In the following responses to our Winter 2019 First Word essay, “Beyond Single Stories: Addressing Dynamism, Specificity, and Agency in Arts of Africa” (African Arts vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 1–6), Leslie Wilson, John Monroe, Salia Malé and Marguerite de Sabran, Maxime de Formanoir, and Joshua Cohen separately expand upon our thought that we must reimagine language for writing and presenting so-called historical arts of Africa to disparate audiences. Their insightful comments indicate general agreement that scholars must continue to reflect critically on the language we use in our presentations of African arts in museums as well as in universities or anywhere else in the world. As Formanoir importantly observes, language we use about the arts has the potential to shape political discourses and thus the lived experiences of people within a country. Monroe, Formanoir, and Cohen also acknowledge uneasy and varied relationships between past constructions and present realities. As scholars, we must continue to mine such relationships with specificity and with attention to the particular historical contexts in which they emerged. Wilson and Cohen provocatively consider how contemporary, studio-based artists operating in international art circuits might still help us think productively about writing and authority. De Sabran and Malé propose another way to write about particular works. Overall, the rich feedback we have received from the people writing here as well as other colleagues who have shared informal reactions with us attests to the continued relevance of the issues we raise. This input plus ongoing conversations will fuel additional reflection that we will further develop in the future. For now, we hope that African Arts readership will find it generative to read the collection of responses to our essay offered here.
WHAT CAN THE CURATOR EXPECT OF THE AUDIENCE?
Leslie Wilson, Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts at the Smart Museum of Art, and Assistant Professor of Art History at Purchase College, SUNY
In her essay, “From Theory to Practice: Exhibiting African Art in the Twenty-First Century” (2003), Christa Clarke identified a disjuncture between special exhibitions and permanent collection installations of the arts of Africa, the former often fostering experimentation and canon shake-ups, and the latter leaning towards a broad, introductory survey of the field. The latter also carry the responsibility of a more definitive presentation of artworks, for better or worse. And while presentations of permanent collections might absorb influences from the experimental temporary shows, the “one tribe, one style” paradigm looms large. Given the histories of erasure, extraction, and violence that have shaped many of the lives of objects in museums, the impulse to recover what was wantonly unrecorded and frustratingly lost, and to position the knowledge that we do have—such as it is—about the works in a more definitive way is understandable. Could acknowledging style, as Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro propose in their very timely First Word essay, be a way forward?
It strikes me as a useful change, but one that should operate within a sweeping set of other changes around the organizing principles for collecting and display. Such a change may only be truly legible to scholars, but perhaps that is okay. We take a step toward acknowledging style's interpretative dominance, and in doing that, perform some much-needed honesty about how we actually do our work—embedded in systems driven by connoisseurship and markets. But I worry that this risks entrenching us in museums about museums, art history about art history, and form about form that still doesn't make for the revolution we need when reform isn't cutting it.
In fall 2019, the exhibition Meleko Mokgosi: Bread, Butter, and Power was on view at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, traveling from the Fowler Museum. Mokgosi's panoramic large-scale history paintings present scenes from life in Botswana that also speak to the transnational dynamics of solidarity movements in southern Africa and the flows of visual culture throughout the diaspora. Abrupt adjacencies of varied paint application and strips of raw canvas punctuate the space between and around groups of school children, domestic interiors, tuck shop produce, real-life and ceramic canines, and Mokgosi's other carefully composed panels that harken to systems of education and care, the intimacies of private life, markets formal and informal, and much more. In short, the large works cover a lot of ground. Oral histories appear as written Setswana in bleach and graphite, and Mokgosi's own brief, footnoted text offers reflections on the central themes of democracy and feminisms. And, on a floating shelf off to the side, a row of carefully selected books reveal the texts Mokgosi read to explore these themes. The bibliography-as-sculpture invites audiences to inspect (judge?) the shape of Mokgosi's thinking and to suggest where they might take their own. This seems especially urgent for work that centers on a region of Africa so little represented—and therefore discussed—in North American collections. (See also Fig. 2.)
