Fifty years—more or less a generation—is a significant landmark for African Arts. The journal is now an elder, with all of the gravitas that role entails, and yet it is reborn with each new issue. Like all the best elders, African Arts embraces change without adopting the trends of any particular moment. With apologies for the layers of self-referentiality, we note that in his First Word for the first issue in this year's fiftieth anniversary commemoration (vol. 50, no. 1), Tobenna Okwuosa cited Mary Nooter Roberts, who had observed in her own 2005 First Word that African Arts is “synonymous with the study of African art” (Roberts 2005:1). So it is. Indeed, the trajectory of African art history is manifested in the artistic genres, regions, time periods, and thematic concerns that have populated this journal's pages. For young researchers as for prominent scholars, engaging with African Arts is a direct route to the current discourse in the field.
The members of the newly established publishing consortium that produces the journal have used this fiftieth birthday to take stock, as Marla Berns noted in her introduction to the first of the year's special issues. Each of the four “nodes” in our consortium takes a distinct approach to this reflection on the field for the year's fiftieth anniversary issue. The UNC editorial team has proposed a rather ambitious theme: African art history's futures. This theme, we reasoned, provides opportunities to look both backward and forward, taking stock of where we have been in order to discern both the paths that extend from past approaches into new directions, as well as the wholly new trajectories being forged by scholars and artists who bring new technologies, methodologies, and objects of research into the field. We have commissioned articles from scholars and artists who are firmly located within the lineage of African art history, as well as from others who have not previously presented their work in this disciplinary context but whose research illuminates Africa's expressive arts. This diversity of approaches might take us in unanticipated and productive directions. Indeed, the results have stimulated us to think through the field in new ways, through new tools and an array of literatures and expressive forms.
Our charge to these contributors was deliberately broad, asking them to consider their research and/or their artistic practice in the context of futures. Their responses might include speculations about directions for future research, mobilizations of new technologies, and artistic imaginings of futures whether utopian or dystopian. We also encouraged the authors to react to our prompt in a compressed form, rather than in articles of the conventional length for academic journals. With several shorter articles, this issue contains more futures, more possibilities. In commissioning these contributions, we aim to speculate rather than to predict, to point to a broadening vista rather than a single path.
This issue presents analysis facilitated by innovative technologies (Marcel), as well as artistic meditations on the cultural impact of technologies (Tuggar). A consideration of the trope of the space traveler in the work of Afrofuturist artists makes future-thinking explicit (Hamilton), and a close reading of a recent, controversial artistic intervention reveals the jagged edges that separate art worlds from the broader community—a subject of increasing relevance as the global contemporary art market continues to expand in Africa (Jakubowski). An analysis of masquerade, that most classical of African art forms, is perhaps unexpected in this future-oriented context (Fenton). Yet by employing an underutilized frame—the artistic biography—this analysis reveals new insights into the artistry and the economy of contemporary masquerade production. An exhibition preview article presents a major reinstallation of a public museum's permanent collection of African art (Perrill). This context poses a perennial challenge to practitioners of African art history: how to effectively present the vast diversity and complexity of African art to broad publics while negotiating the constraints of exhibition space, museum-goers' attention spans, and the vagaries of museum collections built over time and through opportunism as much as by design. A reflection on the changing ways that Africa's contemporary arts have been presented by the National Museum of African Art (Milbourne) suggests a different trajectory from past to future within the space of a museum and a different set of innovative and collaborative solutions for artistic and audience engagements. Each incarnation of this particular genre, the African art exhibition, proposes futures: though never literally permanent, these exhibitions are designed to withstand the passage of time rather than to solely reflect their moment.
At the same time, African Arts' First Word has always been a space for scholars to stake out and interrogate the state of the field. Since the mid-1990s, it has seemingly become more urgent to grapple with an apparent shift in research topics, away from the perceived foundation of the field—so-called traditional or classical African arts—in favor of “contemporary” topics, particularly among the emerging generation of scholars.1 As many authors who have looked back at the history of African Arts have noted, most recently Steven Nelson (2017), contemporary African art has been part of the field since the very first issue of the journal. While the traditional vs. contemporary debate has largely subsided in recent years (and many scholars publishing in the journal have pushed back against the purported disconnection between these areas of research), a close review of publications in African Arts over the past fifty years reveals original research on a variety of topics that do not fit neatly into such reductive categories.2 And the trend appears to be intensifying.
Even as the wood sculpture that has long characterized African art history continues to be a vibrant subject for new scholarship, we see recent research concentrating on mediums such as painting, murals, cement sculpture, photography, performance, video, installation, tapestries, cartoons, and print advertisements. More studies are devoted to explorations of gender, modernisms, Afrofuturism, individual artists, the collection, circulation, and display of objects, the art market, diaspora, costuming, fashion, and self-reflexivity of exhibitions. If, as Susan Vogel claimed in 2005, the field had become “unmoored,” that state appears to have opened up fruitful new avenues of inquiry.3 Of course, shifts in topics necessitate shifts in research sites and methods; thus we also observe diversification in the meaning of fieldwork.
