Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title


Crest Mask representing al-Buraq, Guinea. Polychromic wood and fibre, 78 x 113 cm. Image courtesy of Barbier-Mueller museum, Geneva, Inv. 1001-59. © photo studio Ferrazzini-Bouchet. On show in the exhibition ‘Treasures of Islam in Africa’, Arab World Institute, Paris.

When I first came to that quiet corner of the Nile Delta I had expected to find on that most ancient and most settled of soils a settled and restful people. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The men of the village had all the busy restlessness of airline passengers in a transit lounge. Many of them had worked and travelled in the shiekdoms of the Persian Gulf, others had been in Libya and Jordan and Syria, some had been to the Yemen as soldiers, others to Saudi Arabia as pilgrims, a few had visited Europe: some of them had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas.

And none of this was new: their grandparents and ancestors and relatives had travelled and migrated too, in much the same way as mine had, in the Indian subcontinent – because of wars, or for money and jobs, or perhaps simply because they got tired of living always in one place. You could read the history of this restlessness in the villagers’ surnames: they had names which derived from cities in the Levant, from Turkey, from faraway towns in Nubia; it was as though people had drifted here from every corner of the Middle East. The wanderlust of its founders had been ploughed into the soil of the village: it seemed to me sometimes that every man in it was a traveller.

Amitav Ghosh – ‘The Imam and the Indian,’ Granta, 20 (Winter) 1986.

 Amitav Ghosh, the author of In an Antique Land, Sea of Poppies, and many other celebrated and popular re-imaginings of the Arab, African, and Asian worlds, describes a fretwork of economic and cultural relations which, then and now, compel us to rethink the ways we understand the world. His village in the Nile Delta bears all the traces of ancient and contemporary connectivity which forms the seam of this issue of ART AFRICA. Titled ARAFRASIA, its thematic focus takes the Arab world, Africa, and Asia as its nexus. Between these worlds, and the West, it asks us to reappraise received relations of power, influence, and cultural genealogy. 

In stark contrast to the prevailing reactive perception, after Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial text, The Clash of Civilisations, we seek to reaffirm an age-old and ever-present productive interface. Against the reversion to parochialism, nativism, or populism, we celebrate connectivity. A village in the Nile Delta is no less inclusive than, say, the cities of Beijing, Paris, Dubai, Istanbul, Chonqqing or Mombasa. Across the earth we find a “busy restlessness.” For as the American ethnographer, James Clifford, reminds us, “Cultural centres, discrete regions and territories, do not exist prior to contacts, but are sustained through them, appropriating and disciplining the restless movements of people and things.”

Dubai’s Global Art Forum – GAF – conceived by Shumon Basar as Commissioner, with Antonia Carver and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera as Co-directors, affirms “the relationship between the economy of goods and the ideas which constantly shape who and where we are,” as does the panoply of exhibitions ancient and modern dedicated to African art in Paris, or Documenta 14, held in Kassel and across Athens, the centre of “the democratic ideals of classical antiquity” and “the crisis of contemporary austerity,” and Chinafrika, a project supported by the Goethe Institut and headed by Jochen Becker. 

Everywhere one turns today, one is confronted by the rewiring of received notions of value. Against Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Paris chooses to welcome Africa, against the latent European perception that Greece has failed its cultural legacy, Documenta 14 under the directorship of Adam Szymczyk seeks to address “global financial and political turmoil” and “the refugee crisis and the entire crisis of Europe.” While Dubai’s Global Art Forum – GAF – re-envisions not only the trade in goods but “love, money, belief, progress, politics, time.” 

Alia Ali, BORDERLAND, 2017. Image courtesy of Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai.

The art world everywhere is grappling with these seismic shifts. As the German critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist has pointed out, we are dealing with “a plurality of temporalities across space, a plurality of experience and pathways through modernity that continues to this day, on a truly global scale …  We are now living through a period in which the centre of gravity is transferring to new worlds.” So while the world might still appear to be Western-centric, the focus is shifting. The West after all was not always the centre of the world. As the Swiss historian Andre Gunder Frank reminded us in ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, “it was the world that made Europe.” Frank is alluding here to the magnetic hold which the East had upon Europe – the lure of trade. 