In that Mokgosi's paintings reveal stories inside of stories—partial and associative—and place major responsibility on audiences to find their own way, they have been at the forefront of my mind as I reflect on Gagliardi and Biro's essay. Have museums placed too much of the weight of coming to terms with the arts of Africa on audiences, while failing to go far enough themselves? Might Mokgosi's project make fiercely conspicuous the work that we actually implicitly expect audiences to do in order to make the nuanced, unresolved, and necessarily multiple stories about the arts of Africa in its myriad instantiations legible? Is it too much? Not enough? Never enough? And if, as Mokgosi offered in a dialogue with the exhibition's curator, Erica P. Jones, he might have missed the mark in his approach to the subject of feminisms, what can we actually hold on to?
Maybe we need to let go. Jettisoning current cultural, ethnic, and linguistic designations would see us lose too much, and yet we need new language to speak about the life and significance of objects—including and beyond form. Density and complexity can thrive even if it risks that some audiences might not follow. And if permanent collection presentations perform intro survey greatest hits—which seems like the model that stubbornly resists change—those might indeed need to get gone.
FACING FACTS— AND THEIR ABSENCE: STYLE AS HISTORICAL EVIDENCE
John Warne Monroe, Professor of History, Iowa State University
Historically, the impact of the “tribal style” paradigm has been ambivalent. On one hand, it provided a conceptual framework that allowed Euro-Americans to envision African objects as legitimate subjects for art history; scholars from Carl Einstein to Roy Sieber have demonstrated its power in this regard. On the other hand, of course, the paradigm stripped African artists of individual agency, obfuscated the true nature of European colonial domination, and tacitly reinforced an oppressive set of prejudices about the so-called primitive.
As Gagliardi and Biro rightly note, labeling is one of the primary ways in which this paradigm has perpetuated itself. The solution they propose is a turn away from old disciplinary habits. Rather than using assumptions derived from stylistic analysis to fill gaps in an object's documented history, they propose leaving those spaces blank. When such facts as the creator's identity, the location where the work was made, or the function it served have been solidly documented, that information can be used for identification and analysis. When such information is absent, that absence should be explicitly and carefully acknowledged. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: “whereof one cannot speak [without engaging in some degree of speculation], thereof one must be silent.”
While I admire the rigor of this position, I also wonder whether it might be too extreme to be generally practicable. That all too many historical African objects have been stripped of ties to their pasts by both the colonial system and invidious Western assumptions about “primitive cultures” is one of the great tragedies of nineteenth and twentieth-century global cultural life. Unfortunately, that tragedy has created a serious information drought.
The challenge facing scholars of African art here strikes me as being very similar to the one faced by Euro-American social historians in the 1960s, when they began to turn their attention to “history from below”: the study of nonelite, often marginalized groups, such as peasants, the urban poor, or enslaved people. Generally speaking, individuals in these social positions did not leave behind the kinds of documentary evidence historians traditionally rely upon. The scholarly challenge, therefore, was to find new ways to make use of the fragmentary sources available and to engage in carefully grounded speculation based on circumstantial evidence rooted in a keen understanding of the relevant historical context.
A similar sort of interpretive initiative could perhaps help African art history escape the impasse of conventional “ethnonym/indigenous-language name” labeling. Gagliardi and Biro have already proposed the first move: to emphasize the fact that every object is the work of an individual artist—even when that person's name is not known. They have also indicated the next, which would be to shift how stylistic nomenclature is understood: “Baule” or “Senufo” should be viewed as historical constructs from the colonial period, much like the borders of present-day African nation-states. Adding “style” to the designation—“unknown artist working in Senufo style”—strikes me as a way to make the heuristic nature of the term clear, even if it might force auction houses adopt a new euphemism for objects they consider inauthentic.
A further step might perhaps be to retool the definition of “authenticity” that still obtains in museums and the market, according to which the only “real” objects are those that bear forensic traces of having been made for a local patron and used for purposes imagined as somehow “pure.” This is a classic instance of the elevation of “primitivist” fantasy over historical reality. After all, from as early as the fifteenth century onward, African artists produced actively for both local patrons and European ones. Uncoupling our sense of the “authenticity” of historical African objects from a focus on patronage and visible signs of “use” would make possible a new kind of stylistic analysis—one based not on illusions about “primitive cultures” but instead on a clear and rigorous understanding of the colonial situation as the historical context in which so many of these objects were created. The substantial corpus of monographs produced by social, political, and economic historians of European empire could provide a good foundation here.
