I had a terrible suspicion at the onset that our roundtable will leave more questions and unresolved passages than answers. But I equally suspect that we have indeed achieved something significant in this month-long discussion. Yes, Betsy, I missed playing the part of a panelist, which would have allowed me to join the fray more directly, although I have also enjoyed being the passive moderator. If I am more convinced about one thing, following some of our comments, it is the importance of channels and platforms for active exchange of ideas, information and materials between (visual and textual) knowledge producers and mediators inside and outside Africa. For the relative dearth of intercontinental discursive transactions is responsible for the often radically different states of contemporary African art studies inside and outside Africa. How to ameliorate this remains, I think, one of the biggest challenges facing the scholarship.
Once again, thank you all for being part of this event. I also thank Jessica Lucas, the Duke University Press blog editor for making this public platform available to us.
I have a few final comments to make about our discussions and in response to Chika’s last questions. First, I have been struck by the continual concern embedded in the questions about linkages between studies of and methodologies connected to “traditional” or “classical” arts and the contemporary (I dislike these terms but acknowledge their use within the broader historiography of the discipline). As Steven noted at a very early stage in these proceedings, this focus seems of limited interest to the majority of participants in the roundtable. It is a “battle,” so to speak that seems distracting rather than productive. I am so thankful to Sidney for mentioning Ferdinand de Jong’s work and one could mention others whose focus may lie with studying longstanding visual practices in innovative and highly contemporary ways—in other words, subject matter does not have to align with methodological or theoretical models (nor do we always have to dismiss earlier working models, only shoddy ones). Some of the best discussions I have about diaspora occur with my medievalist colleagues. Let’s resist incorporating Fred Lamp’s myopic projections of traumatic shifts in “the field” that focus on loss of authentic fieldwork or in-depth scholarship to the supposed allure of chic (often diasporic) contemporary.
Several points on several points – belatedly, for which i apologize (these past 10 days have taken me to so many places, i’m afraid i’m in that thoroughly silly space where you wake up and have to wrack your brain to remember what city you’re in …)
On the matter of pedagogical materials. In some 20 years of teaching, like most of us i have given courses at various levels. For my money – and in this i know i am not alone – the most demanding classes are the ones dispensed to undergraduates. Doctoral seminars may be more fun, and when the students are good they can be quite intense, but in the end there is nothing more challenging than getting across the fundamentals to young people engaging for the first time with a subject. When one happens to care deeply about the subject, it can be positively daunting. There’s no hiding behind big words (grins, Sidney). You can’t just say “postcolonial” – or “modern” or “contemporary” or, for the matter, “art” – and least of all “Africa.” Not if the undergrads in question are even remotely serious. Because they will call you to task. Definitions will be demanded and, if the class (or teaching generally) matters at all to you, you’re going to have to come up with some damn good ones.
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.)
I too write late, but I hope we all understand that this has no connection to the interesting exercise these exchanges have, indeed, been. The limitations of the format are unsettling don’t you all think? This fact has returned to me again and again as I try to grapple with its flow. When compiled, it will read as if it were a conversation (one of those transcripts we have lately become used to). However, in the intervals that pass between posts, and in their irregular appearances, surely something is absent of the immediate dialogue for which it could, again as text on a page, be misunderstood. The challenge for Nka will be how to somehow visually time-stamp the ebb and flow, so that its particular artificiality might somehow be accessed by a keen reader. Enjoyable though our virtualities have been, and surely only a beginning of sorts, it would have been far more spirited, and suitably contentious even, had we actually been bodied round much more than a table. Its particular status as a kind of performance should not be forgotten. (Bear with me a moment, for this does have a relevance to the questino of textbooks and canons).
I find Colin's suggestion of a data base an excellent idea especially in the light of our discussion about the manifold imbalances and asymmetries which shape the “field.” So to have open access to such a data base would be a big step forward to level the imbalances. Needless to say, such a move requires some funding and a proper structure/institutional home to maintain and update the site/databank. I assume there also copyright issues. Yet it seems such an obvious move, was it ever discussed within ACASA? Perhaps its even part of Okwui’s initiatives he referred to in his previous post?
I've been away for a week and already I'm having a hard time catching up. On the question of a textbook, there wasn't one I could use, nor would I have recommended such a thing. Even if someone had achieved the near impossible task and bring out a generally satisfactory book on the subject I'd not have recommend it as an overall guide. The problem with recommending a textbook, or of preparing one's own reader, were that the chances were that that's all a student would read. Of course, I write this with the luxury of having had soas library available to my students; but it's not the only comprehensive library around and it didn't have everything (it doesn't have Magiciens de la terre for example: in fact my copy is the only one I know of 'in captivity' in the UK - but perhaps given the misjudgements it spawned perhaps that's just as well!).
I remember well at least one intense discussion re: a ‘textbook’. Like Chika, I was very uncomfortable with this notion for all sorts of reasons. I still am. My experience has been that there is valuable work in our field but it tends to be scattered and submerged. I recognised the difficulty of getting material, and would think one solution is a single data base which archives the material (visual and written) which we know about in our different locations. The technology for this is certainly not an obstacle. Ideally some of this material could be collected and published in anthologies, with good introductions to sections (one kind of structure) and perhaps summing up (after each section) which will help those of us who teach and want to learn.
There are a few ideas I am hoping we would consider as we conclude this historic conversation. The first has to do with the materials we use for teaching courses in contemporary African art. What sorts of resources do we have at our disposal? I ask this because, often, colleagues wishing to develop courses in the field often complain about scarcity of published sources and visual materials. Is it that people are just lazy to find the materials or does this speak to a familiar reality? I remember a few years back, there was intense movement in some quarters to develop a text book for teaching modern/contemporary African art (which I thought was a wrongheaded thing to do at this point in the life of our discipline), but it seems the supporters of the text book project were ostensibly trying to provide solution to the problem of teaching resources for the field. Does anyone have any thoughts on these issues.
If I may respond quickly to Okwui's points about South Africa. This may be too particular and sectional, but here goes.
There is much to support in what I read as a debate about South Africa's 'exceptionalism' in almost any terms. Idealisation of the 'miracle' that allegedly happened here - indeed the very language of the 'miracle' - has not helped us much. It has obscured some intractably painful facts of history which are still playing out with a vengeance. The gap between the heady, even utopian promise of 1994 and the reality of (now) 2009 is alarming. An ongoing sense of struggle and crisis conditions much of my experience certainly, and I hope this has been clearer in what I have tried to contribute here than any sense of hubris or business finished of any kind. It is also alarming to try and reconcile my instincts and more public disposition with Okwui's comments about the sub-human. I cannot but support Okwui's parenthetical injunction here, but do not know how we got to that point. But perhaps that's a function of trying to communicate in this way. Too general, tone is difficult to assess etc.