Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest Edited by Kendell Geers.

LEFT: Kuba Ndop, made as a gift for the Danish mercenary. Images courtesy of Emory University Visual Resource Library. RIGHT: Kuba Ndop, the “old” king figure of which there are fewer than ten in existence. Images courtesy of Emory University Visual Resource Library.

The original and longer version of this argument was made in an invited plenary paper for the Deutsche Gesellschaft Volkerkunde Conference on Globalisation in Göttingen, 7-10 Oct. 2001, and later published in German.1 My aim here is to revisit the same issue fifteen years later and see what has changed, and what has remained the same. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the points made then remain live issues today.

There have been breakthroughs, mainly by a handful of individual artists who have achieved “global” art market recognition while remaining resident in Africa, and the issue of claiming an African artistic identity or not has become instrumental as well as ideological, in response to art market forces.

The global art market, swollen dramatically by new art fairs, biennials and auction houses, has become much larger than in 2001, making its operating rules a constant challenge to plot and follow. For example, Sotheby’s  just announced  that it was opening a new department of “modern and contemporary African art” in its London offices early in 2017 in response to increasing demand.2 There are now far more biennials both in and out of Africa. What I attempt here is a revisited version of the original issues, brought up to date and more fully explored.

Flow, Fixity and Local Difference

By far the most important outcome of localised studies of global ebbs and flows has been the somewhat unexpected result of persistent local differences3 – unexpected because of McLuhan’s (1964) widely accepted prediction of cultural homogenisation through the spread of Western media – the so-called global village, which we all awaited with a mixture of horror and fascination but which hasn’t really transpired. One explanation is that perhaps, as Clifford Geertz4 suggested, cosmopolitanism and parochialism are no longer opposing tendencies: as one increases, so does the other. Whether one labels it cosmopolitanism versus parochialism or simply “persistent local difference” in the face of globalising tendencies, the question is how (and how much) this observation applies to the artworld: that is, to artists, their practices, and the reception and consumption of their work. Despite its conceptual sponginess, a substantial number of anthropologists, art historians and cultural critics have now chosen to engage with globalisation discourse, often in the more limited “South-North” framework which focuses on the African and Latin American “South” in opposition to the North American and European “North.”

To begin to answer this question of persistent local difference, the longer version of this paper reviewed three current theoretical positions with regard to globalisation processes and the arts (in the broader sense of not just artifact but also embodiment and performance). The first was the fine-tuning of the creolisation concept,5 the second was the dialectic of global flow and local closure,6 and the third and most useful for the artworld, was the interrelationship of discourse and the globalising market.7 Here I will focus on the third question. My examples throughout will be drawn from African and Australian Aboriginal art, though the same framework might also be useful for discussing Western art practices.

One has to begin by questioning the typical models which were used initially by world system theorists and development economists, in which the vectors of capitalism and modernity travel resolutely from centres to peripheries, in the style of say, the Roman Empire and its outposts in the late classical world. Culture and capital have travelled these routes for as long as imperialism has been around, but the twin problems of reception and reciprocity, both crucial aspects of localising global influences, are both nuanced and unpredictable in the case of expressive culture. Furthermore, we now understand that commodities and their institutional structures don’t simply travel in a unidirectional flow whose result is emulation, or selective adaptation by the peripheral, marginal or colonized population. There is also what Bruce Knauft (2001) called “mimetic rebound” in which the periphery reinvents and kicks back a different version of what it received.

One older model of transnational flows which still has currency among anthropologists and diaspora historians is that of creolisation. In Ulf Hannerz’s classic (1987) version, the world will always be a continuum of different local creoles rather than moving toward some global, homogeneous mass culture. The term creole itself has had the greatest popularity in the study of diasporas such as the African Caribbean, where it was originally applied to the creation of new languages and communities of speakers resulting from the forced migrations of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation culture. By extension it became a cultural model as well, the results of the encounter between two or more historically and spatially diverse elements (1997:14), so that one can speak of Afro-Caribbean festivals as sites of creolisation in which elements of African initiation societies, American beauty contests and Hollywood films converge and are reinvented in a local performative idiom. A world in constant creolisation is an attractive idea not least because it undercuts the notions of passive acceptance or victimhood presumed by the antiglobalisation critics and restores creative agency on all sides.8

At the same time, creolisation is open to the criticism that it can too easily be reduced to a binary contrast between the “indigenous” and “exogenous” components of any cultural form (and by implication, a deeply rooted versus a more superficial component), a point made by Karin Barber and Chris Waterman in their study of the Yoruba popular music genre known as fuji (1995). What seems clear is that creolisation as a cultural model works most successfully in the study of popular and easily commodifiable forms, and nothing could outstrip popular music in that regard.