The “archive” of historical African objects and accompanying collection data held by European and American ethnographic museums, if made globally searchable in a way that permitted large-scale comparative research, could help scholars make stylistic comparison a key part of this new type of historical analysis. An object's style does, after all, convey a great deal of information: shared style is often a strong indicator of geographic proximity and can also sometimes be a clue that allows scholars to group otherwise undocumented works as products of particular artists or workshops. If it can be tied to a few examples with documented dates of purchase or capture, stylistic comparison also makes it possible to trace the chronological development of forms over time. Seen in this light, African artists of the colonial period would emerge as autonomous individuals living in specific historical contexts, not ciphers of tradition in an unchanging ethnographic present.
RÉPARER LE LIEN ENTRE L'OBJET ET SON SENS
Salia Malé, anthropologist, head of research, and former associate director of the Musée National du Mali
Marguerite de Sabran, independent advisor, PhD candidate, and former head of Sotheby's Paris African and Oceanic Arts
En Afrique comme en Occident, lorsque nous pénétrons dans un musée, aujourd'hui qu'attendons-nous du face-à-face avec les œuvres qui peuplent notre imaginaire sur les «arts classiques d'Afrique»?
Dans notre savoir commun, il est acquis qu'elles sont entrées dans les musées publics aussi désacralisées que muettes. A l'époque coloniale, elles furent identifiées comme «objets types», chacune transformée en un produit ethnique—anonyme et anhistorique—sitôt validé par un cartel au lexique institutionnalisé: objet (statue), ethnie (Bamana), pays (Mali).
Silencieuses, elles ont servi, par leur exposition, à mettre en scène: en Occident, le regard porté sur l'Autre, mouvant au gré des siècles selon les contextes économiques, politiques et historiques, et dans maints pays d'Afrique, l'unité nationale prônée au lendemain des indépendances.
Dans notre confrontation avec l'œuvre, passé le temps du sensible—propre à chacun—vient celui de l'enseignement. Selon le musée, et selon que nous nous plaçons du point de vue des membres de la communauté désignée par le cartel (Bamana), de la communauté des chercheurs (historiens de l'art, ethnologues), de celle des conservateurs ou des amateurs, chacun projette dans le vocable Bamana (Sénufo, Songye, etc.), tantôt une communauté ou un peuple, tantôt une culture ou un style. Chacune de ces interprétations procède d'une rhétorique spécifique qui fige l'œuvre dans une appréciation unique—et chacune des rhétoriques attachées au vocable peut faire l'objet d'une analyse critique.
Pourtant, ces vocables «institutionnalisés»—Bamana, Sénufo, Songye—offrent deux avantages. Le premier est celui de l'utilité, en ce qu'ils constituent, en tant que référents communs à chacune des communautés concernées, une clé d'entrée à la lecture de l'œuvre. Le second est celui de l'inclusion, soit leur capacité performative à être universellement appréhendés tout en restant polyvoques: un mot unique accueille la pluralité des regards.
Pour autant, cette clé d'entrée ne saurait être confondue avec la connaissance de l'œuvre. Après des décennies de recherches, nous nous heurtons à l'épuisement des voies par lesquelles nous n'avons qu'en partie compensé le silence des objets extraits, muets, de leur contexte d'origine. Si, comme l'ont souligné Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro dans leur article «Beyond Single Stories: Addressing Dynamism, Specificity, and Agency in Arts of Africa», s'impose aujourd'hui la nécessité de repenser la «labellisation et la présentation de ces arts dans nos musées, universités et publications», le premier possible en même temps que la première exigence consiste à réparer le lien qui unit l'objet à son sens: son nom.
