Discussion of ethnic categorization of art need not be specific to Africa. Yet in our field, the discussion has become concerned with specific aspects of colonial situations and their later appropriations and reappropriations in Africa. The attribution of objects to an ethnic group as typical of that group has contributed to essentializing identities. Such thinking is associated with the idea that certain stylistic traits result from the emanation of the spirit of a distinct people, expressed or represented by a uniform type of production and often thought of, whether consciously or unconsciously, as existing out of time. Certainly, historians and anthropologists questioned the notion of ethnicity in the 1980s, but their calls to put it into perspective through a stratigraphy of the concept's construction has not yet had a significant impact on the study or exhibition of art objects. Therefore, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Yaëlle Biro usefully put on the table a topic that has remained one of the unresolved aspects of African art studies. They suggest accepting the fact that we often know little about the history of the objects and propose to remove ethnicity from the “one tribe, one style” equation.
In order to achieve that goal, Gagliardi and Biro recommend severing the ethnonym—or what is most often regarded as the name of an ethnic group but which may just as well be the name of a region—from the societies concerned while only retaining it as a label qualifying a given style as identified by networks of African art enthusiasts in the course of the first half of the twentieth century. It would, for example, follow that “sculpture, Senufo” would no longer be understood as “sculpture, Senufo population,” or possibly in this case “sculpture, Senufo region,” but as “Senufo-style sculpture.” However, the signal given would remain unclear. It might perhaps make sense in this particular case, studied at length by Gagliardi, and in certain other examples, but would transforming this approach into a new, and unique, paradigm really allow us to move on and progress further in our understanding of African artistic productions? Or might it not, instead, close the door to the very possibility of addressing their histories?
While the two authors discuss theoretical issues and consider embarrassment created by the colonial legacy, they do not take into account the contemporary implications of the ethnic assignment of style. Are we sure that we are ready to understand “Senufo style” as we would understand “Art Deco style” or “Louis XIII style”? Regarding the latter two designations, nobody would nowadays feel their identities affected in any way by the terms. Yet, objects labeled with a style name that is still considered ethnic are often likely to be seen as identity markers and as stakes in the political or social uses of history, without their histories having necessarily been investigated.
Moreover, despite the wishes of the two authors, their approach suggests that everything is settled while the ethnic group remains there, in the background, still swathed in timelessness if what becomes recognized as a style is not accompanied by temporal coordinates. Yet a style marker only makes sense in a particular context. Yes, in the context of documentary paucity, the notion of style remains as a method and also as a gateway to explore processes of creation. Differentiating styles is not an end in itself but a first step of sorting things out in order to pursue more detailed analyses.
When I refer to a “style of Lāstā,” I mean a style of painting purposely designed by Ethiopian painters between the 1640s and 1740s through the orders of the local elite of Lāstā revolting against the king (Fig. 1). Importantly, the style radically differs from the style then in vogue in the capital of the Ethiopian kingdom. Questions about motivations and formal decisions remain unanswered, but they provide bases for examining modalities and meaning of figurative thinking at work—that is, what thoughts are expressed through the figurative language and how the thoughts literally take shape (on “figurative thinking,” see Francastel 1967). In any case, should we not rather give up on excessively standardized descriptions of objects? In a publication, the information provided in a caption for an illustration may be subject to interpretation, but the explanatory data are—or must be—provided in the body of the text. In a museum the telegraphic text of the tombstone is not intended to require clarification in long chats. How, then, do we account for scientific and social enquiries and knowledge? There is no unequivocal answer but, before questioning the form of presentation, whether publication or label, it is absolutely necessary for a museum to first probe what it really wants to address.