African Arts is celebrating its half-century milestone! Its first issue was published in autumn of 1967, the brainchild of UCLA faculty Paul O. Proehl and John Povey, who became its first editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively. We celebrated the 100th issue in October 1992 (vol. 25, no. 4), and did so under the leadership of Doran H. Ross and Donald J. Cosentino, who joined the editorial board in 1988 (Cosentino retired in 2004 and Ross in 2015). Their decision was to look back at the history of African Arts and the field of African art studies through the “personal perspectives of two of the discipline's most celebrated practitioners”: Roy Sieber and Robert Farris Thompson. Ross's comprehensive interview with Sieber and Cosentino's with Thompson provided fascinating recollections by these two pioneering scholars, who ruminated about their lives, their research, and the emergence of the field. Twenty-five years later their words still bear revisiting. In the same issue, the First Word written by executive editor Amy Futa, with tongue partly in cheek, reported on the results of a questionnaire that had been circulated to subscribers about the editorial content of African Arts. Some of the “likes and dislikes” expressed then hold true even today, although one of the strongest critiques of the journal has been recently resolved by the near total absence of advertisements, allowing African Arts to truly assume the identity of a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. The 100th issue also memorialized another UCLA landmark event—the opening of the new Fowler Museum of Cultural History, whose own history aligns closely with that of African Arts, having been founded in 1963. It was only fitting that the issue featured a preview article by Fowler Deputy Director Doran Ross on his inaugural African exhibition in the new building, “Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture.”
The next opportunity for a retrospective summation came with the fortieth anniversary of African Arts, when Herbert “Skip” Cole (Cole 2007) offered us a long First Word. His thorough overview of the journal's contributions to the field of African art studies used informal statistical analyses and asked key questions about its trends, accomplishments, shortcomings, and challenges. Cole was chosen for this task as someone who not only had been a consulting editor for over thirty years but was also an “elder” who possessed long and deep knowledge of our discipline.
Now that we have reached the fiftieth volume and are approaching the 200th issue, the editors have decided that the journal deserves recognition of equal magnitude. Instead of devoting just one issue to the event as we did for our twenty-fifth we are dedicating all four issues of this volume to various themes and strategies of looking back and looking forward. Just last year, in vol. 49, no. 1, the UCLA team unveiled a new editorial consortium model. In her First Word, Leslie Ellen Jones, executive editor and art director, aptly observed that this shift “marks the beginning of a new era for African Arts” (Jones 2015:1). Whereas editorial responsibility had been vested exclusively in the hands of UCLA Africanists, it is now shared with our colleagues at three other institutions where the study of Africa and of African art flourishes: University of Florida, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Rhodes University of South Africa. The names of the editorial board at each campus will appear on the masthead of every issue. We are particularly proud to welcome our newest Africa-based consortium partner, Rhodes University—or the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR)—with Ruth Simbao as its initial editor. The inclusion of Rhodes allows us to move closer to the wish expressed by our editors in the very first issue: that an institution in Africa will be “able to take over our task” (Anon. 1967:3). Our goal is not one of asking an African institution to “take over,” but to provide a stronger voice to the issues and debates that occupy our colleagues in Africa. The two First Words in this issue, written by Tobenna Okwuosa of Nigeria and Anitra Nettleton of South Africa, end by calling for the future of the journal as a “platform for many more African voices to be heard” (see Nettleton this issue).
Each consortium partner has constructed its issue around a different theme. Vol. 50, no. 2 is Rhodes University's inaugural issue and has been titled Positioning Africa. Simbao defines it as one that will engage with “the geopolitics of knowledge in relation to the arts of Africa”; it “also marks the beginning of an ongoing process of engagements, collaborations, and partnerships that will focus on raising the visibility of Africa-based scholars in the field while grappling with geopolitical analyses of Africa.” It aims to greatly increase the participation of authors on the African continent, a goal all of the editors of African Arts strongly endorse. The Rhodes issue surely will address some of the concerns Nettleton expresses in her First Word here and share with the journal's diverse global readership how Africa-based collaborations will “position scholars on the African continent as critical contributors to the discourse of African art.” The current climate in South Africa, and surely elsewhere on the continent, is part of a larger conversation that also recognizes the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and foregrounds efforts to decolonize African universities, like Rhodes.