Sur le cartel, le nom vernaculaire Jonyeleni inscrit entre Statue et Bamana permet à l'œuvre de recouvrer d'emblée une partie de son identité. Il lui restitue la pensée complexe—sémantique, religieuse, sociale, esthétique, philosophique, historique—qui a présidé tant à sa création qu'à sa réception et à son utilisation. En dehors de quelques exceptions, nous ne connaissons (et ne connaîtrons) pas le nom de son auteur, ni celui des individus pour lesquels cette Statue Jonyeleni fut une image initiatique, pas plus que le lieu où elle était conservée d'une promotion d'initiés à une autre, ni l'ensemble des bornes temporelles fixant l'histoire de sa création et de son existence cultuelle.
Il nous revient donc d'apprendre en changeant de paradigme, autrement dit, en pensant par l'objet. C'est notamment par cette voie, ouverte par le nom de l'objet, qu'en interrogeant d'autres disciplines—comme la linguistique et la philosophie—nous pourrons décloisonner nos regards, posséder une connaissance plus complète de ces arts—fondement de leur pleine reconnaissance.
REPAIRING THE LINK BETWEEN THE OBJECT AND ITS MEANING
Salia Malé and Marguerite de Sabran translation by Yaëlle Biro and Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi
Today in Africa, as in the West, when entering a museum, what do we expect when we come face to face with works that populate our imaginations as “classical arts of Africa”?
We recognize as common knowledge that such objects entered public museums as desacralized, as mute. In colonial times, they were identified as “representative objects,” each one turned into an ethnic production—anonymous and ahistoric—and promptly validated by a museum label displaying an institutionalized lexicon of object (e.g., figure), ethnicity (e.g., Bamana), country (e.g., Mali).
Silent, the works, through their exhibition, served as a dual mise-en-scène. In the West, their exhibition focused the gaze on the Other and evolved over the centuries according to economic, political, and historical contexts. In many African countries, the works' exhibition contributed to the display of national unity encouraged in the aftermath of the wave of independence.
In our confrontation with an artwork, beyond the moment of appreciation, specific to each individual, comes the moment for learning. Depending on the museum, and depending on whether we occupy the position of someone within a community identified on an object label (Bamana), a community of researchers (art historians, ethnologists), or a community of curators and amateurs, each person projects onto the term Bamana (or Senufo, Songye, etc.) a community or a people, a culture or a style. Each of these interpretations proceeds from a specific rhetoric that freezes the work within a unique mode of interpretation. And each rhetoric attached to the term could be the subject of a critical analysis.
However, these “institutionalized” terms—Bamana, Senufo, Songye—offer two advantages. The first is utility, in that they constitute, as referents common to each of the concerned communities, a point of entry into the understanding of the works. The second is inclusion—that is, their performative capacity to be universally understood while remaining polyvocal: a single word welcomes the plurality of gazes.
Still, this key for accessing the work should not be confused with knowledge about it. Ater decades of research, we are running up against limits to our efforts to compensate partially for the silence of the mute objects, extracted from their original context. If, as Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro point out in their essay “Beyond Single Stories: Addressing Dynamism, Specificity, and Agency in Arts of Africa,” the need is to rethink the “labeling and presentation of art in museums, universities, and publications,” the first possibility as well as the first requirement consists in repairing the link that unites the object to its meaning: its name.
On the label, the vernacular name Jonyeleni inscribed between figure and Bamana allows the work to recover immediately part of its identity. It restores the complex thought—semantic, religious, social, aesthetic, philosophical, and historical—that presided over the work's creation as well as its reception and its use. A few exceptions aside, we do not know (and will not know) the name of its author, nor the names of the individuals for whom this Jonyeleni figure was an initiation image. Neither do we know the place where it was kept between the advancement of one group of initiates and another, nor the set of temporal limits establishing the framework of its creation or those of its existence as cult object.
Therefore, it is up to us to learn by changing our paradigm, or in other words, to think through the object. It is, for example, through this path opened by the name of the object, that by engaging with other disciplines—such as linguistics and philosophy—we will be able to open up our perspectives and possess more complete knowledge about these arts. Such a path is a necessary foundation towards full recognition of them.
AFRICAN ART HISTORY AND THE EFFECTS OF CATEGORIZATIONS
Maxime de Formanoir, PHD candidate at the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains (LAMC) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
In their First Word, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro reopened a major chapter in our field of study: that of the relevance of labels and categorizations applied to objects. Distinguished predecessors such as the late Sidney Kasfir (1984) paved the way for a paradigm shift in this domain. It appears nevertheless that there is still work to be done to build an alternative to the ethnic prism in the art history of Africa and, more generally, to depart from its colonial legacy, as showed by the ongoing researches of various scholars.
