After fifty years of uninterrupted publication, African Arts is venerable by any measure. Given how sadly shorter-lived most humanities journals have proven, that African Arts remains relevant to sharp-edged creativity across and about the continent is all the more remarkable. An argument can be made that African Arts has been progressive from its inception, insofar as Eurocentric notions of what constitutes “art” have been challenged through in-depth, archival, and feet-on-the-ground research of local aesthetics (e.g. Thompson 1973, Abiodun 1994), bringing voices and choices of African interlocutors to the fore. Even the “s” of African Arts— the plural, that is—is provocative, for it challenges any sense that African “art” as a collective noun is to be understood of a piece, or that artworks are only “high” and thus worthy of consideration if confined to the sculptures that first caught European eyes, influenced early European Modernists so famously, and currently sell at auction for astronomical sums. Instead, as Herbert Cole (1969) presciently encouraged us to consider in an early issue of African Arts, if art is understood as a verb as well as a noun, emphasis may be placed upon processes rather than solely given to final forms, helping us to grasp the ever-changing reasons why and how artists create what they do (Fig. 1). In other words, we may consider philosophies and methods of making, rather than admiring formal qualities of art objects as the end-all of scholarship.2 The “s” of “Arts” further recognizes the astonishing multiplicity of perspectives across the continent's fifty-five states (including the disputed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic); its more than 2000 ethnicities, languages, and religions; its long and shorter histories, including those of various colonial moments; and its profusion of intellectual and artistic achievements over the millennia and up to this very second.
Many expressive themes have been addressed in African Arts, from “traditional” ritual arts to “contemporary” theatrical performances.3 Before considering some of these, let us ponder the quotation marks of this last sentence, for among the theoretical and ideological issues long debated in the journal's pages, distinct issue has been taken with spurious notions of stasis all too readily associated with “tradition,” as though African peoples are somehow timeless and without long and complex exchanges of ideas and practices within the continent and across the waters.4 Similarly, from the very first issue of African Arts, the question has been raised as to whether expression can ever be anything but “contemporary.” What points of reference are appropriately considered with regard to this latter term of such evident temporal relativity? Surely not Europe alone or even primarily, even though sub-Saharan African histories have been closely bound to those of Europe for well over 500 years now, and those of northern Africa and the Horn for far longer than that. Just as surely, “contemporary” must refer to senses of self and circumstance held and most probably debated by all human communities and their various members at every moment of time. The point to be made here is that positions of “conventional wisdom” about African peoples and their arts have been questioned from the journal's beginnings.
The first issues of African Arts present the panoply of expressive themes that have characterized the journal for the last half century. Reflective yet theoretically stimulating pieces by Léopold Sédar Senghor and Albert Memmi (both 1967) introduced African Arts to the world. President Senghor's important contribution is published in English for the first time in the present issue of African Arts, introduced and translated by Brian Quinn. Albert Memmi offered an allegorical prose poem about the great ambivalences of his own existence as an “Arab Jew” of Tunisia, thus positing mimetic perplexities similar to those developed in his landmark polemic The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965).5 The gauntlet was thrown: Difficult questions about life in early postcolonial Africa would not be ignored in the journal's pages, and instead, they would be among the publication's primary raisons d'être, as they remain today.
Literary criticism, original poetry, and fiction were early features of the journal. For example, Albert Gérard provided an overview of literature from Cabo Verde, still a Portuguese colony in 1968 but independent after 1975. The presentation of “an impressive body of imaginative writing” in Portuguese and Crioulo, often inflected by saudade—plaintive distress from the difficult circumstances of life in a small archipelago whence Cabo Verdeans were and are longing for better elsewheres (Gérard 1968:62–63)—was engaging and instructive unto itself. Yet Gérard's piece also bespeaks two important features of African Arts: attention to less-familiar communities of the continent and recognition of how significant Lusophone and Creole forms of expression have been and are to African histories of “thoughts and hands.”6
Senegalese literary critic Mohamadou Kane (1968) presented a caveat in his contribution to the first volume of African Arts, however, urging that expatriate writers verse themselves in the languages and cultures of the African authors whose works they would discuss. While such an assertion may seem self-evident in 2017, it was progressive indeed so few years after independence was won by most African states in the early 1960s and noteworthy that African scholars such as Kane should choose the pages of African Arts to make such potent declarations.
