Sometime in 1975, I walked into the office of Arnold Rubin (1937–1988), an associate professor in the department of art at the University of California, Los Angeles, inquiring about graduate study in Africanist art history. Students of African art, he assured me, would be at the forefront of mighty changes in the academic world. He promised that we would blow the dust off the hidebound field of art history. Rather shaken by his passionate rhetoric, I left thinking I might be too conventional for such an avant-garde enterprise. So after a much more pragmatic conversation with Herbert M. (“Skip”) Cole about the shrinking number of teaching positions in art history, I headed to the University of California, Santa Barbara, for my graduate work. There I was plunged into a program of instruction and research that was full of its own unexpected adventures and rewards. While I have always been immensely grateful that Skip Cole agreed to be my advisor and guide, I have never forgotten Rubin's vision, his assertion that Africanist art historians would overturn entrenched paradigms and revolutionize the study of art.
This issue of African Arts celebrates a generation of scholars—the elders of our discipline—whose contributions shaped the journal when it was launched as african arts/arts d'afrique some fifty years ago. Arnold Rubin was one of these, as he had been appointed editor of “graphic and plastic arts” when the second issue of the fledgling magazine appeared in 1968. As a member of his students' generation, the cohort charged with bringing the study of African art into the twenty-first century, I would like to revisit my initial encounter with this influential scholar and teacher through the lens of African Arts. Has his vision indeed become a reality? Have Africanists reshaped the narrative of art history over the last fifty years and brought novel, interdisciplinary, Africa-centered approaches to a staid Eurocentric discipline?
Clearly, I encountered Arnold Rubin during a time when his own views had been shaped by the theoretical and methodological debates swirling around the art department at UCLA, and by his awareness of the new and rather tenuous position of Africanists within the discipline of art history. After all, in the United States the first dissertation on an African topic presented for a PhD in art history (rather than anthropology or Egyptology) had been written less than twenty years earlier, in 1957, by Roy Sieber (1923–2001). While art historians such as Douglas Fraser (1930–1982) may have taught courses on African art as “Primitive Art” during the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that Africanist scholars such as Sieber and Frank Willett (1925–2006) could draw on their own fieldwork when they offered classes in American art history departments. Rubin presented his thoughts on the development of the field at a conference on “African Art Studies in the 1980s” held at UCLA in 1979 and reviewed for African Arts by Marla Berns:1
In Rubin's opinion, African art studies have not yet adequately fulfilled their self-appointed mission of integrating the humanities with the social sciences to show how art works in society. Attainment of this objective would have important ramifications for the broader discipline of art history … His solution to parochialism is “to bring home these tools and techniques [developed by Africanists] and test them in the larger arena” of art historical scholarship (Berns 1979:18–19).
Although his ideas were disseminated in the classroom as well as through his many creative research projects, it is Rubin's association with African Arts in the first decade of its publication that allows us to examine how his goals for Africanist art history intersected with other impulses during a unique period. Fifty years ago, personal and professional relationships linking Americans and Africans promised to forge new ways of seeing and describing the world, and the excitement of this promise permeated the journal. I should note here that my own memories of that time were recently refreshed by a visit to an African country I had not seen in almost half a century. My brother arranged for me to join childhood friends and family members for a visit to Malawi, where our fathers had worked from 1964–1969, and where our mothers had volunteered in local colleges and hospitals. The church we had attended, constructed by members of the Church of Scotland congregation before 1891 (Briggs 2013:206), was still a vibrant place of worship in Blantyre (Fig. 1), its physical structure intact. I had only vague memories of an even earlier precolonial monument, the Mandala House, which had been the headquarters of the African Lakes Corporation in 1882 (Fig. 2). The interior is now a bright, sunny space managed by La Caverna, an art gallery specializing in paintings by Malawi's most influential modernists, while the upper floor houses the library and meeting rooms of the Malawi Historical Society. This venerable building thus enshrines the art history as well as the history of twentieth and twenty-first century Malawi, both pivoting around the nation's independence in 1964.