The “patrimonialization” of the visual arts in Gabon, where I conducted fieldwork, reveals aspects of the relationships between “art” and “identity” which relate in useful ways to the contribution of Gagliardi and Biro. As has been noted about other forms of cultural expressions or practices in Gabon (Bonhomme 2007; Chabloz 2014: 103–104; Aterianus-Owanga 2016: 105, 116–17, 2017: 38, 41), this process initiated with the support of French scholars before their takeover by the Gabonese state (Perrois 1999) has involved actors with diverse profiles in the public and private sectors. This phenomenon characterizes the manner in which these arts are still understood up to now.
During a recent seminar at EHESS (Paris), I used the example of a large map of Gabon decorating a wall of the Presidential Palace of Libreville as a striking illustration of this issue (Formanoir 2019). This map, found in a room dedicated to the council of ministers, stands behind the presidential seat (Fig. 1). Apparently it is a work dating from 2000 of the painter Georges Mbourou or M'Bourou (b. 1965)1 who seems to have been partly inspired by the “map of masks” published in the catalog of Gabonese art from the Barbier-Mueller collection written by the French ethnologist Louis Perrois (1985: 16).2 What is surprising here is that Mbourou reproduced, more or less faithfully, objects from a Western private collection in the most emblematic locus of power in Gabon, which is very often in the headlines of the local media.
President of Gabon Omar Bongo Ondimba (1935–2009) and his son and successor Ali (b. 1959) before the map of Gabon, Presidential Palace, Libreville, 2005.
Another astounding aspect of Mbourou's map is the location of artworks on it. As noted by James Fernandez in his review of Perrois's catalog, “such placements, however satisfying to a collector, are always—given the poor data we have—hazardous, even artificial, undertakings” (1986: 10). On the wall of the Presidential Palace, this “compulsive focus on placement” (Fernandez 1986: 12) led to an even more “artificial” situation as objects have been positioned by the painter in order to identify the style of each of them with eight of Gabon's nine provinces. This redeployment betrays one of the major concerns of the Gabonese government since President Ali Bongo's father, Omar (1935–2009), took control of the country: overcoming the ethnic rivalries inherited from the colonial period and exacerbated during the precidency of his predecessor Léon Mba (Aterianus-Owanga 2016: 107, 2017: 43–44). The “patrimonialization” of Gabonese arts and “traditions” has explicitly served the objective of national unity (Aterianus-Owanga 2016: 107, 2017: 43–44; see also Perrois 1999; Chabloz 2014: 93–105). This policy has resulted in, among other things, the promotion of new identities: for example, those based on the division of the country into provinces, intended to replace ethnic identifications (Pourtier 1983: 302–303, 1989: 70–72). The Gabonese state has been less innovative in this domain, despite what one might believe at first. By fostering identities created from scratch, it has completed the “territorialization” and the control of space—and therefore its “enfermement” (Bernault 1999) or “enclosure” (Gray 1999)—not unlike the strategy employed by the French colonial administration (Pourtier 1983: 299, 1989: 9–62, 72, 78; Suremain 1999).
As noted by Roland Pourtier, this process has still left room for a “subtle dosage” of ethnic affiliation (1983: 302–303, my trans.), that has benefited the president's Téké ethnic group, as well as Téké recruits to the army and the national security forces (Yates 2018: 142, 444, 2019: 496, n. 5). It is noteworthy in this regard that Mbourou used a mask attributed to the Téké as an emblem of the Haut-Ogooué province, known as “the Bongo family fief” (Yates 2018: 92), whereas this type of object, according to Perrois himself, “belongs to a style identified exclusively as Congolese” (1986: 18). This example shows that the instrumentalization of ethnic labels associated to art styles is far from dead in contemporary Gabon (see also LaGamma 1995).
