Arts Council of African Studies Association (ACASA) Triennial 2017
We are often reminded that African contemporary art and its “global art mainstream visibility” is very much a contemporary phenomenon, so it is not surprising that we are still arriving at some ‘firsts’. This past August, there was a first for Arts Council for African Studies Association (ACASA), the worlds largest association of African scholars and art professionals. For the first time since its first gathering in 1968 and its official founding in 1980, ACASA held its Triennial Conference in Africa – in Accra, Ghana. In addition to being an ironically pioneering venture for the association – ironic because all of its members have made their career by doing research in and about Africa, the Triennale was also an opportunity reflect on the breadth of scholarship in the field and its foundations of and traditional approaches from Afro-centric perspectives.
Although ACASA is somewhat at an arms-length to the juggernaut of African contemporary art sector internationally, according to Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi it “is the only mega association at the international level that is totally dedicated to the arts of Africa. It boasts a membership of art historians, scholars, curators, artists, dealers and gallerists, and friends of African art.”
Ghana made sense as a natural starting point for this kind of engagement, as the first country in Africa to achieve independence and one, which has broad links across the Atlantic to the USA the home base of ACASA and most of its membership. In fact the Institute of African Studies Centre, which hosted the conference, was launched by Kwame Nkrumah himself, who was said to have been greatly influenced by WEB DuBois, who spent his final years living in Ghana. The 2017 Triennial, took place at the Institute for African Studies, launched by Kwame Nkrumah himself in 1960 at the University of Accra.
ACASA Triennale participants was a veritable who is who of scholarship on African art including Sidney Kasfir, Susan Vogel, Ray Siverman, Jean Borgatti; 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 including Atta Kwami, Samuel Sidibe (Musée Naonal du Mali)Bongani Ndhlovu (Iziko Museums of South Africa) and Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape).
The programme was nothing if not expansive with more than 80 panels and round tables covering topics ranging from museum studies, archeology, photography and textile design as well as anthropology, afro-futurism and gender politics, with topic such as:
Neither Temple nor Forum:
What is a Naonal Museum in Africa;The Polics 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; Clothing Creavity: The Polics of Creavity, Sharing Single Stories in the Labeling and Presentaon of Historical Arts of Africa, Round Table – Ghana’s Glass Bead Arts in the Twenty-First Century, African Utopias, Afrofuturism, Afropolitanism: Imagining and Imaging African Futures
Thanks to an impressive fund-raising drive, ACASA enabled the participation of record numbers of scholars from the continent, ensuring that out of more than 400 participants, almost a half were Africa based. The conference was also supported by a rich programme of events such as artist studio and gallery visits (Nabuke Foundation/Dorothy ), Ablade Glover’s Artist Alliance, Serge Ottokwey Clottey, Yaw Awusu, as well as evening events, which included art and exhibition openings such as BlackXlines annual exhibition “Orderly Disorderly” at the Science Museum featuring works from more than 100 emerging and established Ghanaian artists and a lavish vernissage for Carnival at 1957 Gallery at the Kempinski Hotel. There was no doubt that organizationally and in terms of enjoyment value the Triennale was a success.
In the words of Shannen Hill, the incoming ACASA President, who will oversee the organization of the next Triennale:
“I’ve attended many Triennials and helped organize that in 2014 and I can say without reservation that Accra offered many options to our members that were not available in other Triennials. The local programming committee selected artists for studio visits, for example, and ACASA made that happen by providing all the programming needs like scheduling and transport. Local museums and galleries offered to host events for our members, and we provided access to those as well.”
This view was echoed by Elspeth Court Senior Lecturer at SOAS and a long time member of ACASA:
“While it’s soon to gauge the impact that African participation in the Accra ACASA Triennial has had on ‘normal discourse’ writ large, it had a deep, I think, profound impact on me. A combination of factors, like the opposite of a perfect storm, made the week especial: 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), extensive programme (five panels simultaneously, highest number of papers for a Triennial), highly efficient local organisation, hospitality at top-notch exhibitions in Accra and plenty of opportunities for informal discussions with fellow scholars and artists. 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 on going transnational collaborations.”