The move from popular culture genres to those supported by transnational tourism is primarily a change in consumption patterns and the directions in which commodities travel. Here the patronage system, as well as the catalogue of images, is truly global: the late Native American anthropologist Michael Dorris once took a vacation trip to Fiji where he found the most popular airport souvenir to be toy monkeys wearing American Plains Indian feather headdresses and wielding tiny tomahawks, a kind of double trope of the primitive. The artists involved in the production of such souvenirs are from the same economic stratum as the purveyors of popular cultural forms for local audiences, which is an urban or town-based worker class. The important point about that is that they share a certain consciousness or subjectivity. Unlike elite artists trained in universities and professional art schools, they do not see art-making as a form of self-realisation, but basically as straightforward artisanal work. They do not suffer pangs of guilt, as an artist-intellectual would, over producing commodities for their perceived market niche. And as such they fit much more easily into a market-driven global cultural flow.

Many souvenirs can be described as creolised forms, which are extensions of older traditional genres. For example the small workshop of Lega sculptors from D.R. Congo who live as political and economic migrants in Kampala, Uganda have successfully tapped into the limited tourist market there and the much larger one a few hundred miles away in Nairobi. They have maximised their options, as Americans like to say, by producing both the small masks and figurines formerly used by the Lega Bwami association in their graded initiation levels, in other words an extension of a once localised practice to include a non-local clientele, and by domesticating a genre of souvenir carved chests and chairs which can be found in many African workshops and cooperatives across the continent.9

These newer furniture genres, as Argenti has pointed out for Cameroon, are just as often purchased by local nontraditional elites – affluent businessmen and the like – rather than tourists, who often find them too large or heavy to transport. This local patronage is true in varying degrees for almost all objects misleadingly called tourist art. The souvenir, from the Latin subvenire, to come into the mind, not only functions as a mnemonic to remind the traveller of where she has been. It works equally well as a validation of “heritage” for a more cosmopolitan African either locally or working far from home.

Popular culture, like globalisation itself, is often described as unbounded, emergent, contingent, multivalent. In that sense it is in constant interaction with a localised habitus, the system of bounded habitual practices. This ebb and flow of newness against the shores of the known and accepted (themselves constantly eroded and piled up) has been described as alternating patterns of flow and closure, which represents a second theoretical choice beyond the fine-tuning of creolisation theory. The flow and closure (or flux and fixity) model of Meyer and Gerschiere to which I am referring was specifically constructed to deal with the issue of identity and the boundaries it imposes at any moment in time.

If one were to transfer it to the question of artistic practice, the most obvious example of a dialectic between flux and fixity is the tension between the independence of the artist and the operating rules of the artworld, very broadly defined to include both the market and institutions, most of which are controlled by Western aesthetics and capital. While elite artists often try to keep these controls at arm’s length, those producing in workshops and cooperatives are more accepting of the fluctuations beyond their boundaries. But in Africa, both groups are subject to the precariousness of their own locality and the constant flux in what is possible and what isn’t. This year, the Ford Foundation or the Goethe Institute might intervene with money for some new cultural event or project. But in lean years, civil war years, drought years, or during major corruption shakedowns, everything in the way of financial or political support for the arts can dry up overnight. Even within a so-called economic periphery, flux and fixity are locally, as well as globally, generated.

