This document, translated from the original French, is an edited transcript of a conversation between the Senegalese painter Iba Ndiaye, the French art historian Jean Laude, and a moderator, Roger Pillaudin. It took place on the occasion of the Festival des arts et cultures africaines in Royan, France (March 1977), and was later broadcast on the radio channel France Culture. What stands out in the conversation is the way Laude seeks to negate Ndiaye's cross-cultural experience and background, and arguably his very legitimacy as a contemporary artist. Laude's insistence on adhering to neat categories (linguistic, national, artistic) in engaging with Ndiaye, coupled with Ndiaye's steady defiance of these categories, point to broader tensions between structuralism and area studies, on the one hand, and poststructuralism and postcolonial studies, on the other. The conversation also invites careful scrutiny of the problem of Eurocentrism, in the sense that Laude's structuralist position is in fact anti-Eurocentric: colonialism is condemned for destroying local traditions, which are in turn revered at the expense of allegedly derivative expressions emerging from the same societies. Ndiaye nevertheless holds his own against Laude's aggressive paternalism, and manages to call into question a number of the art historian's assumptions around the perceived axes and obligations of artistic identity.
This document, translated from the original French, is an edited transcript of a conversation between the Senegalese painter Iba Ndiaye and the French art historian Jean Laude. The conversation took place on the occasion of the Festival des Arts et Cultures Africaines in Royan, France, in March 1977. It was broadcast several months later, in August of the same year, on the radio channel France Culture.
Iba Ndiaye (1928-2008; also written N'Diaye) was born in the cosmopolitan coastal city of Saint-Louis, one of Senegal's colonial-era Quatre Communes, and he therefore held French citizenship. He moved to Paris in 1948 to study architecture, and apart from a relatively short stint in Dakar (1960-67), he would live in France for the rest of his life.1 During the period in Dakar, Ndiaye emerged as a major figure in post-independence Senegalese art, by helping establish Senegal's national art school, the École des Arts du Sénégal, and serving as the curator of Tendances et Confrontations (Trends and Confrontations), a landmark exhibition of contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora that was staged at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, in Dakar in 1966. Jean Laude (1922-83), meanwhile, began his career in 1946 as a technical assistant to Michel Leiris in the Sub-Saharan Africa department of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He went on to pursue doctoral work supported by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), for which he undertook research on both Dogon statuary and modernist “primitivism,” publishing a landmark study on the latter topic in 1968.2 Laude authored numerous articles and books over the course of his career and gave talks at a number of major conferences and festivals, including the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.
What especially stands out in the conversation between Ndiaye and Laude is the way that the distinguished Africanist plainly seeks to negate Ndiaye's cross-cultural experience and background, and arguably even his very existence as a contemporary artist. It is noteworthy, for example, that despite Ndiaye's French education, training, citizenship, and longstanding residence, his interlocutors in Royan never consider him as French, or as belonging to France in any way. In the first and only question from the forum's moderator, Roger Pillaudin,3 Ndiaye is asked, “How can one be a Senegalese painter today?” An onslaught of follow-up commentary from Laude then frames Ndiaye deliberately in terms of ethno-linguistic categories and a sweeping vision of “African” traditions that inform all creative expression, including “the simplest gestures of daily life.”
Betraying an oddly inconsistent vision of national versus continental identity formation (French or Senegalese versus African), Laude and Pillaudin's remarks set parameters that are geared toward governing how Ndiaye's art should be discussed—even though, as it happens, his work hardly gets discussed in detail anywhere in the conversation. Ndiaye nevertheless succeeds in transforming his interlocutors’ assumptions into points of contention: Is he in fact a “Senegalese” painter? Or an “African” one? Or none of the above?