The editors at the University of Florida—Susan Cooksey, Rebecca M. Nagy, Fiona McLaughlin, Robin Poynor, and MacKenzie Moon Ryan—have chosen to build their anniversary issue, vol. 50, no. 3, around what they describe as an “idea that inspired so much of African art in the past: ancestors and elders.” The Florida editorial board has asked a number of colleagues who are “elders” to think about the roles played by several key ancestors of our field, whether individuals who have actually gone to the realm of the ancestors or those who have achieved what they consider “living ancestor” status. Five articles will discuss five such eminent leaders who have directly or will indirectly influence future generations of scholars in the field. This issue circles back to Roy Sieber and Robert Farris Thompson as “ancestors,” and it will be interesting to read about these pioneering leaders from the point of view of those who were not elders at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary issue, when Sieber and Thompson, as elders, spoke about themselves. Monica Visonà has been invited to write a First Word that will address the basic question: How did the scholarship disseminated in African Arts influence the discipline of art history in the United States?
For the fourth and final issue of vol. 50, the editors at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill—Lisa Homann, Carol Magee, David G. Pier, and Victoria L. Rovine—have proposed a meditation on the future of African Arts and the future of African art scholarship. Their issue will explore a series of questions:
Are we predisposed to think about the future in certain ways, and in what ways are these dispositions shaped by historical configurations of power? What are some of the distinctive problems and potentials African artists, African art scholars, and African publics have encountered in concepts and practices of futurity? What should we make of the recent espousal by many African and diasporic artists of an explicitly “Afrofuturist” perspective; is this a genuinely different orientation, or simply a relabeling of the modern artist's perennial search for new and prophetic expressions? In earlier eras, what other futures—perhaps since forgotten—did African artists have in mind that may have shaped their work? And how might technologies expand beyond longstanding methods of art making, research, or analysis to engage with notions of the future for African Arts and their study?
The current issue—the first in the fiftieth anniversary sequence—has been organized by UCLA's editorial board—myself, Patrick A. Polk, Allen F. Roberts, and Mary Nooter Roberts. Our approach is primarily one of “looking back,” doing so by assessing where the journal started when it was launched in 1967 and identifying some of the areas of editorial focus that can be traced to its initial priorities and convictions and that distinguish it today. Two African colleagues write First Words about the impact of African Arts for a continental readership, where access to the journal has been uneven and challenging and a “view of African art/material culture … was researched and told almost exclusively by white researchers” (Nettleton this issue). As a senior scholar and professor emerita, Anitra Nettleton looks at the historical accessibility of the journal to a readership in South Africa, especially under apartheid, and how its absence and presence has had an impact on the students she has taught. Tobenna Okwuosa is a younger artist and critic based in southern Nigeria whose exposure to African Arts began only as a graduate student in 2002 at the University of Benin, where he saw his first copies in visiting professor Jean Borgatti's office. Okwuosas access to the journal has increased greatly over time (he now has 126 issues on his shelves, many procured as part of a giveaway African Arts offered to Triennial participants in 2011) and he acknowledges the breadth of its content and relevance to his own education. Like Nettleton, he too ends by making a strong plea for a greater inclusivity of African voices.
We begin this issue with an English translation of Léopold Sédar Senghor's essay written for the inaugural issue of African Arts in 1967, which also was chosen as its first lead article. Senghors importance as a statesman, poet, and intellectual gave the journal gravitas and also signaled its connectedness to Africa and to the relatively newfound independence and political realities of many of its countries. Why Senghor to launch the journal in 1967? It appears that in that year he made an official visit to Los Angeles for two days as a guest of Mayor Sam Yorty, and it is likely that he visited UCLA and its African Studies Center, which was founded in 1959 and was one of only two in existence west of the Mississippi.1 We can surmise that the editors of the journal invited the distinguished President of Senegal to write a thought-piece on African arts broadly expressed, and he did so in an essay he titled “Standards Critiques de l'Art Africain.” Though pointedly of its time, the current UCLA editors deemed reprinting it now, and in English, as equally timely in the context of our historical reflections on the journal and on our field. Brian Quinn, a recent UCLA PhD in French and Francophone Studies who wrote a dissertation on Senegal, translated the article and provides an insightful introduction.