Descriptions of popular cultural forms, from soap operas to sapeurs, can be packaged easily with the assumptions which surround globalisation processes, but what about elite or “high” art, the mainstay of galleries and fine art museums? Distinctions between international processes and global ones come into play when considering high art, but also can be problematised. A biennale, for example, frequently qualifies as an elite international event in which representation is typically framed within the context of national identity since following the world fair prototype, there are often national pavilions. Furthermore, artists are usually selected by an elite cadre of curators whose choices exercise their current hegemony over the field. Those who don’t like it need not apply. Beyond this, it is considerably easier for an elite artist, with a passport, a bank account and various paper qualifications, not to mention fluency in an international language, to leave the country of origin and become a transnational. Whether a political exile or simply a hopeful looking for a chance to be discovered, transnational artists are usually well educated members of the intelligentsia in their home countries. All of these facts  tend to support the idea that elite art follows a different trajectory than popular and tourist production. One the other hand, we’ve just seen that in poorer countries, elite artists are in fact subject to many of the same economic uncertainties of patronage as those who peddle their work in the streets and markets. And as members of a small and highly visible intelligentsia, they are more often the victims of political harassment than their counterparts involved with tourism or popular consumption. Ultimately then, the pairing of elite art with international power structures and cultural institutions, and popular or mass culture with less hegemonic global flows doesn’t hold up as a generalisation, at least not in the African context.

I turn now to the third genre which is defined by elite consumption. Precolonial African sculpture, once the property of kings, lineages and regulatory associations, became a successfully globalised artworld commodity as so-called “primitive art.” However, its market value, paradoxically, depends on its not  having been commodified by intention but as it were, accidentally, by theft or other unplanned occurrence. Looking at the discourse used to market such work illustrates how a dialectic of flow and closure operates in the context of highly-valued artifacts. Since such objects are in an ever diminishing supply in relation to demand, art auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s have been forced in recent years to raise up the virtues of pieces which may have been made for a nontraditional patron, but a long time ago, before such work became “formulaic.” Emphasis is instead placed upon its age and positionality, i.e., the fact that it coexisted with the truly authentic pieces with known provenance.

A classic example of these practices could be found in Christie’s catalogue for the McCarty-Cooper sale, May 1992 in New York (lot #156, “a fine Kuba figure of a king, ndop, 29” or 74 cm – $10,000-20,000). The Kuba ndop, portraits of Central African kings, are a flawless test case for how the rhetoric of the international art market is constructed. Marshalling the best authorities, the text first cites distinguished scholar Frans Olbrechts, author of Plastiek van Kongo, and then quotes extensively from a long and convincing letter written by Albert Maesen of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren.

In essence, the figure is admitted to have been made for gift-giving to foreigners, a practice which had started with the “real” Kuba king figures twenty years earlier. A few facts are needed here to understand Christie’s discursive strategy: the three great early collections of Kuba art are from Sheppard, Frobenius and Torday. In 1892 the African American missionary William Sheppard  saw four ndop  figures in the king’s council room (the first outsider to see them). Leo Frobenius visited in 1905, and Emile Torday in 1908. Torday saw five ndop and collected four of them (three now in the British Museum and one in Tervuren). The fifth may be the one now in the Brooklyn Museum.10 The whereabouts of the “genuine” figures is therefore well established, which leaves very little room for manoeuvring on the part of the London and New York sale rooms.

So instead, the fullness of the documentation and the representation of this particular figure as an art-historical “turning point” substitutes for its having been actually owned by a Kuba king. The catalogue narrative begins with King Kwete who in 1913 presented a statue of himself to a Danish mercenary which seemed to be in a new style, “at a time that the prohibition on making likenesses of the king was falling into disuse.” This new style seems to have set a pattern for the effigies which followed it (in considerable numbers) and which were made on commission for expatriates rather than for the king or the court. The Christie’s piece is thus claimed to have set the pattern of this “new style,” whose crossed legs are more visibly articulated and whose body is more slender and elongated, though the iconography is still within the established canon for kings’ portraits.

What the auction catalogue establishes so clearly is the close relationship between “art discourse” and the successful marketing of art commodities. In my concluding examples, which illustrate the issues surrounding postcolonial or contemporary art, I return to this question of discourse and the globalised art market.11

The fullest consideration of art discourse and the expanded global market has been developed not by Africanist scholars but by anthropologists Fred Myers (1991) and Howard Morphy (1995) in relation to Australian Aboriginal acrylic painting. This body of work, like that of the San Bushmen artists in Botswana and South Africa, is perceived on the global art circuit as an interstitial category, not “primitive art” but nonetheless drawing upon its connections to a “deep past” for its validation.