Flipping through the first few years of african arts/arts d'afrique, the bilingual precursor of African Arts, also brought me back to the heady days of the 1960s. Just as my father and his American colleagues set up a technical college as a “contribution from the people of the United States of America to the people of Malawi” when that nation became independent from Britain,2 the very first issue proclaimed, in boldface print, that “The African Studies Center of the University of California Los Angeles presents a gift [of the magazine] to Africa.” Since the journal and the technical school were offered to Africans at the height of the Cold War, when the continent and its resources were seen as vulnerable to influences from the Soviet Union, postcolonial theorists might characterize both as instruments wielded by the US government to ensure the loyalty of African allies.3 It was true that my father had been hired through an American university with funding from the Agency for International Development, while the growth of the African Studies Center at UCLA was nurtured by government grants and fellowships. Faculty and graduate students at UCLA were provided with funds for research on the African continent, allowing the African Studies Center to act as a “think tank” that was continually renewed by contacts with Africa. Former Peace Corps volunteers, sent by the US government to promote democracy and economic progress in Africa, enrolled in graduate programs after returning home, joining the ranks of scholars who studied the arts of the African continent. Yet despite their origins in hegemonic political policies, educational programs and initiatives such as african arts/arts d'afrique fostered a discourse that exposed Americans to African ways of knowing, to epistemologies which would lead researchers such as Arnold Rubin to challenge the assumptions of his own academic traditions.
In the second issue, the editors wrote that the purpose of the new journal would be “to record the art of the African past, to provide an outlet for the contemporary African artist, and to stimulate the creative arts in Africa” (Povey 1967:2). Judging from other short entries, the publication was a highly experimental enterprise. According to a later reflection written by John Povey (1929–1992), the specialist in African literature who was one of its original editors, “the entire original concept of African Arts derived from a purely serendipitous seat proximity on an airline which brought Paul [law professor Paul Proehl (1921–1997)] and [Sudanese artist] el Salahi together. They communed and agreed that what was really wanted was a magazine that would display the manifold arts of Africa—hence the plural title—to the world” (1991:6).4
Arnold Rubin had joined the editorial board quite soon after his arrival at UCLA. He was almost immediately joined by Skip Cole and by Eugene Grigsby, a professor of African and African American art history at Arizona State University. Other editors worked with them to assemble material celebrating a broad spectrum of African creativity. The first issues featured short essays on architecture, dance, theater, the cinema, music, literary criticism, and oral literature, in addition to an overview of the archaeology of Ife by Frank Willett, a reflective piece by Léopold Sédar Senghor, and reviews of contemporary art. Some of the discussions in these first volumes, such as a long essay by Bohumil Holas, were deeply primitivist, and John Povey himself could give way to paternalist pronouncements: “Somewhere between the inhibiting forms of the tradition and the too facile fashionable fads of contemporary art in the West, rests the legitimate area in which the African artist can create” (1968a:1). Yet in these years Dennis Duerden stated, “I am looking for an African kinetic artist, or one who uses a computer” (1967:30). Too few contributors would join him in expecting African artists of the 1970s and 1980s to engage with developments happening elsewhere in the world of contemporary art, and apparently neither video artists not digital arts would appear in the pages of African Arts prior to the twenty-first century. John Povey himself was startlingly prescient when he humbly acknowledged that “We hope that the possibilities supplied by the presence of this forum will encourage Africans to write their own account of their arts. Such essays will undoubtedly reveal to us areas of perception which are inevitably denied even to the most sympathetic of outside critics” (1968b:1). Unfortunately, the “presence” of the journal would diminish in African libraries and art centers during the following decades (Nettleton 2017, Okwuoso 2017), and as Simbao has clearly demonstrated (2017), scholars based on the African continent would be hindered from publishing their research in the journal by a variety of constraints. It is now clear that the laudable sentiments of Povey needed to have been accompanied by sustained action.
Soon after its inception, the editors announced an annual competition, with monetary prizes for winning submissions of art (two- and three-dimensional work) and literature (plays, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels) that would be published or reproduced in the magazine. Each issue would include reports by African “correspondents” providing “perceptive analyses of the underlying situation that confronts the African artist” (Povey 1968b:1). As a showcase for African literature, african arts/arts d'afrique was bilingual, offering essays in French and English. At the time, this was a sophisticated, European approach that addressed a wide, intercontinental readership, even if the possible incorporation of other languages commonly used in Africa (such as Arabic, Portuguese, or Swahili) was not mentioned. In many ways the magazine resembled creative modernist publication projects such as Minotaure, produced in Paris in the 1930s, or Black Orpheus, published in Ibadan after the 1950s, or Transition, launched in Kampala in the 1960s. What is striking, however, was the offer by the editors of african arts/arts d'afrique to distribute their color illustrations of African contemporary art to schools so that teachers could mount them on bulletin boards (Povey 1968a:38). This was a didactic effort to reach out to the American public, a program to dispel misconceptions about African cultures. In today's global art world, where critics value the transgressive, provocative stance of marginalized artists, few curators would attempt to place reproductions of contemporary African art in K-12 classrooms of the United States.