A map which pictures the spread of Islam from the 7th century AD tells a very different story of globalisation. Obrist’s realisation, shared by many, that “the centre of gravity is transferring to new worlds” should surely also remind us that ancient hold remains very much with us today. The contemporary clash in belief systems is but a symptom of an older conflict which turns not only on trade but on spiritual and cultural hegemonies. Therefore, when speaking after Clifford of “the new world order of mobility” we are also, necessarily, speaking of an ancient one. As Ghosh tells us, in a village in the Nile Delta, people – men in particular – have always been on the move, their thick passports “like ink-blackened concertinas.”

The misconception, dangerously prevalent today, assumes “Dwelling … to be the local ground of collective life, travel a supplement.” It assumes that “roots always precede routes.” This seductive and paranoid misconception now fosters cessation, privatisation, and the relatively recent fiction of nationalism. Hence the catastrophe that is Brexit, the botched absurdity that is Trump’s America. “Stasis and purity are asserted – creatively and violently – against historical forces of movement and contamination,” writes Clifford. A position he counters by stating that “Cultural action, the making and remaking of identities, takes place in the contact zones, along the policed and transgressive intercultural frontiers of nations, peoples, locales.” It is these ‘contact zones’ which occupy the focus of this issue of ART AFRICA.  

Long before the first Portuguese caravel rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1500s, the Arab world controlled the Suez and the Silk Road. But as Shumon Basar has noted, the routes devised for the movement of goods, capital, labour, were also the routes for the movement of ideas and concepts. Economics is inseparable from culture, methods, tastes, values, which define our lives. To know our ever shifting present, therefore, requires that we also understand what Basar terms the “blind spots in the past.” But given the uncertainty, anxiety, fear, which afflicts us today, it also means, after Frank, that “we are in dire need of an alternative Perspective of the World for the new world (dis)order in the making.”

While the focus of this issue of ART AFRICA is centred on the Arabic, African, and Asian worlds – ARAFRASIA – it in no way denies the ongoing significance of the West. What this issue brokers is alternative perspectives. For GAF “the infrastructure of trade is also the geography of imagination and invention.” What then are the new insights we can learn about our present, our past, and our future? And what role does the art world play in generating these new insights? As Rachel Spencer notes in the Financial Times, GAF has “come to be recognised as a hub of ideas that has helped to fuel the development of the contemporary art scene in the Gulf.” That scene, however, harnesses a more far-ranging network comprising Europe, Africa, and the East – the global North
and South. 

At the epicentre of an ancient trading world, the Gulf can be seen as assuming a mediating role “between hemispheres,” as “a crossroads of different worlds,” a crossroads which Europe belatedly joined. Here the record of the great traveller, Ibn Battuta who travelled three times the distance covered by Marco Polo – between 1325 and 1354 – reveals just how deeply connected the worlds of Africa, Arabia, and Asia have proven to be. As Albert Hourani notes, Ibn Battuta’s journey took him from “his native city of Tangier in Morocco to Mecca by way of Syria; then to Baghdad and south-western Iran; to Yemen, east Africa, Oman and the Gulf; to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and southern Russia; to India, the Maldive Islands and, by way of Malaysia and Indonesia to China, back to his native Maghrib, and from there to Andalus and the Sahara.” The trade in goods and knowledge was inseparable, and remains so. 

If we are to devise new perspectives for the way we live in the world today, the way we transact, connect, exchange, we must therefore also remember that history is a construct. To further their interests at home and abroad “Europe invented historians and then made good use of them,” the French maritime historian Fernand Braudel reminds us. It is not surprising therefore that our vision of the world has been shaped by the West. 

History however is being rewritten, new perspectives are afoot. It is widely conceded that “the world that made Europe” was centred on the Indian Ocean and its rim. Regarded as “the cradle of globalisation,” the Indian Ocean profoundly shaped the connected cultures which flank the ocean’s shores – East Africa, the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, and the Far East. And here the request made to Ibn Battuta, by Imam Borhan Oddin El Aara in Alexandria, that he visit his brothers in India, Sindia, and China – traders all – reaffirms this age-old connection. 

Through the focus on trade – in particular trade in the art world – this issue seeks to sustain the value of a changing imagination and to generate a new way of being in the world, and the making and understanding of art therein. 

Ashraf Jamal is a writer, teacher, editor. His collected essays on Contemporary South African Art and his edited volume on Robin Rhode’s 2016-2017 works out later this year with Skira Publishers.    

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