Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 12, 2001
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir Contemporary African Art London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 224 pp.; 74 color ills.; 96 b/w ills. Paper $14.95 (0500203288)

Contemporary African art is a complex subject. Much of it has been produced by formally and informally trained artists and, for the most part, under the influence of Western education and creative enterprise. Some critics have argued that Western patronage is biased against contemporary African art in favor of “traditional” art, apparently because of the latter’s impact on modern art in the early twentieth century. It is alleged that many Western critics prefer the works of the informally trained artists and often use their professional clout to foist their own agenda on the art scene, encouraging the production of a particular type of creative expression that reflects a subjective and romanticized vision of Africa.

The dearth of galleries and patronage on the African continent itself has complicated the issue. The harsh realities of life in many African countries shape the works of the artists, sometimes distinguishing them from those of their compatriots who have been forced by the same circumstances to live in exile. Moreover, francophone African artists tend to respond to cultural forces that are at variance—in tempo and character—with those of their anglophone counterparts. In the northern and southern parts of the continent, religion and political ideology have exerted considerable influences on the types of art produced, despite the fact that a number of African artists in these areas are of Arab, Asian, or European descent. How, then, can one write about contemporary African art without being entrapped in the issues of multiple identities that are so important to the creation of art on the continent? How can a book on this topic capture the spirit of postcolonial African art without sacrificing the context that defines its production and consumption? That the continent is in flux is not in doubt. What is yet to be fully documented is the degree to which the contemporary African artist has succeeded in capturing the dynamics created by the confluence of cultural, religious, and Western ideas. What are the common elements that define contemporary African art?

These are some of the questions that Sidney Kasfir attempts to answer in this book, one of the few on the subject. It consists of seven chapters, each dealing with a major theme that has affected the practice and study of contemporary African art in the last fifty years. The author begins with an explication of basic concepts, discussing the appropriateness of such terms as “modern” and “contemporary.” She identifies the former with transformations caused by colonialism “based on the colonialists’ theories of ‘improving the natives’” (10), and the latter with “the postcolonial in terms of its dates” (9). According to Kasfir, although contemporary art has developed through "bricolage"—that process by which new genres are grafted onto preexisting structures—to refer to it exclusively as postcolonial “is to deny any deeper history and connection to what came before the colonial incursion” (13). She examines the relationship between the postcolonial and the postmodern, locating their similarity in the very condition of their hybridity (14). In spite of the latter, the art is “African” essentially because it is a synthesis in which the artist continually relates the present to the past, creating forms that are deeply rooted in valorized ancestral traditions, while at the same time reflecting myriad changes in the body politic.

Kasfir’s book is about the visual arts of a continent that constantly reinvents itself. She adopts a contextualist approach, one that allows her to discuss a broad array of topics ranging from the sociology and economics of art production to the involvement of art in ideological proclamations and political struggles in different parts of the continent. She reinforces her observations with relevant illustrations and excerpts from field interviews with artists. Chapter 1 deals with the emergence of popular art and culture in the urban areas. Chapter 2 examines the various workshops that produced informally trained artists. The third and fourth chapters study the role of patrons and mediators, and the commodification of art, respectively. Chapter 5 is concerned with the problems of the African artist and shifting identities in the postcolonial world. The idea of a national culture in relation to decolonization is the subject of Chapter 6, while the concluding Chapter 7 focuses on migration and displacement—that is, contemporary African artists in exile.

While the author’s discourse is admirable, Contemporary African Art comes across as a book more concerned with art institutions, the politics of making art, and the social and economic survival of artists than with iconographic interpretation or the development of form in time and space. The book is neither a critique of main trends nor a comparative study of themes, styles, or artistic philosophy. In the last three chapters, Kasfir discusses the works of well-known artists such as Ibrahim El Salahi, Ben Enwonwu, Kendell Geers, El Hadji Sy, Obiora Udechukwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Skunder Boghossian, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Sokari Douglas Camp, and Yinka Shonibare. But she rarely focuses on art as an intellectual exercise or an embodiment of meaning. Except in a few instances, such as her description of paintings by Nerissa Mugadza and Mary Chitiyo (116-18), formal analysis remains a secondary concern.

It may be argued that there are many approaches to art history and that the one adopted by an author is a matter of choice. Presumably, the emphasis on art schools and patronage—as well as the habits and attitudes of artists toward making art—is a deliberate decision. All the same, the book could conceivably have taken the subject to a deeper level had the author paid more attention to the artworks. One other criticism is that she provides only the names of artists, titles of works, and dates; there is no information on medium, dimensions, and, where appropriate, location. Nevertheless, Kasfir should be commended for offering the reader much more than the familiar platitudes about contemporary African art. Her examination of the informal art workshop phenomenon that abounds in different parts of the continent (and beyond) is revealing. According to her, it is the interactive and interpersonal relationship between workshop organizers and participants, rather than duration, which is at the core of the popularity and commercial success of art workshops. It goes without saying, therefore, that contemporary African art remains beholden to outside interests, most especially the expatriates who created and continue to sustain nurturing environments for the artists, providing important contacts and avenues for patronage in Europe and the United States. These expatriates include Ulli Beier, Susanne Wenger, and Georgina Beier (from Nigeria); Frank McEwen and Tom Blomefield (Zimbabwe); Ruth Schaffner (Kenya); and Pierre Romain-Defosses and Pierre Lods (Congo). What we are dealing with here is a trade-off system in which the expatriate facilitators control avenues for promoting the artists who, in return, are obliged to meet the standards set by the brokers. Of course, there is enough intrigue and tension to go around the camps of both artists and dealers.

That I have singled out the workshop phenomenon simply reflects the degree of attention that Kasfir has paid to it, although she also deals with formally trained artists. It is in the concluding chapter where she focuses on the expatriate artists, but the last word on migration and displacement is said much earlier, in the introductory chapter (12-13). After comparing the concerns of African artists living abroad with those at home, she notes that whereas the former are preoccupied with the problem of relating their African background and experience to “a different everyday reality,” the most pressing issue for African artists who have not migrated is marginalization in their own countries. How true! What Kasfir did not add is that either at home in Africa or away in exile, marginalization remains the umbilical cord that connects all contemporary African artists.

Contemporary African Art is a well-researched and meticulously written book, though only a few female artists are included and there is little on contemporary art in the northern parts of the continent. Some of my favorite artists, such as Mustapha Dime and Chris Ofili, did not make the cut. But that is the nature of the project: a book on contemporary African art cannot be as exhaustive as everyone would wish. To date, Sidney Kasfir’s book remains the best work on this topic.

—dele jegede, Indiana State University, Terre Haute