In a similarly provocative manner, Dorothea Gallup (1968) discussed how violence was a theme of Francophone Algerian novels written during the convulsive years 1950–1962. In so doing, not only did she bring attention to how the arts contribute to understanding and, one can hope, resolution of fraught political circumstances, she also set in train an ongoing sensitivity to such courageous productions in the pages of African Arts. That similar positions remain integral to the journal is evident in a special issue on “trauma and representation in Africa” organized by Kim Miller and Shannen Hill in 2005, which featured pieces on artistic reactions to the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi (Kasfir 2005; Fig. 2) and to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Mirzoeff 2005).
Two moving works in the first issue of African Arts, a poem by “Ghana's most interesting younger poet” George Awoonor-Williams and a short story by the Nigerian novelist John Munonye, introduced these idioms to many readers. More affecting writing would come, such as “Of Silence, of Noise” by the celebrated Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah (1972), even if formal interest in fiction would soon be ceded to more evidently literary publications. Notably, Munonye's piece was illustrated with drawings by Ibrahim el-Salahi, then professor at the School of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum. The cross-regional nature of the decision to illustrate Nigerian writing with Sudanese drawings should be recognized as progressive indeed.7
El-Salahi's first color portfolio appeared in the same issue of African Arts, following exhibition of his paintings at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1965 (Fig. 3). As he explained, “through the abstracted rhythmic shapes of calligraphy,” he was
led to visualize the presence of objects, the human figure, and a whole world of imagery.” He further asserted that “Islamic scholars say there is nothing at all to restrict you from reproducing the human image as you want. In a way it's a kind of prayer too, because you are appreciating God's creations and trying to think about them and meditate on His creativity” (el-Salahi 1967:21, 26).
In so doing, el-Salahi averred that he discovered himself through his work.8
That a Muslim contemporary artist from the Sudan should be featured so prominently in the first issue of African Arts is significant in its recognition of complexities of African life that are still very much with us fifty years later, including the fact that while Islam has been a religion of Africa since the days of the Prophet nearly fourteen hundred years ago, some assume that it is a faith foreign to the continent.9 Countering any such sense, a wide variety of arts of Islam in Africa have been written about in the journal, including a signal introduction to the architecture of Islam in West Africa by Labelle Prussin (1968; Fig. 4), a discussion of Muslim masquerade in western Burkina Faso by René Bravmann (1977), and an engaging photo essay on “Sufi Sheikhs, Sheikhas, and Saints of the Sudan” by Frédérique Cifuentes (2008). Christianity is as African as Islam, of course, and as one would expect, Christian arts of Africa have also received extensive attention in African Arts; witness recent pieces on early visual and performance arts of Kongo kingdoms by Cécile Fromont (2011) and Geoffroy Heimlich (2016), and on the creativity and entrepreneurial activities of contemporary Christian artists of Ethiopia by Neal Sobania and Raymond Silverman (2009; Fig. 5).
Interestingly enough, in a provocative “Letter from London” by Dennis Deurden in the journal's same first issue, el-Salahi's work was discussed in the context of a London exhibition of works by contemporary artists Skunder Boghossian of Ethiopia and Twins Seven Seven of Nigeria, among others.10 Following what Deurden called the “cultural ethnocentrism” of Europeans “who regard[ed] Africa as their lost Arcadia” and who longed for the sorts of “naked, direct communication” they perceived as yet possible on the continent, unnamed London critics found el-Salahi “too much like an artist in Paris or New York,” with the further “faint suggestion” that as an African, he was “inevitably doomed to become a poor example of the latter,” even as he had become insufficiently “African” to suit the tastes of some (Duerden 1967:29, 67). Contestations of the sort are still the stuff of postcolonial debate (e.g., Chakrabarty 2007), and clearly, such controversy has been welcome in the pages of African Arts from the start. In el Sahali's case, it is a joy to see that his work continues to be recognized, as in an exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2013. Indeed, he is the first African artist to be accorded a retrospective at that hallowed institution, as celebrated in African Arts by another visionary African Modernist, the Ghanaian painter Atta Kwami (2014).11