Morphy pointed out that to gain art market acceptance as “primitive art” ( which was the only market category open to Aboriginal artists until very recently), work is expected to be by anonymous, dead artists and from a culture which has “disappeared” due to the rupture of colonialism or other hegemonic change. “True primitive art” is also, as we’ve seen for the Kuba ndop, supposed to have been made for a local use and not for exhibition or sale to strangers. Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art violates all three requirements, in that it is made by known individuals under postcolonial conditions and is meant to be judged for its aesthetic qualities and not as objects of ritual efficacy. Therefore, he argues, the promoters of this art had to effect a subtle shift in the discourse about what is authentic Aboriginal art. Somehow, they had to expand the market niche for authentic Aboriginal art to include work that wasn’t “primitive” in the accepted market sense. Morphy’s other point about “primitive art” is that, as we’ve also seen for Kuba ndop, there is supposed to be a diminishing supply, so that the market niche is self-limiting in the same way that the work of a Western artist produces a limited oeuvre which terminates with the end of the artist’s career and becomes increasingly scarce thereafter, thereby increasing its value to collectors.

Here we reach the nub of the problem: the work by a named, living artist resists any “tribal” identity since the art market defines that as anonymous art made in the past. If ethnicity is brought into the discussion, it must be invoked as “cultural background” and co-existent with the artist’s individual subjectivity, a finessing process which has affected contemporary Native American as well as African and Aboriginal artists and which the organisers of the exhibition ‘Dreamings’ were able to carry off successfully.12 This show, which opened first in Australia in 1988, was then taken to New York where it succeeded in representing contemporary Aboriginal art as the work of individual named artists while at the same time stressing its connectedness to the idea of the sacred in the Aboriginal worldview.

Two strategic moves made this a possibility. First, the organisers excluded academically-trained artists, so that the show was not really representative of the diversity of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, but focused instead on artists who were ostensibly “in touch with” their ancestral past (hence the title ‘Dreamings’) despite the fact that these were acrylic paintings and not objects of ritual. Second, I would add that by making the exhibition venue the Asia Society rather than say, the American Museum of Natural History, its “fine art” rather than its “ethnographic” aspect was emphasised. These two choices were crucial in affecting the global (i.e, New York) reception of the work, because unlike the Australian audience, the New York audience lacked any detailed knowledge of the history and cultural context of the work. Therefore the catalogue, the publicity and the installation strategy all became powerful tools in influencing the Western discourse which until then had not represented this kind of cultural production as “fine art” for the reasons I’ve just outlined.

Morphy’s larger point was that exhibitions, especially big-budget blockbuster shows which will travel and be seen by many people, create an important connection between discourse and the market.

A successful major exhibition can even move a category of art to another “slot” in the market system, as happened with ‘Dreamings’. Yet we are still left with the fact that art from  non-Western countries tends to be marginalised in artworld terms: artists or groups of artists can be very important locally or even nationally without participating in a global discourse or market at all.

The transformation in their reputations from local to global requires an act of cultural brokerage by someone with connections to the institutionalised artworld of museums, influential galleries, well-financed residencies or periodic extravaganzas such as biennales. This broker can be a dealer, trader, curator, artist or collector, and occasionally none of these, just somebody well-positioned to “make things happen.” The actual change is a cultural re-mapping exercise and can be effected several ways: exhibitions or workshops beyond the artist’s locality, trading activity, commissions and competitions (and here the ex-colonial centres and peripheries are still the pipelines through which commodities move) and even tourism as a form of collecting.

