Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest Edited by Kendell Geers.
Jelili Atiku, Kill Not This Country (MaanifesitoII), Catholic Mission Street/ Hospital Road / Broad Street, Lagos Island, Nigeria, Saturday November 31 2015. Photo: Emmanuel Sanni, Image courtesy of the artist.

The above epigraph is excerpted from the Martinican poet, politician, and co-founder of the Negritude movement Aimé Cesairé’s speech at the “Function and Significance of Art in the Life of the People and for the People” symposium in Dakar in 1966.

The symposium was the opening event of the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, from April 1-24, 1966. It brought together anthropologists, artists, writers, theorists, ethnologists, musicians, theologians, political scientists, among others, from within and outside of Africa to debate on the values and meanings of art to its makers and users in traditional African societies from popular and academic perspectives. Like most of the presentations at the conference, Cesairé’s speech reflected an anxiety about the fate of historical African art at a moment many African countries had gained (or were about to gain) political independence and were fashioning their modernisation agendas and ideological commitments. The kernel of his speech was on the question of authenticity (a problematic word) and how longstanding African art can remain culturally relevant in a postcolonial setting1. Earlier on, the French theorist André Malraux had begun the symposium with a declaration that Africans should look to build a future based on a present that had less to do with the past. Using the metaphor of European cathedrals and African masks to illustrate his point about the glories of the past remaining in the past, he stated that the wondrous worlds which birthed them were gone and cannot be recreated. His statement implied that the works embodied the realities of the bygone era of their production. Malraux was equally making an argument about authenticity but one that affirms the teleological vision of modernity as a radical break from the past.

The social theorist David Harvey, in reading Ernst Cassirer, suggests that enlightenment thought embraced the idea of progress, and actively sought to break with history and tradition.2” Consequentially, while Malraux’s modern is comparative; it is no less tainted by enlightenment arrogance of a universal modern shaped by western thought, which does not account for what Harvey describes as modernism depending on considerations of context, time, location, and perhaps, ideology. Cesairé’s anxiety, shadowed by enlightenment arrogance, was informed by this notion that to be modern required a surgical split from the past.3 For here lies the conundrum; Cesairé and his colleagues in the Negritude movement had been deeply impressed by the activities of the Parisian avantgardes who had sought to distill the essence of reality by looking at the so-called l’art primitif Africain at a time Europe was roiling in cultural self-doubt and was going through intense soul searching following the disasters of two World Wars.

There is a lot to make of the entire transcript of Cesairé’s speech. I want to narrow it down to two key thrusts.  First, is to think that African art was only useful as a gift to Western art and has since been exhausted after the Parisian experiments. Hal Foster once argued that the modernist project required an act of cooptation of the other (African art in this instance) to drastically re-invent the (Western) self.4  On the other hand, Cesairé’s speech did not account for the sweeping current of cultural nationalism that followed political independence. In several countries, artists had begun to outline the narrow and broad strokes of modernism from individual, national and pan-African perspectives by seeking recourse to longstanding artistic traditions, and reclaiming or repurposing assumed cultural roots. The highlight of this cultural turn was the exhibition of modern and contemporary art (titled ‘Trends and Confrontation’) at the First World Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, the context of Cesairé’s speech, organised to assess the parameters of modernism in Africa and the black world. The other, and more importantly, is to approach Cesairé’s anxiety, as the epigraph suggests, as a prescient exhortation. It is this instance that concerns me.

Re-appropriation/ Re-contextualisation or What?

Since the mid-century, the strategic recourse to African aesthetic traditions has become a hallmark of postcolonial art practices on the continent.5 For example, early on, at the urging of President Leopold Senghor in early independent Senegal, Senegalese artists began to look to longstanding African art forms for inspiration. The idea was that the forms were a common artistic heritage, Senghor’s notion of Africanité, to fashion new idioms that advanced the rubric of pan-African modernism.6 Artists such as Ibou Diouf and Boubacar Coulibally explored the traditional masks, drawing upon their expressive formalism. In Diouf’s Tête (1966) and Coulibally’s Rencontre des Masques (1976), the iconography of three-dimensional pan-African masks are variously reformulated and indexed on flat surfaces. The mask-forms are interspersed with geometric forms and ornamental patterns that create vibrant layers on the picture surface. Diouf and Coulibally were former students of the late pioneering modernist Papa Ibra Tall, whose signature style comprising of decorative patterns, abundant use of graceful lines, and towering, mask-like forms, has inspired generations of Senegalese artists7. Modernist practice in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s mainly consisted of painting and sculpture, a period Diouf and Coulibally came of age professionally. At that time, artists were concerned with fashioning a decolonized vocabulary that challenged colonial orthodoxy and Western conventions. Conversely, Angèle Etoundi Essamba and the late Rotimi Fani-Kayode deploy African masks as a marker of identity in their photographs. Both socio-cultural in the 1980s. Photography, prior to the 1990s in Africa, was mainly understood as a conventional tool for social documentary, put to use in studio portraiture and reportage. By and large, it was yet to be embraced as an artistic medium. Essamba and Fani-Kayode were pioneers who, individually, created a new mode of representation by juxtaposing the black body and African masks and sculpture in such iconic works as Espirit 2 (1985) and Bronze Head (1987-8), respectively8. Both framed their work around critical subject matters, including sexuality, exile and displacement, race, and feminism, centred on African identity, but from their subjective female and male perspectives.

