The first copies of African Arts I saw were in Jean Borgatti's office at University of Benin, Nigeria, during her 2002–2003 Fulbright tenure. Then I was a graduate student in Painting. I was impressed by the sharp color and black-and-white photographs that give more life to the essays. I got my first two copies of African Arts (vol. 23, no. 3, July 1990, and vol. 34, no. 4, Winter 2001) as gifts when I came to the Fowler Museum, UCLA, to give a talk on my artistic project at Worcester State College (now Worcester State University), in Worcester, MA. I was at WSC for three months as the first recipient of the Philip L. Ravenhill Fellowship, administered by the Fowler Museum. In one of the two copies I got, Philip Ravenhill wrote the First Word titled “The Challenge of History.” Ravenhill, in this introductory essay, mourned the practice of exhibiting African arts without history, which according to him entrenched the notion of “otherness.” His conclusion was that “failing to deal with the history of Africa, all too often we fail to deal with its present” (Ravenhill 1990:8).
African Arts has the reputation of being “synonymous with the study of African art” (Roberts 2005:1). I, more artist and critic than historian, am greatly honored to have been asked to join the illustrious scholars who have written First Words or op-ed pieces for African Arts. Since 1967, African Arts has presented 1,470 articles of various types and lengths, 999 book reviews, and 676 exhibition reviews. The journal itself came into existence about ten years after the first PhD in African art history was awarded to Roy Sieber, and the second to Robert Farris Thompson (Ross 1992:6). With the journal's objective to cover traditional and modern art and expressive culture of Africa and its diasporas, most Africanists have found it to be an important journal in which to be published. Indeed, it was the first journal devoted to African expressive culture distinguished by full-color illustrations. Over its years of existence, the journal has made available well-researched studies as well as insightful reviews of exhibitions and publications. Equally important, it provided dramatic illustrations covering a broad spectrum of the arts and their context—singularly important in the pre-Internet age.
Herbert Cole (2007:4) reveals that the initial idea that led to the founding of African Arts by Paul Proehl came from Proehl's “discussion with the artist El Salahi on an airplane in 1965 or ‘66.” Cole further states that “Both Proehl and John Povey, the first editor, felt all arts and especially modern/contemporary ones deserve real play in their new venture, so from the first issue until 1975, more than fifty recent artists were featured, if only in fairly short articles” (Cole 2007:4). If African Arts gave more attention to “traditional” African art after the mid-1970s, it has evolved with the field, rediscovering contemporary African art. Although initially adjudged “inauthentic” and “derivative,” contemporary African art has continued to increase in its production and attracts research interest, compelling John Povey to ask, after the 1989 Triennial, “What are we going to do about contemporary African art? … [T]he issue … will not go away. Why does the subject appear so resistant, or equally accurate, why are we so resistant to the subject?” He goes on: “We don't like modern African art because it doesn't fit within our comfortable disciplinary boundaries—in fact it challenges them at the profoundest levels” (Povey 1990, quoted in Stanley 2012:139). In Janet Stanley's opinion, “Nineteen Eighty-Nine marked a watershed year for modern African art studies” (Stanley 2012:139).
In its years of existence, African Arts has shown sufficient dynamism and growth and has focused on different subjects such as the traditional masks, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, architectures, body arts, festivals, ephemeral arts, contemporary arts, authorship, and authenticity. African Arts appeals to a wide spectrum of readers due to its dual nature as journal and magazine with content including scholarly articles, popular arts, exhibition reviews, and advertisements. The periodic self-evaluation and sending out of questionnaires are strategies the editors have used in improving the journal. Dialogue and First Word have been used to bring diverse views to the publication. In today's supposedly globalized world, in which the “politics of exclusion” that privileges artists and scholars who live in the West over those who live in Africa continues to exist,1 giving someone who is based on the continent of Africa an opportunity to write the First Word shows a commitment towards a greater representation. As an artist and scholar based in Nigeria, I'm happy to have been asked to write the First Word of the 50th anniversary issue, to show the relevance of the journal in Africa.
Returning to Ravenhill's First Word: Through his essay, I began to understand some issues concerning African arts in the West and the importance of history. Ravenhill's First Word is in a special issue on Portraiture in Africa (Part I), guest edited by Jean Borgatti and in which Marla Berns published an article. These two individuals played different roles in my coming to the US: Jean gave me the call for the Ravenhill Fellowship application, and Marla was and is still the director of the Fowler Museum that administered the fellowship. After returning to Nigeria in 2005, I received a teaching appointment in a university, and these two issues of African Arts served as my guide in writing academic articles. I once used Dana Rush's article “Contemporary Vodun Arts of Ouidah, Benin” (vol. 34, no. 4, winter 2001), to prove to a senior colleague who said that it is wrong to use the first person singular in an academic essay, that it is allowed. But for the authoritative nature of African Arts, the disagreement would have continued.