As Doran Ross noted in his review of the first twenty-five years of African Arts (Ross 1992:1), submissions of literary works and coverage of contemporary art faded away after the annual competitions came to an end in 1975. Just as Arnold Rubin brought his experience with performance, ephemeral art, and ritual in African contexts to his exploration of American cultural practices, African Arts covered a broad range of urban and rural artistic creativity in Africa and its Diaspora during the 1980s. It became a leading outlet for fresh, new accounts of artists' practice based on fieldwork conducted in communities throughout Western and Central Africa, and studies of arts from Eastern and Southern Africa were featured as well. Given the variety and sophistication of the new studies appearing in African Arts, its readers may not have noticed how few contributors were still visiting the studios of artists working in African galleries, cultural centers, and institutions of higher education. In a “First Word” written as African Arts approached its twenty-fifth anniversary, Povey complained that at the 1989 Triennial conference of ACASA, the Arts Council of the African Studies Association, “contemporary African art … was considered at best marginal, at worst a regrettable intrusion of a tiresome product outside the concerns of serious scholars” (1990:1). Other journals would eventually arise to cover arts identified as “contemporary,” such as Revue Noire (in 1991) and Nka (in 1994), and in last decade of the twentieth century African Arts itself would once again turn its attention to artists who had studied in African universities or art institutes. I would argue, though, that by neglecting critical studies of these African artists during the 1980s, Africanists missed the opportunity to interact with art historians in other “non-Western” fields, who were extending their own research methods into the study of modern and contemporary “global” arts (Sullivan 1996, Farago and Pierce 2006, Hay 2008).
Furthermore, because African Arts focused on community-based (rather than nationally based) art and architecture during the 1980s, it bypassed a pivotal period in the history of African modernisms. During my visit to Malawi, I was honored to meet Willie Nampeya, now professor emeritus in the art department at Chancellor College in Zomba, who had been a student of my mother, Barbara Blackmun (Fig. 3). After learning of the challenges faced by Prof. Nampeya and his younger colleagues, and realizing that they have worked for many years in relative isolation, I wish that I (and other faculty in American institutions) had been more aware of their need for international recognition and support (see Simbao 2017:6). Whatever the reasons, close contacts between art educators working in Africa and in the United States still tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
The switch to a monolingual format in volume 4 (and the adoption of the name African Arts) may have contributed to the diminishing number of articles on modernist cinema, literature, and theater appearing in the journal. One immediate casualty was the coverage of francophone northern Africa. During the first few years, contributors had written about artists based in Tunis and Cairo, providing material that is useful now for researchers reviewing the history of African modernism. The original inclusion of arts from the entire continent had reflected political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, when newly independent African states sponsored arts festivals in Dakar, Algiers, and Lagos that were expressions of African solidarity. Of course biennials and other exhibition events today return to this model by soliciting artworks from across the continent, weaving economic and political networks as part of national cultural policies. And of course many art fairs are sponsored by francophone African nations and produce bilingual texts.
The early articles on textiles, ceramics, and other artisanal traditions in the Maghreb were also responses to the work of historians and archaeologists, who were then mapping trade routes and the movements of people and ideas across the Sahara. But in the 1960s, art historians had often been introduced to African art by European modernists, who believed that only sub-Saharan Africa could produce art nègre, authentically “primitive” art. Even after abandoning the tenets of Primitivism, many art historians remained in thrall to the masterpieces of West Africa and Central Africa that had inspired early twentieth century French painters. It is not surprising that the pages of African Arts would be dominated by these regions, even though Africanists such as Rubin and Cole had moved far beyond formal analyses of sculpture to broader understandings of the totality of creative production on the continent in its very first issues.