For the past twenty years, Okwui Enwezor, a brilliant, essentially self-made Nigeria-born critic and curator, has been arguably the most influential culture broker on the African contemporary art scene. He was artistic director of the controversial 1997 Johannesburg Biennale and then produced the highly ambitious postcolonial exhibition ‘Short Century’ in Munich which travelled to Chicago and then New York in 2001. He was also the artistic director of the 2002 ‘Documenta’ in Kassel, the first African to be so invited, and in 2015 of the 56th Venice Biennale. Enwezor’s style of discourse is positioned to stress the work of academically trained artist-intellectuals, in direct contrast with the older European discourse of neoprimitivism made widespread by writers such as  Jacques Soulillou and Andre Magnin in the 1990s, which ostensibly recognises in the untrained or informally trained African artist the legitimate heir to “authentic primitive art” and sees the academically trained artist as an emulator of Western avant-garde or mainstream practice, and therefore no longer recognisably “African.”13

Ironically many transnational African artists, especially of the younger generation, would, until recently, readily agree with the “we’re not African” half of this description, seeing it as a sign of progress in their globalising. Once an artist’s work and public persona have been remapped onto a more cosmopolitan arena and its accompanying discourse, they undergo a process of deterritorialisation. But this is actually a calculated risk because the institutionalised artworld, museums in particular, are invested in collecting from specific cultural areas, and an artist risks falling through the cracks by shrugging off an older identity which had a place in the system of collecting. Part of the great critical success of ‘Dreamings’ lay in the fact that the artists were NOT “transnational,” and on the contrary, were perceived by the art public as firmly attached to their ancestral identities. It serves as a useful reminder that an art form can be successfully globalised and modernised without becoming transnational in its actual practice. The second point, about the risks of leaving behind an African identity in favour of being “just an artist” within the wider global artworld, has begun to make itself felt as transnational artists struggle to make themselves visible in a much larger sea of competitors. This has caused a certain amount of rethinking amongst those who were quickest to downplay their African identity, so that it is becoming  more acceptable to embrace it as one ingredient in a complex mix.14

I wish to return once more to Morphy’s point about the power of major exhibitions to reshape discourse, and conclude by remarking very briefly on a few art exhibitions which have managed to do this. If ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ (Pompidou: 1989) could be seen as paradigmatic of the neoprimitivism discourse and how consistently successful it has been in France, the oppositional discourse to this (that of the artist as a modern intellectual, aware of the world) was first effectively presented in London, 1995, with the ‘Seven Stories (about Modern Art in Africa)’  exhibition. The various “stories” were celebrations of (Appadurai would say productions of) locality, narratives of how modernism was reconfigured in various ways with local practices of artmaking in Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal and elsewhere.

Both of these shows, while poles apart in their treatment of the artist (as conjuror, as modernist) were reaching for artistic diversity which was expressed in terms of origins. Despite its assumptions of universality, the catalog for ‘Magiciens’ featured for each entry a small logo of the globe with the artist’s country marked on it, while ‘Seven Stories’ was divided into “stories” from Nigeria, Uganda and so on. In contrast to them, i.e, much more ostensibly globalised and diasporised, were two exhibitions (both circulated by the Fowler Museum at UCLA) based in easily commodified, yet “traditional” African forms – beads and cloth. ‘Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe’ (1997) attempted to diasporise Yoruba culture through the use of beadwork, presenting a series of localities from Brazil to Brooklyn linked by the Atlantic slave trade and subsequent migrations. The American curators, Henry John Drewal and John Mason, were careful to establish a frame of reference in the West African Yoruba homeland before juxtaposing the diasporised versions of such forms as altars dedicated to the orisa, thereby establishing a network of legitimating connections which were then called into play in various diasporic communities. In a parallel, but more radical fashion the travelling exhibition ‘Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity’ (1998) began with kente cloth traditions among the Asante and Ewe in West Africa and then exhibited the various ways it has been, in curator Doran Ross’s words, “democratised” from an exclusive body covering reserved for kings and courtiers to a mass-produced symbol of Ghanaian identity and finally in the USA, African American “heritage” found in commodified forms such as greeting cards, dolls and items of factory-produced clothing. Even more than the beadwork exhibition, the kente show emphasised the transformation of kente into a popular culture idiom to deliver its message, and is a prime example of a blockbuster exhibition generating its own powerful discourse about diasporisation and creolisation. It also pushed the envelope of what it is permissible to exhibit in an elite venue such as an art museum. By producing a dialectic between the handmade and the mass-produced, the “authentic” and “questionable”, Ross turned the temple-of-culture image of the museum neatly on its head. It is also safe to predict that the exhibition affected the market for kente and its variants as commodities in the cities it visited, since the show was designed to include a local section on kente products in each venue.