The issue then looks in some depth at three select thematic emphases of the journal's editorial content, especially as each has developed since the first 1967 issue: contemporary arts, photography, and expressive arts. African Arts' original mandate and mission as “a quarterly magazine devoted to the graphic, plastic, performing, and literary arts of Africa, traditional and contemporary” has morphed somewhat over time to “present original research and critical discourse on traditional, contemporary, and popular African arts and expressive cultures.” The expansive original mandate of the journal's founders narrowed after the first decade of publication, with the focus shifting to the “tradition-based” sculptural arts of Africa, especially those south of the Sahara, which were explicated primarily via the original research that dominated the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. The absolute centrality of African Arts to teaching and as a forum for the dissemination of new research by multidisciplinary scholars in the field became institutionalized during those decades. By the mid-1990s the purview began to widen again, and the journal is now dominated largely by articles on contemporary African art and expressive culture (see Cole 2007).
Steven Nelson, in his article “‘Daringly Experimental and Versatile’: African Arts and the Contemporary,” pinpoints 1993 as the turning point in the journal's relationship with contemporary African art with its critical coverage of the exhibition and publication, “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art” (see vol. 26, no. 1). As a former editor of African Arts and the current Director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center (the journal's publisher) and Professor of African and African American Art History at UCLA, Nelson has turned his attention to the early years of the journal's history and its editors' preoccupation with framing the contemporary arts of Africa as “daringly experimental and versatile.” Nelson's excavation of their early efforts make fascinating reading and show them to have been progressive advocates of the sophistication and vibrancy of contemporary artistic production and of the important role African Arts played as a platform and outlet for its dissemination in its first volumes. The same can be said to be true of the journal now and into the future.
Christraud M. Geary, historian of African photography and the journal's Photo Essay editor, writes an anniversary reflection on African Arts and photography. In it she looks broadly at the genre's essential role over the decades, beginning as a device for documenting and contextualizing African art observed in the field. Indeed, one of the most admired aspects of African Arts has been its publication of mostly high quality color photographs of objects or of their contexts of use (even if its editors and designers have long lamented the skills of many researcher-photographers). Geary's essay also looks at how the journal has kept up with developments in the field as scholars have studied and critiqued archival photography collections, colonial perspectives, the historical work of indigenous African photographers and of the most current contemporary visual artists. As Geary looks to the future, there is little doubt that upcoming issues will continue to focus on “various aspects of African photographies.”
Allen F. Roberts, an editor of the journal since 1999 and UCLA Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, writes about the “‘Relations Between Thoughts and Hands’: Expressive Themes of African Arts,” riffing on one of the poetic phrases in Senghor's essay reprinted here and tracing the progressive ways many “arts” have been manifest in the pages of the journal even though some have clearly come and gone. This insightful sweep ranges widely and indicates how so many of the journal's touchpoints over time were prefigured in its first issue. With his deep immersion in the field as a scholar of expressive culture and as a longtime editor of the journal, Roberts picks and chooses key articles and authors in his thematic journey and notes at the end that in so few pages it is difficult to cover everything and everyone deserving mention.
From the journal's inception there have been regular feature stories on museum collections. This began in 1967, not surprisingly with a short portfolio on “African Negro Sculpture” from UCLA's Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology (which would become today's Fowler Museum), written by its then curator and a founding editor of African Arts, Ralph C. Altman. In 1967, the Museum had just received the famed Wellcome Collection from London; it joined the earlier purchase of the Hallet Collection, which launched the Fowler's early collecting of African arts. Exhibition reviews and previews also have been regular fixtures of the journal, starting with Dennis Duerden's “London Letter: Exhibition of Contemporary African Art, 1967” (Duerden 1967). The comprehensive exhibition previews that have emerged allow many of us to “see” exhibitions that occur in places we are unable to visit. These projects have become significant avenues for disseminating scholarship and for creating informative and inspiring contexts to bring objects (many unknown to us from private or unpublished museum collections) in direct juxtaposition with ideas. As Mary Nooter Roberts wrote in a recent First Word for this journal, “A defining aspect of the field of African art history is the degree to which exhibitions have shaped an understanding of the arts of the continent” (Nooter Roberts 2012:4).