Perhaps the shift away from Egypt and the Maghreb was also a result of the critiques of the field of African Studies in the 1970s, when African Americans affirmed their own ancestral links to ancient cultures. Following the lead of Robert Farris Thompson, many Africanists extended their art historical analyses to the Americas, narrating art histories as creative expressions of the Black Atlantic world. As African Studies in several institutions was subsumed under “Black Studies” or appended to departments of African American and Africana Studies, the art historical relationships between West Africans classified as “black” and North Africans seen as “non-black” by outside observers became more difficult to place within an American academic framework. When Sidney Kasfir reviewed Jan Vansina's Art and History in Africa for African Arts, she underscored his inclusion of arts from the northern half of the continent, asserting that this was perhaps “the most alien part of the author's perspective for African art specialists” (Kasfir 1986:12).
For the first decade or so, the journal had close relationship with commercial enterprises. In addition to receiving funding from the Kress Foundation to print images in color, african arts/arts d'afrique received advertising revenue from airlines, a mining company, and the Franklin Gallery in Los Angeles. Private collections as well as exhibitions at public institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum were reviewed. This context helps explain why Rubin wrote his influential essay “Accumulative Sculpture: Power and Display” (Rubin 1974) for the Pace Gallery in New York City before publishing it in the contemporary art journal Art Forum (Rubin 1975). It would be several years before a messy divorce would separate private galleries selling “primitive arts” (or “tribal arts”) and the academic world. This divorce was finalized as postcolonial theory pushed art historians (and the editors of African Arts) towards new discussions of professional ethics, fieldwork methods, and collection practices.
Arnold Rubin may have been instrumental in moving african arts/arts d'afrique in a direction that was quite different from that originally envisioned by Povey and Poehl. His own, detailed study of Kutep mud sculpture in the first volume contained the publication's first endnotes (Rubin 1968). For its second volume, the magazine featured an extended study of Chokwe arts by Marie-Louise Bastin that spanned three issues and whose scholarly overview differed from the conversational tone of most early articles. Skip Cole's multipronged essays on mbari appeared that year as well, establishing a new standard for critical analysis of fieldwork data. Paula Girshick (then Ben-Amos) followed Rubin's lead, using citations and a bibliography in her report on Ekpo masquerades. When, in the third year of publication, Patrick McNaughton surveyed the literature on throwing knives, and Robert Farris Thompson wrote his Yoruba-inflected analysis of beaded crowns, African Arts was firmly established as a forum for recent research in the visual arts by art historians, anthropologists, and other scholars. By 1981, submissions were subjected to peer review, as they would be at other scholarly journals (Ross 1992:6). Povey lamented, when retiring from his editorial post, that despite its freewheeling past African Arts had became an academic publication “more in keeping with the values of a university” (1991:6). It could thus could make more of a contribution to the discipline of art history.
Yet how effective has this contribution been? Twenty-five years ago, Doran Ross wrote a “First Word” in which he complained that “the arts of Africa continue to be underappreciated in the larger world, whether the art market, the museum, or the classroom … Even the most basic courses on African arts remain a rarity at colleges and universities” (1992:6). Suzanne Blier, the Africanist who seems to have had the greatest influence in the field of art history as a whole, wrote in the same year that
Far too few of us have used our data to argue against the principal tenets of the discipline, or to place ourselves in the center of related debates. Although we cannot be blamed for our marginalization, we could be using our data and potentially powerful (because liminal) positions at the periphery to make a significant imprint on the discipline of art history (1992:10).
Rubin's vision of an Africanist's ability to position “belief and behavior [as] the central objectives of discourse” (Berns 1979:19), to evaluate the process rather than the product of artistic endeavor, seemed to have been abandoned. Yet by 2005, Susan Vogel assessed the impact of African art history more favorably: “African art … has finally entered museum collections and curricula worldwide” (2005:12). What prognosis might we make in 2017, a decade later?
There are many ways to assess the visibility of Africanist art historians within the American academic world, from counting positions of Africanists in art history programs or the number of courses we offer, to the number of books on African art published by university presses or the number of articles and reviews we have placed in the discipline's most respected journals. The number of Africanists who organize art exhibitions as museum professionals or guest curators might also be listed, in addition to the many gallery owners, art critics, independent curators, and journalists whose academic credentials add to their expertise in African art. Yet as seasoned faculty members at any American college or university know, such figures might not tell us what we really wish to know—they document our participation in the art historical enterprise, but they do not tell us much about how, why, or even whether we have had an impact upon the field as a whole.