The last few years has seen an upsurge in the recuperation and repurposing of formal elements of historical African art by contemporary African artists. Building on the modernist persuasions of mid-century cultural nationalism, these artists in-and-outside of Africa foraging the archives of traditions have done so in more sophisticated guises and using a slew of new mediums that were not available to their predecessors. As such, it is either Cesaire’s apprehension was misplaced or that he was alluding to something more profound, perhaps the geist of African art. One suspects that this was what Malraux had in mind, which he believed could not be recreated, hence his insistence that the past is consigned to the past. The idea of geist or vital force is often assumed as the basis of African art’s authenticity. The industry of African art scholarship, with roots in Anthropology, is predicated on value and meaning deriving from the ritual or ceremonial context, a default description for authenticity. The understanding is that for the most part, the art is plastic and the context processual, meaning that the objects require the participation of the community or individuals to be activated. Art historian Herbert Cole argues that, African Art is a verb in that it involves a series of actions undertaken by the community to give or infuse vital force or spirit to the material object.  In this sense the geist of African art is instigated by people involved in some form of activities.  Similarly, in African Art in Motion, art historian Robert Farris Thompson suggests that there is a certain aliveness an object or image must possess to fully become a work of art. Taking a classic structuralist position, he asserts that motion is a poetic force that unites “the inner being of the thing with the inner being of the self… a means of gaining access to sacred worlds conjured in artistic shapes.”9 This motion, according to Thompson, is the common detonator for plastic art, ritual performances, spoken words, dance, music, and utilitarian objects, and is what sets African art apart from the arts of the rest of the world..10

Might this thesis of fundamental vitalism, which Thompson further expounded in subsequent publications11, be what Leopold Sedar Senghor was referring to in suggesting rhythm as constitutive of African art, which he was heavily criticised?12 He argues that African art is a language of ontology of elemental force.13 Tough it is to agree with these essentialist assumptions that are now dated, yet there might be some kernels of truth to draw from them. One is that the corporeal form African art takes is secondary. Form is perhaps, a reliquary, a mere vehicle of communication, and serves as cultural sign and signifier. What then is the implications for the burgeoning field of contemporary African art? How does geist translate in the work of contemporary artists who riff these expressive forms in multifarious ways and contend with a different set of values? From the précis of Thompson and Senghor, if it is the social-self (community and people), which gives life to African art, how might we then reconsider the processes informing the making of the individual and collective social-self in Africa vis-à-vis the tenor of contemporaneity and artistic practice? These questions are open-ended. Yet they bear critically on the practice of contemporary African artists, some of whom are addressed below.