There are two previews in this issue, both introducing major exhibitions on view this winter at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In keeping with the Fowler's commitment to producing major traveling exhibitions based on intensive scholarship, “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” is the first major museum exhibition to focus on fashions from the continent and diaspora that feature African-print cloth. Its curatorial team, led by Suzanne Gott, includes Kristyne Loughran, Leslie W. Rabine, and Betsy D. Quick. The accompanying publication will bring together the scholarship of eighteen contributing authors (including the cocurators and coeditors) and will stand as the definitive text on the subject. As the Preview here explains, the significance of this particular exhibition on African fashion lies in its expansive historical scope and its focus on both local and global styles as well as the work of contemporary artists who use fashion to express ideas about heritage and transcultural identities. For those who may not see the exhibition itself, the Preview walks you through all five sections of the exhibition and uses a broad selection of fashion and art to illustrate and explicate its themes.
Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, an editor of the journal since 1999 and Professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, offers us a thorough introduction to her new exhibition, “The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts,” which she has organized as consulting curator of African art at LACMA. This ambitious exhibition follows a lineage of others she has curated that probe the conceptual contours of African art, especially as objects have assumed deep and profound meanings for their makers and users. “The Inner Eye” seeks to challenge viewers to see what is unseen from the point of view of the African “artists and performers as visionaries who bring works to life.” It also asks visitors to stretch beyond the rather cursory nature of typical museum “looking” to gaze upon the selected objects and apprehend them in “all their multidimensionality.” Roberts has selected her objects for their “artistic brilliance” and potential for “philosophical insight,” and the eight sections of the installation feature a breathtaking array of sculptures and textiles. Their reproductions here support the point made earlier that the photographs in African Arts are illuminating in and of themselves.
There will be much for readers of the fiftieth volume of African Arts to digest and enjoy over the next year. No doubt the retrospective views in these issues will take many of you down memory lanes of your own. With the sheer number of articles that have been published in the past fifty years, by necessity only some of you will find your names or articles mentioned. Let me invite each of you, however, to take a moment to recall your own contributions to African Arts—to the published articles and reviews that have both built its reputation and helped promote your careers. Many of us can chart the trajectories of our research and professional activities on the pages of this journal, whether as students, emerging or mature scholars, curators, and artists.
As a UCLA graduate student I worked as an editorial assistant to Amy Futa in the late 1970s and saw my first publications on the journal's pages via book and exhibition reviews. Later, I published here my first postdissertation articles sharing the highlights of my field research. I edited a special issue on “Ceramic Arts” as well as a double memorial issue dedicated to the late UCLA art historian Arnold Rubin. I have contributed to nearly every department of the journal since launching my postdoctoral career in 1986. I was invited to join the consulting editorial board and become the book review editor shortly thereafter. I have been grateful for the opportunity to publish my work in submissions large and small, to gather the work of colleagues into a “curated” cluster, and to share so many field photographs of new and little known artistic traditions largely from my research in northeastern Nigeria. When I returned to UCLA as Director of the Fowler Museum in 2001, I was invited to join the editorial board. Mine is notably a UCLA story, but I would venture to say that many of you can detail a similar frequency of connections to and interactions with African Arts over your careers, whether writing articles, First Words, Dialogue commentary, Research Notes or Artist Portfolios, Book or Exhibition Reviews, and hosting special issues. If African Arts can be credited with helping to shape our field and define its directions and concerns, then it is the aggregate of all your words and images that we celebrate as part of our fifty-year collective achievement.
I end by thanking our readership on behalf of the entire team of consortium editors for your past, present, and future contributions to the life and vitality of African Arts, whether you are authors, teachers, students, collectors, or simply cognoscenti of the wide-ranging content that distinguishes the journal. You have all played a role in making it a success. We offer special thanks to those of you who have served as consulting or departmental editors over the decades, work you have done as volunteers with a vested interest in the advancement our field. I second Skip Cole's observation ten years ago that the “too-small in-house staff in a too-small office” who “bring the journal miraculously to light four times a year” deserve our highest praise (Cole 2007). We thank the current indefatigable two-person team of Leslie Ellen Jones, Executive Editor and Art Director, and Eva Howard, Operations Manager, and further recognize their equally remarkable predecessors: Alice McGaughey, Amy Futa, Greg Cherry, and Sylvia Kennedy. Theirs was and is a commitment based on love and dedication to the production of a high quality unmatched forum for “original research and critical discourse on traditional, contemporary and popular African Arts and expressive culture.” Raise your glasses and make a toast to African Arts!
Special thanks to Ruby Bell-Gam, African Studies Bibliographer, UCLA Young Research Library, who ran a search of the Los Angeles Times archive to find mention of Senghor's visit to Los Angeles. He also returned to UCLA in 1971, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.