From a broader perspective, Mbourou's map testifies to the exaggerated importance that the classification of so-called traditional artistic styles and their reduction to “logo[s]”3 (Perrois and Grand-Dufay 2008: 50) still have today in Gabonese political communication as well as among some scholars. It also demonstrates that the private sector, whose leading role has been rightly pointed out by Gagliardi and Biro, is not alien to this process. Although the main players of the art market do not necessarily share the same rhetoric or the same concerns as those of Gabonese politicians, they have taken advantage of the partly state-driven cultural policy through which some of the artworks that they own or trade have become “iconic” (see, for example, Goy 2016: 68–69, ill. 45–46). At the same time, private operators have deeply influenced scholarship on western equatorial African art (Siroto 1995: 10–11), namely through the sponsorship of monographs, exhibitions, and catalogs. This is how categorizations often charged with stereotypes have been taken for granted within the framework of the “economy of enrichment” (Boltanski and Esquerre 2017) through which the artworks circulate. In addition to the fact that such labels attached to objects “will not bring clarity about their original patrons” (LaGamma 2017: 162, my trans.), one cannot minimize the eventual effects that they are likely to have on the field (Suremain 1999: 56), especially if they are used for political purposes (see for example LaGamma 1995: 80–82).
Biographical information about Georges Mbourou comes from Bissek (1999: 39–44). I was not able to see the map in situ.
This map also appeared in a slightly modified form in the catalog of an exhibition that took place a few years later in the Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux (Perrois 1997: 118).
This process of “logoization” orchestrated by the state, namely through the emission of thematic postage stamps series, has been highlighted by Benedict Anderson (2006: 182).
ON LABELS, COLONIAL LEGACIES, AND THE CURRENT CRISIS IN AFRICAN ART STUDIES
Joshua I. Cohen, Assistant Professor of Art History, The City College of New York
In their insightful First Word essay, “Beyond Single Stories: Addressing Dynamism, Specificity, and Agency in Arts of Africa,” Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro assert that ethnic labels for African art objects “reflect erroneous colonial assumptions” (p. 1). Such ethnic designations, they note, are widely regarded as problematic, but still endure within the labeling practices of scholars and curators, often shielded by disclaimers that serve to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss the problem. “Without new models to replace old frameworks” (p. 2), Gagliardi and Biro argue, our field risks perpetuating what the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a viral TED Talk, has called the telling of a “single story”—in this case an old narrative that confines African arts to ethnic particularity, timelessness, and isolation. Granted, concise labels are not equivalent to fully fleshed-out stories. Yet, as the authors contend, the labels in question can hardly be considered innocent, for they function as transmitters of received ideas that, in turn, reinforce misconceptions about geographically bounded, culturally homogenous, and historically unchanging zones of artistic production.
According to Gagliardi and Biro, ethnic labels standardly conjoin and conflate a number of different factors pertaining to a given object—including geography, culture, language, social context, artistic identity, and material form. To avoid thinking “interchangeably” about these multiple dimensions of an object's signification, the authors propose to overhaul “our language and our methods” through “an art-historical approach based on style” that would “remove altogether the ‘tribe’ part of the ‘one tribe, one style’ equation” (pp. 1, 5). Rather than classify objects as “Bamana,” “Baule,” or “Songye,” the authors advocate “talking and writing about a Bamana style, a Baule style, a Songye style, or some other style,” in order to “make clear that the terminology reflects visual evaluation of objects” (p. 5).
In response to Gagliardi and Biro, I first of all wish to acknowledge the authors' salutary effort to dislodge some of our field's most stubborn shibboleths, whose origins indeed date to the colonial period and whose foundations remain limited by the political and intellectual parameters of that time, which in some ways carry over into our own. I additionally appreciate Gagliardi and Biro's critical focus on key terms that structure discourse—terms that can be so widely employed as to come to appear self-evident. Such terms can even dominate to the extent that they end up foreclosing other avenues of inquiry, with their conceptual lenses effectively narrowing into slits through which all are obliged to peer. By engaging here with Gagliardi and Biro's text, my aim is to add further perspectives and considerations, in hopes of participating in a collaborative reflection on the crucial problems the authors raise.