So I shall choose a simple yardstick: the art history survey course. When Doran Ross and Suzanne Blier wrote their 1992 articles, survey textbooks placed African artworks next to Paleolithic rock art as examples of “primitive” worldviews. Some African masks surfaced again in the sections on twentieth century European modernism, where they were labelled by the outdated names of the colonies where they had been collected. Today recent editions of both of the leading textbooks for art history survey courses, Gardner's Art Through the Ages (now edited by Fred Kleiner) and Marilyn Stokstad's Art History, include chapters on African art that are ostensibly given parity with chapters on Asia or the Ancient Americas. The texts assume that instructors will provide at least lip service to African monuments in an introductory survey class in art history. A modest assortment of artworks from the African past also appears in the list of monuments American high school students need to identify for an Advanced Placement Art History examination.
Unfortunately, these textbooks rely on the work of Africanists accustomed to working in the ethnographic present. Their first, groundbreaking chapters on African art history, written almost exclusively in the present tense by Skip Cole for Gardner's Art Through the Ages (Tansey and Kleiner 1996) and Christopher Roy for Art History (Stokstad 1995), have been heavily edited for later editions in order to provide student readers with a standard historical narrative. Povey might have approved of these changes, which demonstrate “that African art was of equivalent glory when measured against the arts of other continents” (1991:6). As several scholars have argued (Ravenhill 1990:8), serious studies of historical developments in African art forms are few and far between, and the review Critical Interventions was launched in part out of the founders' frustration with the lack of attention to historical context in African Arts (Ogbechie and Peffer 2007). In many cases there simply has not been enough data on specific African artistic practices of either the immediate or distant pasts to construct such as framework (see Visonà 2005). But that may change as art historians and other scholars accumulate new research materials and produce more chronological accounts. For example, in 1966 Barbara Blackmun had very little information to draw upon when a young masquerader arrived in her front garden to dance for the family on Boxing Day, the holiday following Christmas Day (Fig. 4). The white wooden mask, vaguely recalling Luba models, was simply a blur. But when masqueraders agreed to dance for her children at a game reserve in 2016 (Fig. 5), we could consult a sophisticated literature on Gule Wamkulu that placed the performance in historical perspective (Probst 2005, Boucher 2012).
But if the history of African art is increasingly stressed in textbooks and classrooms so that Africa can become “normative” in surveys of World Art, does its inclusion offer students the opportunity to consider African artistic practices, cosmologies, and values that provide them with new ways of looking and thinking? Or is “African art” merely taking its place in the dusty category that african arts/arts d'afrique labelled as “graphic and plastic arts” in 1967, a collection of inanimate objects identified by date, artist, period, and style in the textbooks? If today's African artists can be included in publications such as Art Journal which insert them into the discourse of global modern and contemporary art and focus on the aesthetic activity of selected individuals, are we ignoring Arnold Rubin's understanding of “art as technology,” art manipulated within a cultural context? And finally, if we write articles in Art Bulletin that showcase African case studies of art historical enquiry without overtly challenging dominant narratives (Visonà 2012), are we blind to Arnold Rubin's vision of Africanist art history as radically disruptive? William Rea recently wrote that he feared
the real danger—that we lose sight of how art history may be applied comparatively and are thrown back on the vocabulary of a Euro-American art history that, while calling itself “world,” actually allows access to only one mode of thought—that of Euro-America (Rea 2013:9).
Arnold Rubin would surely be gratified to know that contributors to African Arts still hope to transform the discipline of art history, even if we are unsure of how this can be accomplished.
Also see Berns's (1991:39) description of Rubin's rebellion against “art historical hierarchies, definitions, and priorities.”
These words were placed on a bronze plaque which is still displayed on a wall near the entrance to the Malawi Polytechnic.
For an excellent overview of the critical discourse concerning the growth of African Studies programs in the United States, see Duller 2015.
A more nuanced account of Proehl's meetings with the distinguished Sudanese artist appears in the fuller exposition of the role of contemporary art in African Arts by Steven Nelson (2017).