Writing Art History Since 2002

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Arts Council of African Studies Association (ACASA) Triennial 2017

While in the global spotlight at present African contemporary art is still in the territory of achieving some ‘firsts’. This past August, Arts Council for African Studies Association (ACASA)’s Triennial conference in Africa, “the only mega association… totally dedicated to the arts of Africa [and] a membership of art historians, scholars, curators, artists, dealers and gallerists, and friends of African art” held its first Triennial conference on the continent, in Accra and an opportunity to reflect on changing dynamics in African art scholarship.

ACASA Triennial participants were a veritable who’s who of scholarship on African art: Sidney Kasfir, Susan Vogel, Ray Siverman, Jean Borgatti, and heads and senior curators of major museums collections, such as Karen E. Milburne of the Smithsonian, Sylvester Ogbechie of UC Santa Barbara, Chika Okeke Agulu, Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, as well as some leading Africa-based scholars and practitioners such as Atta Kwami, Samuel Sidibe (Musée National du Mali), Bongani Ndhlovu (Iziko Museums of South Africa) and Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape).

The immense programme delivered more than 80 panels and round tables covering topics ranging from museum studies, archaeology, photography and textile design, as well as anthropology, Afrofuturism and gender politics, with topic such as: Neither Temple nor Forum: What is a National Museum in Africa? The Politics of Abstract and Conceptual African and African Diasporic Art; New Perspectives on Feminism and Gender Studies: South Africa and Beyond; African Art: Philosophy Made Visual; Photography and Mass Media in Africa; and African Utopias; Afrofuturism; Afropolitanism: Imagining and Imaging African Futures.

Importantly ACASA facilitated record participation of Africa based scholars, close to 200 out of over 400. The conference was also supported by a rich programme of events such as visits to artists’ studios and galleries (Nabuke Foundation/Dorothy), Ablade Glover’s Artist Alliance, Serge Ottokwey Clottey, Yaw Awusu), as well as evening events, such as as BlackXlines annual exhibition, ‘Orderly Disorderly’ at the Science Museum, featuring works from over 100 Ghanain artists and a vernissage at the 1957 Gallery. Organisationally the African ACASA was an impressive success. As ACASA President, Shannen Hill puts it:

“I’ve attended many Triennials and I can say without reservation that Accra offered many options to our members that were not available in other Triennials.”

Elspeth Court, Senior Lecturer at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London concurred that:

“A combination of factors… made the week special: the location of the Triennial on the leafy, historical Legon campus of the University of Ghana, outstanding plenary sessions (with presentations by two continental colleagues with whom I have worked, Lagat Kiprop and Atta Kwami), an extensive programme.This ACASA experience was profound because it affirmed more than past Triennials, what I take as ‘African art’ with collegiality being the essential element.

… rather than envision future impacts associated with ACASA’s ‘African participation’, what was noticeable at the 17th ACASA was the increase in presentations concerning partnerships and/or projects between European/American and African, continental colleagues, such as the British Museum and the national museums of Kenya, Iwalewa Haus and Makerere Art School, Ray Silverman on local museums. These would seem robust examples of ongoing transnational collaborations.”


I hope that by being too exposed to what is happening on the continent, there will be a gradual change within the body.


Importance of collaboration was echoed by Odile Tevie, the founder and director of the Nubuke Foundation in Accra:

“I hope that by being to exposed to what is happening on the continent, there will be a gradual change within the body. Hosting the conference in Ghana is a start.

They may be very removed from our reality, but they also commission a lot of research and resources, which we need in our work. So we have to seek new collaborations.

In 2013/14, the Nubuke Foundation worked with the University of Amherst, Massachusetts, on a project to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of WEB Du Bois … Amherst has a large collect of his writings, letters and memorabilia. So, projects like these should be typical collaborations which will forge new productions and relationships between institutions….”

The resourcing and financial clout of ACASA’s institutionally based members was, quite a contrast to many scholars based on the continent operating on a shoestring and often in relative isolation.

Also striking to contemporary art scholars was the historical cross-disciplinary approach, in which anthropology and art history are almost merged, with many of the older generation scholars starting their careers by doing ‘field work’ in African villages in late 1960s and 1970s, making ACASA “… a late-comer to the currents of contemporary art on the continent because of its focus on traditional academic scholarship in African art until recently.”

While a conservative platform, for Smooth, ACASA remains “a very important platform for the dissemination of the arts of Africa and related information, and a very critical anchor in that ecosystem because of the diversity of its membership. Its triennial conference is very important in shaping debates and discourses of African art from the historical to the contemporary.”