Laude's insistence on adhering to neat categories (linguistic, national, artistic, etc.), coupled with Ndiaye's steady defiance of them, together point to some significant and relatively obvious tensions between the older epistemological paradigms encapsulated in structuralism and area studies, on the one hand, and newer paradigms associated with poststructuralism and postcolonial studies, on the other. In recent decades, Africanist art scholars informed by postcolonial studies have begun to scrutinize the power dynamics between visual artists and their interlocutors.4 Laude's efforts to mastermind the conversation undoubtedly confirm and add historical weight to Olu Oguibe's observation that “within the scheme of their relationship with the West, it is forbidden that African artists should possess the power of self-definition, the right to author-ity.”5 Even today, the 1977 standoff between Ndiaye and Laude demands that closer attention be paid to Eurocentrism—a mindset that few in the art world or academia (then or now) would explicitly endorse, yet whose persistent threat and critique in some sense became postcolonialism's ostensible raison d’être. Eurocentrism is well known as a worldview that diminishes or disregards non-Western cultural histories according to Western criteria. What is perhaps less familiar is a flip side to Eurocentrism that developed among well-intentioned Western scholars and educators around the mid-20th century. Through their studies, and through traveling or living outside the West, these scholars and educators developed trenchant critiques of colonialism that led them to value the local cultures they had encountered to the extent that these cultures, so they assumed, could be claimed as resisting or escaping outside influences. This position remained linked to Eurocentrism insofar as it constructed a cultural Other viewed as separate from, and incompatible with, the cultures of the West. In terms of the actual rhetoric employed, though, the position was anti-Eurocentric: colonialism was condemned for destroying local traditions, which in turn were revered at the expense of allegedly “derivative” contemporary expressive forms emerging from the same societies.
This inverted form of Eurocentrism was essentially Laude's position, as evidenced in his conversation with Ndiaye. Early in the conversation, Laude seizes on Ndiaye's characterization of his own multidimensionally mixed (Wolof and Serer, Muslim and Catholic, Franco-Senegalese) upbringing in Saint-Louis, only to then challenge this characterization as essentialist, accusing Ndiaye of privileging his biological inheritance. Laude then wastes no time in displaying his intellectual reliance on what today registers as a rather reductive, structuralist conception of societies and nation-states as generating distinctive, self-contained, undeviating, and ubiquitous “signs”—overarching patterns, genres, tropes, paradigms—in visual expression. In this way, Laude's side of the exchange offers a clear example of French structuralist thinking in 1970s Africanist art history. Crucially, Laude's structuralist framework mandates that the French dimension of Ndiaye's artistic practice lies outside the proper order of things. Laude acknowledges, in a backhanded compliment, that Ndiaye speaks French “like a good French student,” but eventually he settles on pondering whether “unconscious elements” might bring Ndiaye back to “African expressivity”—or might not, in which case, Laude implicitly suggests, Ndiaye would remain a deracinated painter whose work must be unsatisfyingly beholden to European art.
How are we to make sense of Laude's “structuralist” thinking, understood in this way, and of his often abrasive lines of questioning and commentary? For Laude and many other scholars of his generation, authenticity reigned supreme as an incontrovertible precept: the only non-Western art worth studying had to be organically Indigenous and free from foreign contamination. Conversely, Laude's generation tended to admire European Orientalist and “primitivist” modern artists for appreciating and taking productive lessons from non-Western material culture. This tendency can be seen in Laude's exultant observation that the French painter Eugène Delacroix had learned much from Persian miniatures and Moroccan rugs. Laude notably takes Delacroix's connections to the world beyond France to be relatively natural and uncomplicated, even while, in the subtler registers of his discourse, Ndiaye's longstanding ties to both France and his own West African origins appear to be hopelessly haunted by colonial constructs. “The African artist,” Laude asserts, is “above all a sculptor,” whereas oil painting derives from a matrix of Western cultural ideas and techniques that “don't belong to him.”6 As a painter, Ndiaye vociferously challenges the premise that African art is quintessentially sculptural, citing South African murals as evidence of the historically “noble status” of African painting.