The question these shows raise is how to theorise exhibitions in relation to discourse and the market, since exhibitions are obviously more than just discursive strategies. I would argue that what is left unspecified in Morphy’s model is the third factor of practice, which is clearly affected by both discourse and the market but which also affects both in return. Exhibitionary practice and artistic practice, though different, can be easily linked to both discourse and market. For example, the practice of curio-making creates both a market (tourism and mall-shoppers) and various discourses about this practice, but is also structured by both. Or, Chris Ofili’s practice which included the incorporation of elephant dung into a painting of the Virgin Mary, and the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibitionary practice which not only admitted, but aggrandised upon, its controversial nature by posting warning signs to visitors, worked together to create a very extensive public and academic discourse about its propriety, in turn driving up the Museum’s attendance numbers for 1999 and the market value of Ofili’s work.15

I’ll end with one final example to demonstrate that practice is the linchpin not only between discourse and the market, but also between flow and fixity when applied to the artworld. A powerful (influential) local practice can overshadow or even preclude the entry of an imported one without the intervention of an equally powerful form of cultural brokerage. A very good example of this is the popularity of video and installation techniques in Western contemporary practice (the media of choice in the aforementioned 2002 ‘Documenta’) and their slowness to penetrate most African localities.16 In essence, they have made inroads primarily in those countries who have artists well-connected with the international artworld through events such as biennales. And even in those countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal etc.) it is primarily a cadre of “artists who travel” that have adopted video or installation techniques in preference to painting or sculpture. Two examples will suffice here: when Ugandan sculptor Rose Kirumira analysed the 2005 Thupelo Triangle Workshop in Cape Town for the self-identification of the participants, 23 out of 30 identified as painters, despite the fact that most came from South Africa, a major art-producing market.17 Conversely, when another well-travelled Ugandan, Kizito Kasule, exhibited three installation pieces in Kampala in 2006 after a MA residency in Ireland where he had become familiar with the medium, puzzled gallery goers were polite but skeptical as they circled the works, exhibition notes in hand.18

One piece, a pit of charcoal with a small fire smouldering in the centre, likened fractious multiparty politics in Uganda to pieces of charcoal in a sack and invoked the fear that it would once again be engulfed in flames… A second was a visual joke: a huge heap of garbage called Please Mr Mayor displayed the ineffectiveness of political promises to “clean up” the city. The third, a thick carpet of leaves, referred to the endangered Mabira Forest, a large stretch of mahogany forest being cut down for export, but also the place where bodies were thrown during the days of ethnic and political killings, which gives it the aura of a mass grave being disturbed.

It is therefore worth looking further at why easel painting in particular has had such resilience in postcolonial African art in the face of a transnational practice which pronounces it as anachronistic. One reason is that the pictorial medium has the capacity to carry a narrative load like its counterpart, the African novel. Another is that pictorial narrative is more accessible to a wide audience and unlike in the West, the notion of an encoded art intelligible only to a few has never had wide currency. But a third and more powerful reason is that in Africa, easel painting as a nontraditional practice is closely associated with the expression of modernity. It therefore has an important historical role in the production of colonial and postcolonial narratives. And because modernity is always expressed and mediated locally, easel painting therefore comes to occupy a crucial place in the production of a modern African identity. Despite the fact that it came from somewhere else, easel painting is now seen as “African” while installation art is still mostly foreign.

Robin Nganjmirra (Australia), Crocodile Dreaming, 1988. Image courtesy of Emory University Visual Resource Library

Leaving aside the often facile pronouncements from the blogosphere, how extensively globalised is the artworld (by which I mean the whole system of practice, exhibition, consumption and their related discourses)? Unless we accept Saskia Sassen’s proviso that globalisation is always an incomplete project,19 which adds to the concept’s academic rigour and at the same time detracts from its analytical usefulness, one would have to say that  the elite artworld, as opposed to the popular or tourist version, is still not nearly as globalised as curators and critics would like it to be. In the spectrum of elements I just mentioned as comprising an artworld – practice, exhibition, consumption, discourse – actual art practice is the least globalised because it is most heavily invested with local meanings and structures, and art discourse is probably the most global, though even discourse is greatly hampered by the unevenness of Third World infrastructures and their effects on the availability of books, catalogues and journals.

