Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 18, 2018
Eberhard Fischer and Lorenz Homberger, eds. African Masters: Art from the Ivory Coast Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Reitberg in association with Scheidegger and Spiess, 2014. 240 pp.; 262 color ills.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $39.00 (9783858817617)
Exhibition schedule: Museum Rietberg, Zurich, February 14–June 1, 2014; Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, June 27–October 5, 2014; De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, October 25, 2014–February 15, 2015; Musée du quai Branly, Paris, April 7–July 26, 2015

How does a history of art in Africa get written? This writing has to negotiate the shoals and reefs of both its own history of writing but also and perhaps more importantly the framing of its subject matter by another history of art—that of European modernism. The shoals are well known. They come in the form of prescriptions (to students): Do not use the word tribe—it belongs to a colonial era of framing people through their language and material culture that bears little relation to the actual history of identity formation. Do not use the word traditional—it shuts down the idea of a tradition, making it something that is closed, finished, dead. Above all avoid making comparisons of affinity (to paraphrase James Clifford). The expressive and suggestive forms that inspired Pablo Picasso have no place in an African art history that takes African art making seriously. The fields of European modernism that set a sublime primitivism at their heart and which have been critiqued and trampled on so extensively should have little place in the writing of the history of art in Africa.

Reading the introductory passages to  African Masters: Art from the Ivory Coast, edited by Eberhard Fischer and Lorenz Homberger, brings these fears to the fore. However, reassuringly, once into the main text(s) it is clear that Fischer, the motivating figure behind this work, understands the traps and pitfalls all too well. Importantly, with Homberger he has set out, in this book and its accompanying exhibition, the completion of a project that arguably began in the 1930s with Fischer’s father Max Himmelherber and which since the 1970s with his first (English language) explorations of the work and workings of the Dan carvers of the Cote d’Ivoire has been providing one of the most useful models of how an art history in Africa might be imagined. The key and fundamental point to this imagining is the insistence on the central place of the artist. It is this that has always marked Himmelherber’s and Fischer’s contribution to African art history. This volume takes these earlier texts and writes them large.

At one level this book is a catalogue, the summary residue of a touring exhibition, African Masters: Art from the Ivory Coast, curated by Fischer and Lorenz Homberger. As a catalogue of the forms and representations that are produced in the broad Ivory Coast region (a neat historical formulation that avoids easy geopolitical ascription) this book is of value in and of itself, allowing the reader a genuine access to the sculptural works that made up much of the exhibition. However, as Fischer states in the introduction, the intention here goes well beyond simple documentation of categorical display. This is a book that puts forward a way of doing an art history by paying attention to the makers of the art and thereby their history.

Fischer and Homberger are joined in their text by Monica Blackmun Visonà, Bernard De Grunne, and Daniela Bognolo. Through their contributions the book encompasses a wide-ranging review of the differing forms and styles of (broadly defined) Ivory Coast carving. Each chapter considers work from different regions of this “ivory coast”; included are beautifully illustrated examples of Dan, Lagoon, Guro, Senufo, and Lobi wooden carved sculpture. The point, however, is that these examples are not generic markers of a people, but rather works of individual artists. Thus while there is still a certain element of the connoisseurial in the descriptive analysis, and while style remains, for the most part, linked to ethnic regions, the emphasis in each chapter on the identification of the artist’s hand moves toward a genuine history of (an) African art. The danger is that work such as this becomes trapped, not only by the legacies of an art history that has rejected the “one tribe, one style” model, but by the wider critique of “style.” To paraphrase Meyer Schapiro, style may refer to the constant form of a set of objects set in a period of time, but it is also a way of doing. Certainly this is largely a history of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly the objects here relate to particular “ways of doing,” but the project of identifying and engaging in the single authorial producer of the carved work stands as a distinct shift, allowing the authors to move a notion of style back to its usefulness in describing the individual hand, all the more so because the level of detail that is used to describe the tracing of hands and the manufacture of works is outstanding. That may not seem radical in the terms of Euro-American art history, but for the discipline in Africa it should now be seen as foundational.

This is not a work that necessarily proclaims “always contextualize,” and readers looking for intricate exegesis of the meanings of objects in context will be disappointed. There is certainly enough reasonable geographic and social information within the text for the reader to understand the basic formulations within which these works are used, but an extensive attempt at producing interpretative meaning is not developed. In part this is the point; style is prioritized over content, so much so that the revelation here is that, in the hands of the master carver, style is content. However, this does raise a question that is not overtly addressed in the volume. Local knowledge of aesthetic form—the correct, or even heightened, manner of stylistic perfection that the masters identified here have achieved—is not in itself given exegetical force. Rather, emphasis on the technical genius of the carver allows an understanding of aesthetics as one that is held by the owners of knowledge and skill, rather than, as is often presented, a more general social philosophy.

The final chapter, “Modern and Contemporary Artists from the Ivory Coast,” by Visonà makes a move that is increasingly commonplace in African-art surveys. Again and in keeping with the theme of the book and exhibition, the chapter concentrates on the individual artist, although given the context of the contemporary, the move feels less radical. What this inclusion does do, however, is raise an issue implicit in the rich documentation but that is somewhat explicitly underexplored—the relationship between creativity and innovation. The main body of the text explores a specific form of creative reproduction—the creativity of the icon. It demonstrates the significant creativity of master artists working on the reproduction of particular forms. This is not to deny the impressive creativity inherent in these works, but it does raise the question of the traditional. Many of the works documented here could be labeled as modern or contemporary: that is, they are products of a twentieth century, and one that is presumably informed by Ivorian forms of modernity. The idea of the traditional is perhaps the barrier that African art history has to cross. In his final chapter on metamorphosis, a documentation of the carving process from beginning to (international) market, Fischer shows how this crossing might work. The works described here are no more traditional than Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); instead, they are points within a tradition, one that, as the authors so well describe, has been handed on and forward by artists at the heights of their talent.

Will Rea
Senior Lecturer, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds