailed response about being in and engaging with the world, about the specifics of diasporic senses of belonging to multiple communities, about institution-building, and about sustained, collaborative exchanges suggest less that the field has necessarily moved beyond concerns about whom has the right to speak and more about the means through which our intellectual pursuits today are informed by reflective histories of scholarship. In fact, my unease throughout this set of exchanges has been about what we are trying to prove and for whom. Is there a sense that our work must be legitimized by a skeptical academy or broader art world? Of course having spent time in both the conservative museum world and balkanized academy, I would argue that our commitments should be to the art, artists, and audiences—but of course we must continually define the latter and not expect to please or reach all of them all the time.
Our work is necessarily marked by both global, diasporic conversations and by their local faces and applications. Dominique’s wonderful descriptions of intellectual debate in Douala which reduce the academy to just one small part amongst many others of knowledge production, dissemination, and assessment could as easily be applied to scenes across the continent, each of which has its own pace, cadence, and interfaces with the global. These conversations, made through texts, visual practices, performances, social exchanges in courtyards, cafes and bars, do inform our work in a variety of important ways. How they reach our undergrads or graduate students depends a lot on our own engagements with these multiple discourses and the institutional frames to which we are beholden. They will vary, just as our scholarship does. I, like most of us, have never sought a textbook for teaching modern and contemporary arts (or “traditional” for that matter). I’ve attended various ACASA sessions about the need or possibility for one but always found them to be more concerned with either advancing particular careers or shutting down the freedoms of scholarly pursuits. If I use Visona, I teach against it. The lack of a text is liberating not debilitating. And it does allow us to draw on materials that represent the kind of polyvocality of which Dominique speaks.
One last comment on these proceedings has to do with divisions made between the art worlds in which we all operate to one degree or another. It seems curious to me that although we claim to seek polyvocality, interdisciplinary practices, collaborative exchanges and an engagement with the global, these discussions have nonetheless broken down into curators’ and academic roundtables, and mostly engaged those in highly privileged places. How would these discussions have differed were we to have engaged artists’ voices or those of dynamic curators such as Bisi Silva or N’Gone Fall?
- Elizabeth Harney, University of Toronto