Theater found a place in the first issues as well, with an illuminating piece by Jean Decock (1967) discussing two plays by the great Martinican writer Aimé Césaire, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe about the king of Haiti, and Saison au Congo concerning the assassination of Patrice Lubumba. In an article two issues later, Decock (1968) discussed staged productions of what was then called the National Folk Troupe of Mali, suggesting that such spectacles blur distinctions between ritual and theater. In so doing, he foreshadowed many thoughtful contributions to African Arts, such as Polly Richards's “Masques Dogons in a Changing World” (2005; Fig. 6), as well as conversations of the early 1980s between Victor Turner, as a scholar of African ritual, and Richard Schechner, as a director of avant-garde theater, that would lead to foundation of Performance Studies as a discipline.12
Such progressive approaches to contemporary writing have long been balanced by writers' consideration of oral narrative as a more “traditional” mode of expression, as exemplified by an early article by Elie Ekogamve (1969) on the praise poems of Fang people of Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea (then still the Spanish colony of Rio Muni). A brief piece by Daniel Ben-Amos (1967) recounts collective presentation of tales that “are both history and art” in the Nigerian Kingdom of Benin, stressing the significance of women's participation in such storytelling. Later contributions have explored other aspects of African folklore, such as Donald Cosentino's 1980 study of a particular storyteller in Sierra Leone named Lele Gbomba, whose style he termed “Mende Baroque.” In this same piece, Cosentino brought attention to humor, both as enjoyed by Gbomba's audiences and by readers of African Arts through Cosentino's rollicking writing. His “Mende Ribaldry” of 1982 signaled a no-holds-barred approach to profoundly grounded yet startling presentation of lived realities that would carry Cosentino—and his many fans— through presentations of Haitian Vodou (e.g., Cosentino 1988) that remain gripping, insightful and, often enough, hilarious.
While both theater and oral narratives have received enduring if intermittent attention in African Arts, music, dance, and related performance arts, also discussed in first issues, have received increasing coverage, as witnessed by a recent piece by Robert Bellinger on “The Géwël Tradition Project” (2013), about praise-singing in Senegal and adjacent countries. Such expressive scenes were set by Lois Anderson's survey of “the African xylophone,” with specific attention to Uganda and adjacent eastern Africa. One can assume that the article has been useful to undergraduate teaching, given the engaging ethnographic details Anderson provided about an instrument and its music that may seem well known yet differ so remarkably from place to place—as when wooden keys were affixed to resonating banana trunks and played by as many as six musicians at the Buganda royal court, producing compelling rhythms conveyed over great distances (1967:47). It is worth underscoring that teaching was an explicit purpose of the founding of African Arts in the 1960s, given the dearth of attention to African humanities in college textbooks then as now.13
The pedagogical potential of African Arts is further illustrated by an exceptional piece in the second issue by David Ames (1968) comparing musicians and musical practices among Igbo and Hausa peoples of Nigeria. During Ames's fieldwork, the small cluster of rural Igbo hamlets known as Obimo reflected precepts and everyday activities of subsistence farming in an “egalitarian,” “individualistic” society. Music accompanied many different circumstances, from sacred rituals to leisure-time recreation, but while expertise was appreciated, there were no professional musicians. In contrast, Hausa society was strictly stratified, and musicians and a number of other professionals were not well regarded by elites, even though their praise-singing was widely sought. Ames was well ahead of his time in his nuanced study matching a keen eye for cultural dynamism with broader societal comparison. Breakthrough work of this sort has made African Arts a platform for development of fields like Ethnomusicology, still in its infancy in the late 1960s when the journal first appeared.14
Also of note in the Ames article are the brilliant color illustrations that have remained a hallmark of African Arts throughout its half century of publication.15 One dramatically composed photograph (Fig. 7) shows two heralds playing meters-long trumpets before the ornate façade of the Emir of Zaria's palace, one blowing “a traditional trumpet made of brass, the other an instrument made of kerosene tins” (Ames 1968:40). This tiny detail, so easily passed over, nonetheless suggests that updated expressive practices have been studied by hundreds of the journal's contributing authors over all these years (e.g., Seriff 1996). Brass creatively replaced by recycled tin is incorporated into Ames's presentation as though such updating of material culture is to be expected and celebrated rather than decried, as Eurocentric romanticists might in pursuit of an “Arcadian Africa,” following Dennis Deurden's (1967) reasoning mentioned above.