There are two fundamental reasons why this conversation between Ndiaye and Laude has been selected to accompany this special issue of ARTMargins devoted to Art History, Postcolonialism, and the Global Turn. First, the dialogue between Ndiaye and Laude has historiographic relevance, inasmuch as it occurred in 1977, around the time when the earliest iterations of postcolonial scholarship were beginning to appear.7 From that moment forward, humanities scholars in the Western (especially the anglophone) academy would increasingly turn their attention toward writers and artists from the (former) colonies who were “writing back” to contest the practices, histories, and legacies of colonialism.8 Second, the very format of this document—not a single-authored text but a tense interpersonal exchange—parallels postcolonial studies’ orientation as being chiefly concerned with forms of encounter (cross-continental, cross-cultural, cross-racial) that have been structured by the unequal power relations maintained under colonial rule and its aftermath. By no means does this orientation constitute the only, or even the defining, feature of postcolonial studies. However, it remains one key way in which the field can be seen as distinct from area studies, and indeed from all other fields that define their critical purview and expertise strictly according to region, nation-state, period, culture, religion, race, and so forth.
For our purposes, two clear lessons for postcolonial art history may be drawn from the conversation between Ndiaye and Laude. Given Laude's single-minded celebration of “authentic” Indigenous African artists (i.e., not modern African artists living in France), one lesson is that rigid anti-Eurocentrism, as a guiding principle, can turn out to be just as stifling as Eurocentrism itself. With this insight, scholars may wish to think twice about devising projects geared exclusively toward combatting Eurocentrism, despite the longstanding marching orders to that effect from some schools of postcolonial theory. Another lesson concerns Iba Ndiaye himself. To be sure, over the course of the conversation, the artist's patience is repeatedly tested as his legitimacy comes under attack. But Ndiaye ultimately holds his own against Laude's aggressive paternalism, and he calls into question a number of the French art historian's assumptions concerning the perceived axes and obligations of artistic identity. To return to “signs”—Laude's preferred term—Ndiaye's intransigence and confidence ultimately endure as signs that postcolonial art history must not be written as a narrative of victimization.
For a brief overview of the artist's life and career, see Joshua I. Cohen, “Iba N'Diaye,” in African Modernism in America, ed. Perrin M. Lathrop (New York: American Federation of Arts, 2022), 154-55.
“Repères biographiques,” in Jean Laude: Écrits sur l'art, ed. Bertrand Dorléac, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucia Piccioni (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2019), 899-906; Jean Laude, La peinture française et “l'art nègre” (1905-1914): Contribution à l’étude des sources du fauvisme et du cubisme (Paris: Klincksieck, 2006 ). For an English translation of the 1968 introductory essay, see Jean Laude, “Introduction to French Painting and ‘Negro Art’ (1905-1914) ,” trans. Richard George Elliott, Art in Translation 5, no. 4 (2013): 439-86.
Pillaudin was a French radio producer whose role in the conversation ended up being minimal. For an overview of Pillaudin's professional activities, see “Roger Pillaudin, ancien collaborateur de la radio de service publique, RTF, ORTF et Radio-France, vient de mourir à l'âge de soixante-neuf ans,” Le Monde (October 27-28, 1996), 21.
See, for example, Z. S. Strother, “African Works: Anxious Encounters in the Visual Arts,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 39 (Spring 2001): 5-23; and Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee, eds., African Art, Interviews, Narratives: Bodies of Knowledge at Work (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012).
Olu Oguibe, “Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art” , in The Culture Game (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 13.
Partha Mitter has theorized this timeworn double standard in art history—wherein Western artists have the right to cross-cultural borrowings, whereas non-Western artists do not—as “the Picasso manqué syndrome.” See “Decentering Modernism: Art History and AvantGarde Art from the Periphery,” Art Bulletin 90, no. 4 (December 2008): 534-38.
The Ndiaye-Laude conversation took place in the same year as the publication of the first monograph in art history to employ postcolonial methodologies avant la lettre, and the year before Said's Orientalism appeared. See Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1977), and Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
For one of the first edited volumes to appear along these lines, see Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989).