The importance of collaboration and exposure to scholarship priorities on the continent was also echoed by Odile Tevie, the founder and director of 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. This is the first time it has happened.
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 2013/1014 Nubuke Foundation worked with 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 on the continent and the USA where most of the participants work.”
I hope that by being too exposed to what is happening on the continent, there will be a gradual change within the body.
The resourcing and financial clout of both ACASA and participants from major US institutions – museums and universities and financial clout was indeed quite manifest, especially to younger scholars working on the continent with shoestring resources and frequently in relative isolation in their own countries.
Also striking to many scholars working in contemporary art sector is the old fashioned cross-disciplinary approach, in which anthropology and art history are fraternal twins rather than occasionally antagonistic cousins they are at present and where many of the older generation ACASA members got their start by doing ‘field work’ in African villages in regions they first encountered in the US Peace Corp in the 1960s.
Smooth describes ACASA:
“…as 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. Having said that, it is 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. It is still a conservative platform.”
While this was stating the obvious of the contemporary status quo, this was not necessarily a satisfactory one for younger scholars.
Bernard Akoi-Jackson, a lecturer, curator and performance artist based in Accra, and one of the curators of ‘Orderly Disorderly’ felt that the organisation:
“still continues to broach a very antropological/ethnographic approach to art in Africa. Many of the members and discussions were still heavily rooted in ethnography, even if it is of contemporary phenomena. There is an urgent need for the discourses to change, in the sense that as a contemporary artist/curator/writer, I feel our work still receives misinterpretation based on the obviously anthropological bent of scholarship within ACASA circles. This stance tends to largely influence academia on the continent to approach art emanating from the continent and its Diaspora as ethnic curiosities.
Most of the awards that were given highlighted the anthropological, save for the Curatorial one, which looked at contemporary art curating (specifically the photography biennial), and rightly won by Atawan Byrd and the Bamako Biennial team.
I was very happy however, that there was a deliberate visit to “Orderly Disorderly” because what blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the project space for contemporary art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Svience and Technology (KNUST)”
Vu Michelle Horwitz, a young art historian based at Wits University in Johannesburg, 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”.
… our area of research remains in the shadow of a history of epistemological imbalance and violence.
Horwitz also 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 echoed the need for broader representation, highlighting the relative skew of African participants, most of whom were “from some ten countries, mostly Anglophone west and east Africa and that whole areas were missing, such as the Horn although Ethiopia and Sudan that have active schools of art with art historians.”
Looking at what the Accra experience means for ACASA and its Triennales going forward, Ruth Simbao, veteran of four ACASA Triennale’s, based at Rhodes University, South Africa, felt that:
“The location of the 2017 ACASA was extremely significant, as it 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 at the Triennial played an important role in strengthening discussions in our discipline. I attended as many panels as possible that were led by or included a number of Africa-based scholars, and I was very excited about the conversations that took place. These 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 the possibility of an African home for ACASA “[ACASA] perhaps lacks …nimbleness in responding to the current flow of artistic practices and debates around the continent. 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. …A consistent staging of ACASA triennial on the continent 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 organization, old and new, out there.”
For Shannen Hill, while desirable, the a home for ACASA Triennale in Africa is a matter of finance and logistics:
“We would very much like to organize a conference on the continent again — indeed, that is the plan — 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 (academic institutions can offer a great deal of support in kind); the 2014 Triennial was held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and cost about $100,000 (museums do not offer support in kind); the 2017 Triennial at University of Ghana-Legon cost $200,000 (some support was offered in kind, but all the additional programming and travel support increased costs considerably). For 2020 we need to first see who will submit proposals, think carefully about our balances in the bank — one must always have a reserve — and make decisions that secure the organization’s ability to continue to grow and expand in ways that don’t break the bank.”
While those logistics and resources are a necessary consideration for a USA based body, they cannot be an obstacle for African scholars. As Dean of Faculty of Art at KNUST, Edwin Kwesi Bodjawah 2puts 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 17th Triennale 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.