Dance and related performance idioms were understood to be of fundamental importance to any presentation of African arts, whether in “traditional” or “contemporary” circumstances. In the journal's third issue, for instance, anthropologist Hilda Kuper evocatively discussed movement practices in Swaziland, southern Africa. Every year at the summer solstice, Incwala celebrates kingship as associated with “fertility, authority, and order in the universe.” As “the Bull, the Lion, the Inexplicable, the Great Mountain,” the Swazi king “performs an inspired solo” dance to empower the moment (Kuper 1968:58).16 As significant as such artistry may be to social harmony, however, Kuper suggested that “body movement … is a particularly suggestive symbol for evoking mixed reactions,” for “dance is an approved public declaration of a specific identity,” and indeed, “the dance is made by the person, but the person is in turn made by the dance” (1968:57). The political and reflexive implications of Kuper's thoughts foreshadow elements of dance theories of our own days (e.g., Lepecki 2016).
“Dance in a changing society” was a topic engaged by Peggy Harper in the journal's first issue, with primary reference to her own work as a choreographer then directing the School of Dance in the Drama Department at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. As yet another African Arts author ahead of her time, Harper began with a discussion of dance criticism and how “the audience-performer relationship” differs “in ethnic and theatrical dance situations,” with this latter referring to staged performances for urbane, multicultural audiences before which works by Wole Soyinka and other local playwrights were performed by professional actors and dancers (Fig. 8). In a related vein, Judith and William Hanna explained how performances at the Expo ‘67 World's Fair in Montreal by “Heart Beat of Uganda,” a national troupe of dancers and musicians, were meant to “enhance national pride and unity” by “trying to forge a ‘traditionalized’ national identity” presented to a global audience (1968:42). The tensions of continuity and change were performed as well, as they are by various African national ballets in our own days (see Kringelbach 2008). Finally, Harper's approach to “dance in a changing society” is echoed in the self-conscious performances of South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma (2011; Fig. 9), or the activism of the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula with whom Maqoma sometimes collaborates, as Linyekula and his colleagues seek to direct young people toward dance rather than violence in the war-torn city of Kisangani (Dupray 2013).
Needless to say, many more expressive themes featured in African Arts over the decades might be mentioned, such as women's arts, which were implicit in early contributions that mentioned women's roles in artistic production but did not focus upon them as a topic unto itself (e.g., Davis 1974), and then received more direct attention as culturally specific feminist approaches became developed and applied (Kasir 1998). Body arts (e.g., Klemm 2009), ceramics (Berns 1989), textiles and dress (Daly, Eicher, and Erekosima 1986; Fig. 10), and contemporary fashion (Loughran 2003) have also been covered extensively. But what about film (Vieyra 1968), graffiti (Marschall 2008), cartooning and comics (Repetti 2007), colonial postcards (Prochaska 1991), and even philately (Posnansky 2004)? Consideration of these and a host of other topics still leaves Loxodonta africana in the room: What about sculpture? We may respond and close this conversation with another question: Has there been an issue of African Arts over the last half century that has not celebrated such wonderful works?
From a statement by the poet-nationalist Léopold Sédar Senghor, then President of the Republic of Senegal, welcoming inauguration of African Arts (1967:6). The piece was published in French, and a full English translation is offered to readers for the first time by Brian Quinn in the present issue of the journal.
For a most stimulating discussion of “making” that is apposite for reflecting upon African artistic production, see Stewart 2011.
The obvious should be stated: Two hundred issues of African Arts have been published over the last fifty years, offering well over 2500 articles and other scholarly features to readers around the world; see Herbert Cole's 2007 review of the first forty years. By no means do the themes and authors mentioned in the present piece represent the totality or the “best” of all accomplishments of and writers for the journal.
Pertinent retorts abound; see, for example, Duerden 1967, Lamp 1996, and Sobania and Silverman 2009; yet unfortunate terms like “primitive” and “crude” (brut in French) continue to be used in some circles. It may be noted that although African Arts was called a “magazine” in its early years, I refer to it in the present article as a “journal” because of its consistent contributions to scholarship.