Among Africa’s many expressive forms, masks and masquerade practices bear the most recognition as cultural markers. Quintessential of many African cultures, they elicit secrecy, disguise or concealment, requiring motion and the social context. Contemporary artists such as Nigerian Jelili Atiku, Zimbabwean Gerald Machona, and Malawian Samson Kambalu have been exemplary in drawing upon the geist of these traditional forms, though they work in a range of mediums including performance, video, sculpture, and installation. In their individual performance practices, they draw from their cultural backgrounds, demonstrating the requirement of disguise and the imperative of the social space that dictate traditional masking and masquerade practices. For the social activist Atiku, he draws exceedingly from his Yoruba heritage (such as masquerade traditions – Eyo, Egungun, and Gelede), in public performances that address human rights and social justice issues in Nigeria and elsewhere. A global artist whose reputation in the art world has soared in the last six years, Atiku is since based in Ejigbo, a suburb of Lagos, one of the world’s biggest cities. Like Atiku, Machona is based on the continent. Currently working from Johannesburg as a result of the economic downturn in his home country of Zimbabwe, Machona’s performances imbibe the spirit of Nyau, the masquerade of the Chewa of Malawi. In his photograph Ita Kuti kunaye II (Make it Rain, 2010), he addresses the economic morass that has plagued Zimbabwe for more than fifteen years. Masking his face with decommissioned Zimbabwean currency, now worthless as a result of hyper-inflation, and describing himself as a cross-border trader, he dances on a rooftop against a Johannesburg skyline. The Nyau spirit also informs Samson Kambalu’s playful site-specific enactments that are recorded as brief silent film clips. Kambalu, who works from London, has evolved a philosophy for his psycho-geographic practice called the Nyau Cinema, which combines his Chewa background and the aesthetics of early films.

Gerald Machona, Ita Kuti Kunaye (Make It rain), 2010. C-print 70-1.5 x 104.5. Image courtesy of the artist.
Final Word

It can be argued that the defining element of the modernist turn in African art was what may be referred to as the sankofa complex. In Akan mythology, Sankofa is a bird that flies forward with its head positioned backward. The gesture to traditions, an embrace of the past to seek its reinvention rather than a disavowal, might well be the African epistemological response to art modernity and contemporaneity. Understood as re-appropriation, it conveys attempts by artists to re-engage, to rebuild, in recognition of what was, what followed, and what can be. Above all, it signals that Africa is an intellectual space that generates its own modalities. Currently, artists in and out of Africa reflect new modes of thinking around old forms and idioms of expression and in reimagining the social. New circuits of knowledge production are unfolding from within, creating an internal dynamic, which upends the anthropological gaze that once dictated the understanding, articulation, mediation, and reception, of African art.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is an artist, art historian and museum curator at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. He co-curated the Dak’Art Biennale in 2014 and is curator of Future of the Past, an infra-curatorial project of the 11th Shanghai Biennale (November 11, 2016 – March 12, 2017).

This essay’s title is borrowed from Pamela McClusky’s essay title “Disguise: How the Masquerade Takes Shape,” from the exhibition catalogue Disguise: Masks and Global African Art (New Haven and London: Seattle Art Museum in association with Yale University Press, 2016).


  1. For the full speech, see Aimé Cesairé, “Discours sur l’art Africain (1966),” Etudes littéraires, vol. 6, no. 1 (1973): 99-109. http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/500270ar: DOI: 10.7202/500270ar. Accessed December 30, 2016.
  2. David Harvey, The condition of postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change (Oxford [England]: Blackwell, 1989), 10-12.
  3. See for example, Boris Groys,“The Topology of Contemporary Art,” Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), 71.
  4. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend, Wash. : Bay Press, 1985), 196-208.
  5. See for example, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015)
  6. Léopold Sédar Senghor, The Foundations of “Africanité,” or “Négritude” and “Arabité,” trans. Mercer Cook (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1971), 7–8, 83–88.
  7. Papa Ibra Tall, together with with Iba N’Diaye, were the arrowhead of Senghor’s mandated two-pronged modernist experiments at École National des Beaux Arts de Dakar in the 1960s.Tall and N’Diaye respectively headed Section de Recherches en Arts Plastiques Négres (Section for Research in Black Plastic Arts), which focused on the exploration of traditional arts forms of Africa and the black world, and Section des Arts Plastiques (Fine Arts department), which considered normative practices of the western academy.
  8. One might be tempted to suggest that their juxtapositions reflect Man Ray’s aesthetic such as in Kiki with African Mask (1926). Yet their creative arguments, intents, and sensibilities cannot be any similar. They do not issue Ray’s surrealism or his cultural appropriation.
  9. See Herbert M Cole, “Art as Verb in Iboland,” African Arts, vol. 1, no. 3 (1969): 34-41, 88.
  10. ibid
  11. Robert Farris Thompson, “Preface,” African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katerine Coryton White (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), xii.
  12. See for example, Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983); and, Thompson, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (Pittsburgh: Periscope Publishing; New York: Distributed by Prestel Publishing, 2011).
  13. For Senghor, rhythm is an ordering force that  manifests “through the most material and sensual means: lines, surfaces, colours, and volumes in architecture, sculpture and painting; accents in poetry and music; movements in dance.” See Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, “Négritude”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/negritude/. Accessed December 29, 2016

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