Spotlight on Africa in the US

For African art historians, the triennial African art conference, which is organised by the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA), affords important opportunities to showcase new research on the art of Africa and the African diaspora.

This year, the conference was hosted by the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, but other recent venues have included St Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the Latin Quarter in New Orleans, and NYU in New York. To date, however, this triennial event has never been hosted anywhere in Africa itself, largely because the organisers fear that African art scholars will balk at the cost of travelling to Africa for a conference of this kind. Since by far the majority of African art historians are employed in the USA, among them numerous highly acclaimed researchers who come originally from various African countries, this fear is probably not misplaced.

In the past, the tendency at these triennial conferences was to privilege the art forms of African traditionalists, but it has become increasingly common recently for delegates to present papers on a much wider range of topics. This year, for example, there were panels on the African fashion industry, artistic responses to the AIDS pandemic in South Africa, images of African identity in the diaspora, contemporary art production in centres throughout the African continent, the famed Mami Wata water spirit arts of West Africa and elsewhere, and new directions in the study of African architecture.

This remarkably diverse conference programme provided valuable opportunities for discussing and debating a wide range of issues, including the appropriateness to the study of African art of particular theoretical positions and frameworks. In some panels, it also afforded wonderful moments of light relief. Notable in this regard was Don Cosintino’s hilarious but ultimately very serious — and respectful — account of a self-appointed guardian of Yoruba spirits in the American diaspora.

Like most conferences, though, this one was plagued by moments of controversy and confrontation that exposed sometimes quite serious underlying tensions between conference delegates. Thus, for example, in the panel on contemporary water spirit arts, Joseph Nevadomsky launched a virulent attack on Henry Drewal, the “father” of Mami Wata studies. Nevadomsky’s decision to present his paper, entitled Mami Wata, Inc, highlights the extraordinary but not uncommon habit intellectuals have of enacting Oedipal fantasies in situations where respectful acknowledgement would be more appropriate. A very impressive scholar in his own right, Nevadomsky sadly succeeded in undermining his own credibility rather than that of Drewal, who is currently working on a major exhibition on African water spirits that involves scholars from several different continents and art works from at least three.

Unfortunately, this exhibition will be seen only in the USA. Equally unfortunately, the next African arts conference will be held, yet again, on American soil, this time in Gainsville, Florida. It remains to be seen whether the organisers of this triennial event will ever have the courage to bring the conference to Africa. In 2001, when the conference was held at St Thomas on the Virgin Islands, a group of South African delegates offered to host the event in 2004 in either Durban or Cape Town. While the decision to hold this year’s conference in Boston afforded invaluable opportunities to visit galleries and museums, including the stores of the Peabody Museum, the standing offer to host the conference in South Africa would provide equally meaningful opportunities to learn more about the local art scene, most obviously the work of contemporary South African artists, but also the art of traditionalist communities scattered in private and public collections throughout the country. With any luck, the ACASA organisers may still warm to this idea in the not too distant future.Sandra Klopper is head of the Department of Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University