Memmi (1968) published a second provocative piece in African Arts three issues later that was dedicated to Senghor and that contrasted the latter savant's sense of Négritude with Memmi's own of what he termed Judéité. The piece was illustrated by a Janus mask of Ekoi people of Nigeria from the UCLA Wellcome Collection (now at the Fowler Museum), and one may note that in translating the title as “The Negro and the Jew,” the editors misconstrued the author's dualistic ontological intentions. If I may be permitted the conceit of a personal anecdote regarding Memmi's principal oeuvre, The Colonizer and the Colonized was among works in the book locker I was provided as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Chad (1968–1970), and reading it in tandem with its locker-mate, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization by Octave Mannoni (1956), set the intellectual course of my career in African Studies. As a further conceit, I dedicate the present paper to Polly and her parents, Nancy and Robert Nooter, for whom African arts have been a life-long joy.
Attention to less familiar places and artistic media is exemplified by Doran Ross's 1993 piece on Carnaval masquerades of Guinea-Bissau, or Prita Meier's of 2009 on display tactics along the Swahili Coast. Attention to Lusophone Africa is manifest in Marie-Louise Bastin's several contributions on Angolan arts, such as her piece on ritual masks of Chokwe peoples in 1984, as respectfully updated by Manuel Jordán in 2000. Initiatives of the sort are ongoing, as the arts of many African communities have yet to be presented in the pages of African Arts, whereas all are welcome topics.
For more recent consideration of relationships between verbal and visual arts, see Palmeirim 2008 on Aruwund/Lunda people of southwestern DRC and northeastern Angola.
In the “First Word” of the first issue of African Arts, it is explained that “the el-Salahi portfolio first took form … when one of the editors met el-Salahi in Khartoum; this chance encounter was an important stimulus to our efforts to found this magazine” (Anon. 1967). See Steven Nelson's discussion of contemporary arts in African Arts in the present issue. It may be noted that in the fifty years since el-Salahi shared these thoughts, Wahhabi conservatism has precluded depiction of humans by Sudanese artists remaining in their native land, despite the reality that el-Salahi expressed so clearly, that the Qu'ran does not prohibit any such practice; see Naef 2004.
In 613 ce (sometimes understood as 615), the Prophet sent a small group of followers and members of his family into exile from their persecution in Mecca, in what is known as the First Flight or Hijrah (Hegira) of Islam. They were received and protected by the Christian king of Abyssinia, Negus Ashama of Axum. Such histories are to be found on many online sites, e.g. http://mercyprophet.org/mul/node/1023.
The careers of these same artists have been traced in the pages of African Arts, as in a review of Oshun, a record by Twins Seven Seven who was a talented musician as well as painter (Witmer 1982), and a moving tribute to the same artist offered by Henry Glassie (2012). Skunder Boghossian's work is contextualized by Rebecca Nagy (2007) in a preview of the “Continuity and Change: Three Generations of Ethiopian Artists” exhibition organized by the University of Florida's Harn Museum.
El-Salahi's more recent work is discussed by Sarah Adams (2006), and the book Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, edited by Salah Hassan and written to accompany an exhibition of the same title that was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York that then traveled to the Tate in London, is reviewed by W. Ian Bourland (2012). On Atta Kwami's modernist achievements, see Kristen Windermuller-Luna's 2016 review of the artist's monograph Kumasi Realism, 1951–2007: An African Modernism (Kwami 2013).
As an example of the editors' educational intent, the anonymous author of the “First Word” to the first issue of African Arts explained that “a colorful and varied offering” would be presented to readers through offset printing of color photographs, and choice of a heavy paper stock would “insure better production of illustrations and preclude deterioration in tropic climes” in hopes that the magazine would be widely distributed to African readers via African university libraries. Furthermore, a thousand extra sets of color pages would also be created for use by schools in the United States (1967:58).
Ethnomusicology has nineteenth-century roots but is generally considered to have become an academic discipline in 1960 when Dr. Mantle Hood created the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA as the first degree-granting university program in the United States (see https://www.ethnomusic.ucla.edu/history-of-ethnomusicology-at-ucla). Ames was trained as an anthropologist, and his comparative consideration of “musical behavior” rather than the particularities of musical composition and style appears to differ from some directions of Ethnomusicology; see, for example, Bruno Nettl's criticism of the Ames article (1983:63), in which analogy is nonetheless drawn to the similar approach of Alan Lomax, who remains an avatar of the discipline.
Herbert Cole (2007:1) reported that “19,565 photographs (including objects in advertisements)” were published during the first forty years of African Arts.
Incwala is still understood as “Swaziland's most important cultural event …. that has lasted for hundreds of years”; see http://www.thekingdomofswaziland.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=55.