This formulation was not necessarily satisfactory for younger African scholars, like Accra-based Bernard Akoi-Jackson, a lecturer, curator and artist based in Accra, and one of the curators of ‘Orderly Disorderly’ who felt that “[ACASA] continues to broach a very anthropological/ethnographic approach to art in Africa. Many …discussions were still heavily rooted in ethnography, even if it is of contemporary phenomena. There is an urgent need for the discourses to change, [and]… as a contemporary artist/curator/writer, I feel our work still receives misinterpretation based on the obviously anthropological bent of scholarship within ACASA…. This stance tends to largely influence academia on the continent to approach art emanating from the continent and its Diaspora as ethnic curiosities.”

Vu Michelle Horwitz, a young art historian based at Wits University, also noted that, “the very fact that the platform exists, and was as open to scholars based on the continent as it was, was a good sign for going forward” however, the scope of discussions privileged “funding and other interests that dominate the field … There is much in need of critical overdoing.”

Horwitz pointed to the elephant in the room, that the leading African art scholar association in the world is American and not African, arguing for “far less US representation: which is not to say no Americans, but it is wrong that their voices took up the most space, and held the most importance in the eyes of conference organisers. There should also be more and better funding for non-US attendees. And perhaps a little more (free)(actual) art and experiences with art makers and consumers in the host country.”

Elspeth Court also highlighted the skew of African participation largely to scholars “from some 10 countries, mostly Anglophone west and east Africa, and that whole areas were missing, such as the Horn, although Ethiopia and Sudan have active schools of art with art historians.”


… our area of research remains in the shadow of a history of epistemological imbalance and violence.


Looking at what the Accra experience means for ACASA and its Triennials going forward, Ruth Simbao, based at Rhodes University, South Africa, and veteran of four Triennials, felt that despite these issues the Accra conference:

“… registers a broader shift in the centre of gravity in terms of knowledge-creation in the visual arts, particularly the arts of Africa and the Global South. The significantly higher number of Africa-based scholars …played an important role in strengthening discussions…. [their] scholarly conversations were pivotal to the Triennial, whereas in past ACASA conferences, the few panels that were led by Africa-based scholars tended to remain somewhat peripheral to the broader discussions. This shift is critical, and concerted effort needs to be made to retain it.

… if ACASA, as an organisation, desires to remain relevant to shifts in the discourse of the arts of Africa, then it is essential for the Triennial to be hosted on the African continent regularly, and for more Africa-based scholars (from various regions) to be involved in leadership positions in ACASA. I have been thinking about the idea of ‘epistemologies of reciprocity’ and I think we need to build more meaningful and rigorous reciprocity between various spaces of knowledge-creation, as our area of research remains in the shadow of a history of epistemological imbalance and violence.”

While Smooth showed optimism for an African home for ACASA “… I would hope that after successfully hosting its first Triennial conference in Africa, that this would become more of the rule rather than the exception … and will principally place Africa at the core of the field of African art rather than what it currently and primarily serves: as a site of study. This is because ACASA is the most equipped for such intellectual work than any organisation, old and new, out there.”

For Shannen Hill, while desirable, the home for the ACASA Triennial in Africa is a matter of finance:

“We would very much like to organise a conference on the continent again …but first we need to recoup costs. To give you a sense of this: the 2011 Triennial was hosted at UCLA and cost about $65 000…; the 2014 Triennial was held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and cost about $100,000…; the 2017 Triennial at the University of Ghana-Legon cost $200,000…. For 2020, we need to …think carefully …and make decisions that secure the organisation’s ability to continue to grow and expand in ways that don’t break the bank.”

While finances are a crucial consideration for a US-based body, they cannot be for African scholars. As Dean of the Faculty of Art at KNUST, Edwin Kwesi Bodjawah, puts it: “hosting the conference in Africa brought together more art professionals from the continent than any other time to deliberate on issues related to African Art. This might seem quite belated, but it is important it happened. Hopefully, the continent would begin to host most critical platforms of Contemporary Art of Africa. The challenge is how to network all progressive initiatives on the continent and how information can be shared in real time.”

Perhaps unintentionally the most important conversation, which the 17th Triennial has helped to consolidate, is a conversation among African scholars about the need to take responsibility for development and the future of African art scholarship as an issue which, unequivocally, must be resolved by African scholars and with Africans in mind, of course in collaboration with international scholars, partners and friends.


Valerie Kabov is an art historian with a focus on cultural policy and economics. She is the co-founder and Director of education and International Projects at First Floor Gallery Harare.

Featured Image: ACASA Triennial 2017, Accra Ghana

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