Although research in West, Central, and South Africa still appears to dominate emerging scholarship (and expertise of African Arts' consortium editorial boards), researchers have increasingly undertaken projects in locales historically marginalized in African art history. Recent investigations of arts and architecture in North Africa, East Africa, and Indian Ocean communities expand the field's geographic coverage. Scholars increasingly question the presumed separation between rural and urban contexts, often demonstrating how recent visual arts and expressive practices can connect villages, towns, cities, regions, countries, and continents. Others have demonstrated the historical depth and geographic reach of African art through analyses of object genres or political and religious alliances across Africa, Europe, and the New World. Still other scholars have focused on past and present institutions, taking museums, galleries, biennales, and private collections as their sites of inquiry. Thus recent research explores the ways in which African art has been not just part of, but often at the very center of global trade networks, resituating Africa at the center of our thinking about history.
Expanding the concept of field sites has been accompanied by shifts in methodologies. If, as Lamp highlighted in his 1999 First Word, the foundational topics of the field are “sculpture, masquerade, and architecture,” such investigations were usually accomplished primarily through long-term ethnographic fieldwork among a targeted community or ethnic group. Researchers are spending more time in (private and public African, European, North and South American) archives, interviewing artists, curators, collectors, and attending and critiquing exhibitions. Curators consider how museum exhibitions might interact with artists and various audiences, always with an eye to how an institution's history might presage its future. Some scholars are developing long-term reciprocal relationships with artists in “traditional” contexts. At least one scholar is creating a digital archive of an individual artist's oeuvre, which will conserve the images and create a resource for future investigation. Researchers are using data-driven digital mapping technologies to identify otherwise latent patterns and increase precision in how we label and discuss networks of contemporary African art; others to rethink how art objects have been identified in the past and create new ways of analyzing histories of artistic production in the future.
As scholars whose research spans the constructed categories of traditional and contemporary, we view the continuing diversification of subject matter, field sites, and methodologies not as an abandonment of the field's foundation, but as an acknowledgment that African visual and expressive culture is multifarious, contingent, complex, and dynamic. But let us not become too self-congratulatory and complacent. There is more to do. While research has become more self-reflexive and broadened what constitutes the field, re-studies of canonical research would offer much needed updates to the literature. Continued cross-pollination among research topics and sites enumerated above would enrich African art history generally and more fully represent actual artistic practices. How will digital photography, smartphone access, and increasing online connectivity affect research in the various fields and how researchers interact with interlocutors and archives? How can we use these points of access and dissemination of research to the advantage of our colleagues on the continent? Finally, how can we do better at collaborating with our Africa-based and non-Anglophone colleagues, particularly in terms of access to research and publishing opportunities?4
The journal itself reflects these moments and these possibilities, and the consortium model is a vital part of the futures of the field, for it not only reimagines publishing conventions in a very broad sense, but it also expands the conversations about what African Arts can be moving forward. In first formulating the editorial board for UNC, we knew we wanted interdisciplinary and interinstitutional representation that could speak to the nature of African art studies broadly as well as specifically to the field's particular richness in central North Carolina. As such our core group comprises three art historians and an ethnomusicologist; we also have a faculty working group that advises us regularly and who have joined us as editors for this issue. These scholars are located in the fields of comparative literature and library science. This combination of perspectives brings to our conversations several key elements that are especially relevant as we envision the future of our field and the role this journal will play in it.
First, it helps us to better assess and address our current mission: “African Arts promotes investigation of the interdisciplinary connections among the arts, anthropology, history, language, politics, religion, performance, and cultural and global studies.” This is, as many of you will recognize, simply an updated expression of the original mandate that Berns references (2017:8) in her opening essay for vol. 50. It is also a reminder of the impulse that so many of us had when first considering the future, to also consider the past; to fully take stock of where we are going we must take stock of whence we come and how that past informs where we might go.
Indeed, our editorial team had grandiose plans to bring some of that past into the future, for we found it to be quite relevant and necessary to how we think about our field. As you will see, most of those plans did not come to fruition in this volume but we mention them here because they are still part of our longterm vision. The journal's first issues were bilingual and we envision returning to a multilingual platform at some point. While these early issues were published in English and French, we envision a broader range of languages. The language could vary depending on the article and its relevance to a particular audience. Aiming to reach a broader audience, to be more relevant and inclusive in our conversations, the diversification of language helps to bridge potential divides. Practical issues like translation time and costs as well as print space will have to be negotiated, but the digital age has presented editors and publishers with exciting work-arounds. We can, for example, envision having one version of the article in print with the translated version available online.