In a similar way, if one looks at the travelling blockbuster exhibition circuit, it resembles the airline route maps tucked into one’s seat pocket on international flights, trans-Atlantic and with lots of routes within Europe or North America, but hardly global. Even the consumption of African art, which is more globalised than artistic or exhibitionary practice, follows a restricted route map, which originates in and still traces the colonial pipelines of people and goods from colony to metropole. To invoke Geertz again, the cultural patterns I am describing are far from either a “global village” or “borderless capitalism.”

Everyone who writes about globalisation agrees that mobility and movement are the sine qua non for understanding how it works, but there are at least three different kinds of movement – that of people, goods or technology, and ideas – and in the realm of expressive culture it is important to realise how distinctive they may be from one another. For example, while a transnational artist is likely to possess a good measure of cosmopolitanism as a result of lived experience, art which circulates on the international exhibition circuit need not be cosmopolitan at all. Quite the contrary, it is more common to circulate exhibitions whose content is clearly tied to a very specific period of art history or a distinctive locality, ‘Masterpieces of French Impressionism’ or ‘2000 Years of Nigerian Art;’ or once again, the Australian ‘Dreamings’ exhibition. Following Sassen, we might argue that “global” is really the wrong word for what happens on the exhibition circuit since “selective transnational movement” is not global in the sense of either world-wide or all-encompassing. And it emphatically does not describe the resistance of many African artist-intellectuals to Western practices and conceptual strategies.

At the same time, one is forced to say this at a time when the prevailing intellectual climate supports the opposite conclusion, namely that high culture and mass culture are subject to the same pressures in relation to globalising forces (e.g, the transnational flow of media and technology, space-time compression, etc.) and therefore will react in similar ways. One might say this is an article of faith in the current politics of representation. Yet in African art studies, most of the basic research on this issue has yet to be carried out, since anthropologists typically have been drawn only to the popular culture side. There is a small but important group of art historians, critics and curators, many of them African expatriates in Western institutions, who exhibit and write about transnational artists with African, Caribbean and Asian connections. They comprise the intellectual beachhead for this discussion but tend to focus on transnational artists. Very little work has been done so far on the practices of formally trained artists who have chosen not to become transnationals and continue to work in so-called peripheral localities.20 Yet art historians are best equipped by their disciplinary training to deal with issues such as historical practice, artistic subjectivity, and critical reception. We await this next turn.

Sidney Kasfir is Professor Emerita of African art history at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author or editor of five books and numerous articles and has conducted research in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya on both historical and contemporary art forms as well as discourse theory, commodification and performance.


