Resurfacing after three weeks of illness, I realize what a lot of discussion took place while I was in hospital. But one advantage of reading many contributions all at once is that it coalesces into a larger picture more easily than day-by-day reading allows. Initial impression: what a lot of verbiage! Quite a few of us in the roundtable seem to equate intellectual integrity with using as many words as possible to make a point. They are of course in good company: my initial PhD supervisor at SOAS (not John, his predecessor), an old school Oxonian, advised me to avoid too much clarity and conciseness and instead be sure my prose was learnedly esoteric, otherwise, people would think I didn’t know anything. (This also fits in nicely with many African notions of rhetorical skill where to speak well usually means to be able to elaborate a point elegantly and at length. I can confirm this from both public meetings in Idoma villages and University of Ibadan faculty meetings.)
The discussion about texts also invites comment. There are texts, which are ubiquitous and of many types, and then there are special things called “textbooks,” which in the USA are a part of undergraduate education especially in places where teaching is done mainly by generalists who are asked to cover several fields. I have never used textbooks, partly out of intellectual snobbery and partly because I have had the luxury of teaching in places abounding in specialists. I certainly didn’t write Contemporary African Art as a “textbook” (and no, Ikem, I don’t regret it in any way except in recognizing the natural obscelesence which overtakes anything called “contemporary”—obviously a moving horizon. I also regret that to fit the Thames and Hudson World of Art series, which are each about 200 pages, I had to eliminate one-third of the manuscript, on topics such as the ascendance of photography.) Because I’ve taught a course in contemporary African art at the undergraduate level for about twenty years, I had to develop a lot of my own lecture material back in the ‘nineties. The book is based on those, and was written to have something to use as background, never a stand-alone textbook, for my own students. I’m happy it has been useful to quite a few colleagues in their own classes- typically Africanists who specialize in earlier genres and have had to introduce contemporary ones due to student demand or their own increasing interest in them. But at every ACASA discussion I’ve attended, I’ve spoken against the textbook idea as a practical impossibility- there are 54 countries in Africa so a country survey is out of the question and even if not all-inclusive, it would be incredibly superficial, not to mention weighing in at Stokstad heft and costing nearly a hundred dollars.
Because I am interested in conceptual frameworks, I’d also like to say a bit about terminologies that we use to talk about African art. I steer clear of the “classical/contemporary” framework because it creates a nice distinction which does not exist in reality. The older genres, like masquerades, continue to thrive and are in a real sense also contemporary. Which brings me to the even older, and as Betsy says, tired “tradition/modernity” distinction. It has become a staple of postmodern discourse that tradition is a product of, not antecedent to, modernity. I agree with that. But before we decide to lay the concept of tradition to rest as of no interest, let me point out that globalization theory, for anthropologists of art such as Ferdinand De Jong, has given new life to what tradition and modernity might mean. De Jong’s book Masquerades of Modernity: Power and Secrecy in Casamance, Senegal argues, following Appadurai in Modernity at Large, that globalization is fully capable of modernizing the most traditional of practices. His example is secrecy and initiatory knowledge acquired in the sacred forests of Casamance, but carried by labor migration to Dakar and even to Paris, and back to Casamance by returning migrants. The most interesting example of this is the Mandinka Kankurang masquerade, whose prototype was first described in 1738 as Francis Moore’s “Mumbo Jumbo,” still going strong but also transformed by its migratory journeys, commodified, and turned into a very modern practice employed as part of le politique , politics writ large, in both Casamance and the Senegalese state.
The last of these conceptual frameworks is postcoloniality, which for me is steadily losing its explanatory power. Whether construed as “after” or “against” the colonial, a concept that had energy and verve in the late seventies and eighties began to flatten out in the nineties and now is simply taken as an all-purpose descriptor. Part of the reason for this is the ever-receding memory of the colonial experience, which is only close at hand in a few countries such as South Africa. Aside from in SA, very few artists active today were ever colonial subjects except perhaps in their toddlerhood, which transposes the notion of colonial hegemony to an imagined experience.
It was given a transfusion by Achille Mbembe (1992) in the concept of the postcolony, which acts as a place marker for the postcolonial condition but can’t keep it alive in the domain of expressive culture as easily as in politics. When one examines the postcolonial more closely, for example in the Postcolonial Encounters series published by Zed Books, particularly Richard Werbner’s excellent edited collections on postcolonial identities and postcolonial subjectivities, one sees that the keywords are uncertainty, ambivalence and contingency. While these terms fit what continues to be described as postcolonial subjectivity, they are very, very capacious, and could also be used to describe the experience of being a colonized subject (in fact they also describe much of the tenor of this discussion roundtable). In African art discourse, the postcolonial has pretty much been edged out by globalism discourse on diaspora and migration, which is both energizing and itself problematic—but that’s another discussion.
-Sidney Kasfir, Emory University