Having said this, I will not delay in airing my chief concern, which is that instead of eviscerating the bloated authority of the timeworn “single story” to reveal the multiplicity it had concealed, the authors exchange an old story for variations on a new one. In their opening paragraphs, even as they rightly express wariness about the reductionism inherent in museum labels, Gagliardi and Biro blur notions of ethnicity, tribe, and race under the apparently synonymous rubrics of “colonial concepts” and “outdated anthropological classifications” (p. 1). While outdated classificatory orders can surely be traced back to the colonial era or earlier, I wonder if it is necessarily helpful to invoke colonialism and anthropology as a monolith; or to insist that ethnic frameworks have always solely dominated discourses on African arts; or to imply that ethnic labels cannot carry different associations for contemporary museum visitors, especially those who may identify with them, plausibly as signs of resistance to repressively homogenizing nation-states; or to neglect ways in which ethnic ties still inform life and politics today, both on the African continent and in New Diaspora communities. In a passing nod to ongoing and malleable constructions of ethnic identity among Africans, the authors cite Mobutu's authenticité in Congo/Zaire (1960s–1980s) as evidence that modern recuperations of “tradition” have remained “intimately bound to the colonial experience and colonial categories” (p. 2). Taken on its own, this reading of authenticité is not in question. Yet Mobutu's traditionalism cannot easily serve as a representative example that confirms the perpetually colonialist status of ethnicity, as Mobutu was a Western-backed despot who arguably embodied the (neo)colonizer in an African guise.
Gagliardi and Biro further make the case that their proposed strategy is “more relevant than ever, given calls for the decolonization of knowledge production and other examinations of longstanding power structures” (p. 5). The “calls” referenced here—coming from viewing publics, advocacy groups, art critics, and others—are no doubt increasingly audible and pertinent for African art specialists. As part of the “decolonizing” process, it nevertheless seems crucial to disentangle aspects of public discourse that are instructive from those that may be misinformed or reductive (i.e., themselves single-storying). In a scene from the Marvel Studios film Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018) that every Africanist art historian or anthropologist can surely call to mind, an exiled African named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) visits the West African galleries at the Museum of Great Britain (read: British Museum), where he speaks to the resident curator, a self-acknowledged “expert” (Francesca Faridany). Answering Killmonger's questions about the “artifacts” on display in the gallery (“Where's this one from?”) the curator accounts for them in precisely the manner Gagliardi and Biro describe, by connecting each object to an ethnic group and a bounded geography. The curator performs her expertise by regurgitating information from object labels, assigning each work to a “tribe” or “people,” a country, and a century.
Prior to this exchange, the curator's coffee had been poisoned off screen. In a sequence evoking the current crisis in African art studies, the curator suddenly collapses, convulsing, to die a painful death on the gallery floor. The film's caricature doubles as a damning critique that demands serious scrutiny. With the figure of the African art curator, portrayed as a stuffy white woman with an Oxbridge accent, Black Panther indicts the Western museum as a bastion of elitism and as a repository for stolen loot, even as it also unquestioningly ties the curator to her institution and to colonialism in a transhistorical chain that mirrors the curator's own metonymic vision of African objects standing in for whole cultures and countries.
There is an urgent need to reckon with the implications of this devastating image and its attendant crisis, occasioned by a growing perception that African art experts are, at worst, disingenuous defenders of racist institutions and practices. For their part, Gagliardi and Biro seem to have found that the highly detailed work they (/we) do as researchers still has only a limited impact on museumgoers, who typically encounter Africanist art knowledge in the form of terse object labels. Gagliardi and Biro respond to this predicament by attending to the “most” colonial portion of such labels. This is commendably pragmatic, but the changes necessitated by the current crisis are deep seated and systemic and may require more than a swift revision of labeling practices, whether in museums or scholarship.
The authors are no doubt right to see labeling as a crucial front line of interaction with general audiences. And they are right to observe that, “For decades, scholars have highlighted the colonial construction of cultural or ethnic groups” (p. 2). Notably, the scholars cited to support this statement are all anthropologists rather than art historians or art-world professionals. For some, the distinction between anthropology and art history in African art studies may be immaterial. Nonetheless it bears mentioning that anthropology's self-reflexive turn has never really taken hold in Africanist art history, or at least not with anything close to the same vigor and sustained commitment. How can we expect to respond productively to criticisms if we have not engaged in our own thoroughgoing process of critical stocktaking?