  1. Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, “Jenseits von Schattenwürfen und Spiegelungen: Das Verständnis von Lokalität in einem globalisierten Kunstdiskurs” (“Beyond shadows and mirrors: understanding locality in a globalized art discourse”) in B. Hauser-Schäublin and D.Braukämper (eds.), Ethnologie der Globalisierung: Perspektiven kultureller Verflechtungen,Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 2002, 47-62.
  2. http://theartnewspaper.com/2016/06/Sotheby’s to launch Modern and contemporary African art sales in 2017. Cited by Art Twenty One @art21lagos, June 21. Bonham’s has had such a department since 2010.
  3. Meyer, Birgit and Peter Geschiere, eds. 1999. Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  4. Geertz, Clifford. 2001 (2000). Available Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Hannerz, Ulf .1997 (1987) “The World in Creolization” in Karin Barber, ed., Readings in African Popular Culture. Bloomington and Oxford: Indiana University Press and James Currey; Barber, Karin and Christopher Waterman. 1995. “Traversing the Global and the Local: Fuji Music and Praise Poetry in the Production of Contemporary Yoruba Popular Culture” in Daniel Miller, ed. Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local. London and New York: Routledge.
  6. Meyer, Birgit and Peter Geschiere, eds. 1999. Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  7. Morphy, Howard. 1995. “Aboriginal Art in a Global Context” in Daniel Miller, ed., Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local. London and New York: Routledge; Myers, Fred. 1995 (1991) “Representing Culture: The Production of Discourse(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings” in George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers, eds. 1995. The Traffic in Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  8. Barber and Waterman 1995: 240-1.
  9. cf. Barber and Waterman 1995.
  10. Vansina 1978: 213, 358-9.
  11. There are in fact several distinct markets and the purveyors and collectors of precolonial or “early contact” elite art would shrivel at the thought of the widespread souvenir market of airport and hotel gift shops or the small but growing market for contemporary non-Western art. There are also other niches which occupy the interstices between these categories.
  12. Morphy, Howard. 1995. “Aboriginal Art in a Global Context” in Daniel Miller, ed., Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 218-223.
  13. André Magnin, ed., with Jacques Soulillou, Contemporary Art of Africa, 1996.
  14. This emerged at an Nsukka conference in 2015 honoring El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu when in a panel discussion I asked several artists how they would identify themselves. The responses were varied and complex, but no one claimed to be “just an artist.”
  15. The Museum adroitly was responding to the public outrage expressed by Mayor Rudy Guiliani in the media, threatening to cut off funding to the Museum unless the painting were withdrawn.
  16. In some places such as Lagos, this resistance from artists was matched by outright hostility from collectors (Chika Okeke-Agulu, personal communication 2 Oct. 2001). However the Nigerian art scene has changed substantially over the past fifteen years with the wider recognition among the elite that art collecting is a profitable investment strategy. Nonetheless the most popular forms being collected, such as the work sold in the long established Midrim and Nike Galleries in Lagos, are still far from the cutting edge and lean toward the widely accepted. Paintings are still the preferred format.
  17. Kirumira, Namubiru Rose and Sidney Kasfir. 2013. “An Artist’s Notes on the Triangle Workshops (Zambia and South Africa)” In African Art and Agency in the Workshop, ed.Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
  18. Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield 2013 a. “ Lacuna: Uganda in a Globalizing Cultural Field ” In A Companion to Modern African Art, ed. Gitti Salami and Monica  Blackmun Visonà. Wiley (Blackwell Companions to Art History): Oxford and Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2013.
  19. Sassen, Saskia. 2001. “Spatialities and Temporalities of the Global: Elements for a Theorization” in Arjun Appadurai, ed.Globalization: Durham: Duke University Press. pg. 260.
  20. One exception is Sylvester Ogbechie (2010). I discuss this peripheralization in detail in Kasfir 2013a. As I’ve stated there, countries with their own stable of critics, curators, historians and artworld institutions, such as South Africa, are able to resist becoming peripheral to the larger artworld by creating their own smaller one. But even in so well-known a “center” as the Department of  Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I recently spent time as a Fulbright specialist, most of the artists feel that, with the exception of their celebrated colleague El Anatsui, they too are part of that periphery.


  1. Anderson, Benedict. 1991 (rev. ed.), 1983. Imagined Communities. New York and London: Verso.
  2. Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 2001. Globalization: Durham: Duke University Press.
  3. Appadurai, Arjun, 1996. Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Centre Pompidou, 1989. Magiciens de la Terre. Paris.
  5. Christies. 1992. Sale of the Collection of William McCarty-Cooper. Christies: New York and London.
  6. Deliss, Clementine,ed. 1995. Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa. London: Flammarion (for Whitechapel Gallery).
  7. Drewal, Henry John and John Mason. 1997. Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum.
  8. Fabian, Johannes. 1998. Moments of Freedom. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
  9. Friedman, J. 1994. Cultural Identity and Global Process. London: Sage.
  10. Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield and Till Förster, eds., 2013b. African Art and Agency in the Workshop. Indiana University Press, 2013.
  11. Lechner, Frank J. and John Boli, eds. 2000. The Globalization Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  12. Marcus, George E. and Fred R. Myers, eds. 1995. The Traffic in Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  13. McLuhan, Marshall.1994 (1964), Understanding Media. London: Routledge. 
  14. Miller, Daniel, ed. 1995. Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of the Local. London and New York: Routledge.
  15. Ogbechie, Sylvester (2010). “The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary African Art.” In Aachronym (June 16): http://aachronym.blogspot.com/2010/06/curator-as-culture-broker-critique-of.html
  16. Ross, Doran et al. 1998. Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity.Los Angeles: the UCLA Fowler Museum.

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