Having an online platform could also offer us more possibilities as we consider what we publish as well. One of the best features of African Arts, for both those who publish in it and those who read it, is the primacy of images. No matter our disciplinary training, if we are publishing in this journal it is because we want to talk about some aspect of African visual culture and we have had the freedom to do so in abundance. It is a luxury in a world of publishing to have ten to fifteen color images where other journals might provide for only three or four images, and often in black and white. But we now have the ability to more fully represent to one another the artworks we are interacting with and interpreting. Christraud Geary's (2017) assessment of the field of photography scholarship in the first fifty volumes of the journal revealed a perfectly natural focus on print photography in all its various manifestations, yet we anticipate that a similar retrospective will look quite different ten or fifteen years down the line. Increasingly, lens-based photographers are working across platforms—producing still photographs, but also working in film or video, or even presenting their work across social media platforms like Instagram. Scholars writing about these other formats, or digitally born works of art, are at a disadvantage when publishing in print journals, for the impact of the work itself is lost in the static reproduction. The reader isn't able to see the full piece. While we already do this occasionally, with digitally enhanced publishing, clips from time-based work could be included as a standard practice as part of the published article through links in the article. This would allow a fuller visual analysis to be enacted by both author and reader. Given the trend towards these genres of expression, especially in Afrofuturism, having access to the material of analysis, as we do with still images in the print journal, can only enhance our scholarly community as we move forward.
Other art forms might benefit from an online publishing platform as well. Digitally born artworks could have embedded links within online versions of our articles, or we might be able to construct more interactive means of engaging with the works of art that allow the experience of their social media contexts. In enabling such experiences, readers can understand the full impact of user interactions that will inevitably be part of author interpretation. All of this will be vital to thinking about possible futures for both artworks and the scholarship that engages them. Such presentational opportunities will be relevant not just for scholars of time- or lens-based media, but those who engage with classical forms as well. Masquerades, which are multisensory and constantly in motion, have always been presented as static images on the pages of our journal, and a digital platform will enable us to enhance our understandings of the work our colleagues are doing on these forms as well. Making more use of such a platform would also enable expansion of scholarship into different areas, such as sound arts, where audio clips of the works might also be placed for readers of the journal to access.
Indeed, the ability to bring multiple art forms into dialogue with one another in the space of one article is dynamic and underscores the research we have been doing for generations, offering the means to present it in new ways. Masquerades are produced at the intersection of sound, smell, the seen and unseen, and the intentional tensions between these sensorial experiences. With studio arts we also find artists who bring together tensions in their own works, or multiple artists working in one media from the same locale revealing these tensions through the ways in which their works converse with one another.
Such conversations and intersections are evident already on our pages, but they are increasingly evident in the many different types of art events that are taking place on the continent from the biennials, triennials, fairs, and festivals in Addis Ababa, Bamako, Cairo, Calabar, Dakar, Douala, Johannesburg, Kampala, Lagos, Luanda, and Nairobi, to name but a few. These fairs, exhibitions, and conferences highlight the work of artists creating now and offer in many cases a pulse on the market. African Arts has shied away from the market as an explicit topic, yet the art market is an integral aspect of our work in so many ways, and as more and more work on various markets appears, we believe it is important to consider their impacts in our pages. As just one example we might take 1:54, the Contemporary African Art Fair founded by Touria El Glaoui in 2012. In its first few years, it took place only in London. From the start, however it was always more than a marketplace for art, for each manifestation is presented with a full Forum (thus far organized by Koyo Kouoh) of discussions between artists, curators, academics and others. In this way attendees to 1:54, whether they buy or not, are educated about artists who are represented by the galleries at the Fair, but also about current concerns and issues in the world of contemporary African art. So successful has the 1:54 venture been that it is, as we write, in its third year of expansion in New York, and will be expanding even further in February 2018 to Marrakech. These and other commercial ventures, whether dealing with contemporary or “traditional” or “classical” African arts, can provide valuable insight into the future trends of our field as much as the direct study of the practices of producing the arts themselves. And our journal can be a leader in this analysis.
To conclude our meditation on futures, we recognize that changes in the economics of academic publishing inspired the African Arts editorial board to initiate this innovative consortium model, for each institution's investment of funding, energy, and expertise will enable the journal to continue and expand its fifty-year history of cutting edge scholarship. While practical concerns may have instigated this new approach, we believe that this new initiative has already demonstrated that this multi-institutional model will pay off in scholarly dividends as well. The “nodes” in the consortium represent a different combination of interests, networks of connections, even disciplinary identities, for they have drawn members from beyond art history departments and art museums. As we hope our consideration of futures demonstrates, African Arts has only begun to tap into all its potential; we've had a wonderful fifty years, and we have much more to do.
Here we refer to Fred Lamp's definition of “traditional” or “classical” in his 1999 First Word, which seems to be widely shared within the field: “I am defining classical art as art responding primarily to the patronage and aesthetic canons of the cultural group of origin (including not only the orthodox topics of sculpture, masquerade, and architecture, but also all material arts such as house painting, body arts, pottery, beadwork, textiles, basketry, and script).” His definition of contemporary African art as “art made by African-born artists since 1950 and intended for international and national consumption” serves our purpose here as well (Lamp 1999:6).
In her response to Lamp, Blier (1999:10) points out that it was, in fact, the venerable founders of the field of African art history (in the United States) who had the temerity to move beyond researching only “traditional” wood sculpture using ethnographic participant-observation in the field.
This multifariousness has coincided with the decades-long move in art history to decenter the field and promote a more globally informed discipline.