In 2011, I was one of the scholars, writers, and artists based in Africa who received a Getty Foundation/ACASA Travel Grant for the Fifteenth Triennial Symposium held at the University of California, Los Angeles. During the Triennial, the James S. Coleman African Studies Center, publisher of African Arts, gave away back issues to those who came from Africa, and I benefitted from that generosity. With 126 issues of African Arts now on my bookshelf, I have more art journals than my university library and many other university/college libraries in Nigeria. This is a disturbing reality, even though African Arts is available on JSTOR digital archive, and scholars, researchers, and students in Africa are happier for it—should they actually be able to access the journal. This is more easily said than done in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly Nigeria, where Internet connections are unreliable and one cannot remotely access digital data bases, but must physically visit the library during the hours when it is open. Professor Borgatti has commented that at the University of Benin's Ekenwan Campus, the location of the Fine and Applied Arts Department, the university-provided Internet connection has been sporadic at best, and the data bases are accessible only at the main campus library. She frequently resorted to accessing JSTOR via American universities with which she was affiliated, using a personal modem, and downloading articles needed by students. It should be noted that one of the few remote access possibilities is through the American Embassy's e-Library. (To register for an e-Library account that gives you access to JSTOR, US films, and other resources, go to tinyurl.com/ircregistration and follow the directions.) Anyone with a tertiary degree or studying for one can register. We should lobby for a full run of African Arts in the license they maintain!2
Going through private, public and institutional libraries in Africa, a significant number of issues of African Arts can be found, thanks to the generosity of mostly American individuals and institutions. In her evaluation of the journal, Peju Layiwola, a scholar and artist who lives and works in Nigeria, who also benefitted from the James S. Coleman African Studies Center's giveaway of back issues at the Fifteenth Triennial, said: “I have found the African Arts journal a great resource: first as a graduate student between 1989–1991 and much later, cited it as a reference material for my students of art history. However, I find there is a near absence of writings of scholars based on the African continent in the journal. In fifty years, I would say that the journal has fared well but more needs to be done to correct this imbalance.”3 Then the pertinent question is: Could the “near absence of writings of scholars based on the African continent in the journal” be a conscious act of exclusion? I don't think so. Rather, I have reasons to believe that the “imbalance”—dominance of articles by Western scholars and a handful of African scholars in the diaspora—is a reflection of the ratio of submissions made (more from scholars in America and Europe, and a few from scholars in Africa). The strong peer-review is also another factor that whittles down the few submissions from Africa. In spite of that, African Arts readers desire “to see more articles and discussions by native Africans, not outsiders” (Futa 1992:12).
As the journal enters its fiftieth year, the editors have to find ways to get more African scholars based on the continent to make submissions; and I believe that with more submissions from Africa, more will be published. And by publishing more articles by African scholars on the continent, people will see that African Arts is not just a journal about African art by “outsiders” but a journal in which “insiders” have a strong voice. Nomusa Makhubu, a scholar and artist who lives and works in South Africa, is one of the few “insiders” whose articles have been published in the journal. She said: “African Arts has been beneficial for both my research and teaching. It has been a useful resource. Classic articles by scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson, Rowland Abiodun, Herbert M. Cole, Sidney Kasfir, Henry John Drewal, Donald Cosentino, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Ikem Stanley Okoye, and many others have informed my teaching and research. There are very few journals like it. I recommend it to my students often.”4 In conclusion, African Arts is an authoritative journal and its relevance to scholars and students in Africa cannot be overemphasized. The journal surely occupies a place of pride in Africa.
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie (2010) queries Okwui Enwezor's practice of using mostly African Diaspora artists in his definition of contemporary African arts through the mega-exhibitions he has curated. The same issue of exclusion that affects artists living and working on the African continent is raised by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu (2012). The practice or politics of exclusion is implied in Peju Layiwola's statement: “I find there is a near absence of writings of scholars based on the African continent in the journal” (personal communication, June 22, 2016).
Jean Borgatti, personal communication, July 12, 2016.
Peju Layiwola, personal communication, June 22, 2016.
Nomusa Makhubu, personal communication, June 26, 2016.