Homing in on a conventional object label, one indeed begins to wonder which part is most problematic. Is it the “anonymous” maker? Or the ethnic name? Or the vague date range? Or the obscured circumstances of the object's displacement? For Gagliardi and Biro, the ethnic signifier emerges as most offensive. Their proposed plan is to use ethnic designations to refer only to style and not to any other aspect of the object's profile. Hitching ethnicity exclusively to style is claimed to be a move that “situates the object in a specific art-historical context, one that allows us to reckon with the constructed nature of the story and its ties to colonial history” (p. 5). Here the authors seek to challenge the purported inevitability of ethnicity, whether stylistic or otherwise. By zeroing in on style, they mean to make reference to stylistic qualities that have long been reductively (mis)understood as “ethnic.”
This prescription may not easily translate into “best practices” for labeling, because exponents of “one tribe, one style” might not balk at the revised wording, which looks more or less familiar to them. What's more, by privileging style, do we not put ourselves at risk of diminishing other aspects of an object's relationship to its given context, and to other objects? Even at the level of formal analysis, an object's genre, as well as its basic order of functionality—which can both/either traverse ethnic boundaries and/or exist in multiplicity within them—are surely just as important as style, to say nothing of individual practitioners and the role they play in manifesting and conceiving of style.
The art historian Z.S. Strother once advised me to employ the term “canonical” rather than “traditional” in reference to African sculpture, because the former term, while not perfect, directs our attention to questions of classification instead of purporting to represent something natural: taxonomy rather than presumed ontology. Gagliardi and Biro advocate a parallel terminological shift away from the longstanding schematization of African art according to geographic and ethnic subsets, or what Carl Kjersmeier called “centers of style.” I would nevertheless be curious to know how this self-consciousness is envisioned to come across through labeling, particularly given that labels, almost by definition, are associated with simplistic and prejudicial knowledge.
It is true that style, as a multivalent category, might hold some potential to evade the tyranny of a “single story.” Yet the same category could just as likely be conflated with “art” in the minds of museumgoers and general readers. And the latter term, as we know, typically masquerades as an absolute phenomenon (inherent in an object and in artistic genius), or else as a purely subjective one (discerned freely in the eye of the beholder). Less frequently does “art” get discussed as a constructed category guided by the operations of an elite social and commercial network. Apropos of this network, Gagliardi and Biro make their case further on the grounds that “we should clearly recognize that the terms we use reflect connoisseurs' evaluations of form and complex market negotiations” (p. 5). Do these words, and the reforms the authors propose, represent a bold new self-consciousness or an inadvertent capitulation to market logic? Do the authors seek to critically acknowledge—or rather to ensure—that dealers and collectors have the final say?
Although Gagliardi and Biro open their essay with a reference to the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, they ultimately conclude that responsibility for critically reframing the African art canon cannot be reliably subcontracted to contemporary artists. The authors' own engagement with Gates's work reveals how difficult it can be to recruit artists to speak “for” the historical arts of Africa. Although I cannot analyze Gates's Amalgam (2019) with any authority, the exhibition appears—based on Gagliardi and Biro's description—to relate more to African American history than to African art. Gates seems to want us to imagine the diaspora as a constellation of distinct ethnic strains, represented by African masks, which are suggested to be internally cohesive. An “amalgam,” after all, implies component parts.
Another recent work, Meleko Mokgosi's Modern Art: The Root of African Savages II (2012–14; Fig. 2), may further stimulate—although surely not substitute for—the task of considering the key issues Gagliardi and Biro raise. In a series of enlarged object labels from US museums, Mokgosi adds his own handwritten questions and critical commentary. On one label, the artist has emphatically crossed out an ethnic designation, which appeared in hazy reference to either the object's “unidentified” artist, or to a culture or region, or a set of formal qualities. Whereas Gagliardi and Biro propose a rewriting, Mokgosi quite literally offers a writing-over. I find these projects to be complementary. Their contributions do not lie in providing definitive answers, but in activating a critical rethinking.