Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 16, 2018
Gitti Salami and Monica Blackmun Visoná, eds. A Companion to Modern African Art West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 648 pp.; 69 b/w ills. Cloth $195.00 (9781444338379)

A collection of essays by African, American, and European scholars, A Companion to Modern African Art is a welcome addition to the subject. The volume consists of twenty-nine chapters, arranged in a “roughly chronological order” and subdivided into nine parts. The introduction by the editors (part I, chapter 1) provides the reader a road map for navigating the contents of the book. Part II consists of one essay (chapter 2) by Henry John Drewal on local transformations and global inspirations. According to him, “modernity is not a European invention . . . [but] the result of the interactions and exchanges of diverse peoples across the planet over a long period of time” (23). After a brief survey, he examines the history of the imagery of African water deities (Mami/Papi Wata) and the influence of European mermaid and Asian snake charmer motifs on them. Part III comprises four essays (chapters 3–6) drawing attention to the synthesis of African and exotic elements in the nineteenth century as reflected in Afro-Portuguese ivories from Loango (Nichole N. Bridges); “vernacular” photography in West and Central Africa (Christraud M. Geary); the overlapping of the global and local in Swahili portrait photography (Prita Meier); and African “reimagination” of Baroque/Brazilian styles in Yoruba architecture, especially in the Shitta Bey Mosque and the Ijora Palace in Lagos, Nigeria (Ikem Stanley Okoye). Part IV features three essays (chapters 7–9) on new developments and cross-cultural encounters in the early twentieth century, such as the loosening of Islam’s restriction on pictorial representation, which facilitated its use as an educational tool in Egypt (Dina A. Ramadan); the combination of European and African elements in the watercolor paintings of Tshelantende (Djilatendo) from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kathrin Langenohl); and the incorporation of European “Top Hats” (to signify wealth, social status, and military power) in the visual culture of Guinea Bissau’s Bissagos Islands, the Nigerian Delta, and Cote d’Ivoire’s Lagoon region (Visoná). Part V consists of eight essays (chapters 10–17 by Mary Vogl, Atta Kwami, Elizabeth Morton, Sunanda K. Sanyal, Joanna Grabski, Peter Probst, John Picton, and Bogumil Jewsiewicki) on the quest for individual self-expression and national identity in different parts of colonial and postcolonial Africa. Part VI features one essay (chapter 18) by dele jegede on the elements of Pan-Africanism and transnationalism in the works of artists and art historians/museum curators of African descent in the Americas. Part VII is made up of four essays (chapters 19–22) on the syntheses in late twentieth-century modern African art through case studies from Cote d’Ivoire (Yacouba Konaté), Nigeria (Barbara Winston Blackmun), South Africa (Peter Ukpokodu), and Morocco (by Katarzyna Pieprzak). Part VIII has one essay (chapter 23 by Sally Price), which critiques the emphasis on the “exotic” at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, an institution founded in 2006 to showcase the arts and culture of the non-Western world. Finally, Part IX consists of six essays (chapters 24–9) on post-Apartheid photography in South Africa as reflected in the works of Zwelethu Mthethwa (Pamela Allara); the participation of contemporary African artists in local and international biennials (Kinsey Katchka); the dynamics of nationalism and transnationalism in East Africa, especially Uganda (Sidney L. Kasfir); civil war murals in Northern Cote d’Ivoire (Till Foster); the postindependence monuments in Namibia created by North Korean artists (Meghan L. E. Kirkwood), and the use of naturalistic concrete sculptures to embody modernity in the Nigerian Cross River town of Ugep (Gitti Salami).

By and large, all the essays are pathbreaking because of the originality of their theoretical approaches as well as the richness of their field and archival data. Yet matters arise here and there. For example, the caption for part II, “Africa has always been modern” (21), needs further clarification. Though, as John Picton points out in his essay (317), it normally refers to “something existing now, just now,” “of the same period,” “contemporary,” or “change.” The term modern is now commonly used in art history to identify the disillusionment with the naturalism in late nineteenth century Europe that (at the beginning of the twentieth century) gave birth to an emphasis on nonrepresentational art partly influenced by stylized African sculptures and masks. The paradox here is that, before the new development, many European art critics looked down on African sculptures and masks as “primitive” or failed attempts to imitate nature. Consequently, the European colonization of a large part of Africa between the late nineteenth century and mid-1970s resulted in the establishment of art schools that produced a new generation of “modern” African artists proficient in European-type naturalism at a time when nonrepresentational art (influenced by African stylization) was the vogue in Europe. No wonder, some scholars now identify stylization in precolonial African art as “premodern”; that is, far ahead of European modernism. (See Bo Sarnstedt and Katia Samaltanos-Stenström, Före Picasso: Afrikansk konst i svensk ägo [Before Picasso: African Art in Swedish Collections], Stockholm: Liljevalchs konsthall, 1988, 14–20.) Or, as Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), the French-American multimedia artist, condescendingly put it, “Look at those poor things from Africa, [pointing to African and Precolumbian sculptures] we made modern art out of them” (ibid). Simply put, modernism had different implications in Africa and Europe during the colonial period, denoting European-type naturalism in the colonies and African-inspired stylization in Europe. Hence some art historians now distinguish between “colonial” and “postcolonial” modernism in contemporary African art.

Secondly, despite the previously mentioned roughly chronological order of the chapters in the volume, the rationale behind their selection is open to question. For example, there are four chapters (6, 15, 20, and 29) on Nigeria, three (3, 8, and 17) on the Congo region, and two (13 and 26) on Uganda, but, surprisingly, none on Sudan and Ethiopia—both world famous for their art schools and artists. According to the editors: “given the vast territories of the continent and the diverse experiences of African populations . . . we could not include a chapter on Sudan or the development of the School of Khartoum. . . . Such a study would surely have included artists . . . [like] Ibrahim El-Salahi, who has worked internationally for over 50 years, and the other Sudanic artists (sculptors, printmakers, and ceramicists) who joined one of the earliest diasporas of the postindependence period. Ethiopia is also a crucial omission, for its artists began training abroad in the 1920s and returned to Addis Ababa to form art schools active before and after the Italian occupation of their country. Yet the flight of Ethiopian artists to the USA in the 1980s transformed African American art, and some of Ethiopia’s most influential artists are thus mentioned in the chapter by dele jegede” (15).

But the relocation of some Sudanese and Ethiopian artists to Europe and the United States did not interrupt the evolution of modern art in their countries. Thus, there is no justification for ignoring subsequent developments at Sudan’s School of Khartoum and Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts. Even then, dele jegede’s essay (chapter 18) on black diaspora art mentions not only expatriate Sudanese and Ethiopian artists, but also others from Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Kenya—countries not excluded from this volume for the same reason. Equally strange is the fact that none of the four chapters on Nigeria showcases any of its major art movements, such as those associated with the Yaba, Zaria, Nsukka, Ife, and Benin art schools. Furthermore, since the volume deals with modern African art, rather than modern art in Africa, the inclusion of chapter 28 is baffling, given its focus on postindependence monuments in Namibia created by North Korean artists.

Lastly, the underrepresentation of women artists in the volume again raises eyebrows, though it is of “real concern to the editors” as well (16). In short, and as the editors themselves acknowledge in the introduction: “this publication is not a compendium of views on well-established narratives. The level of synthesis one might expect in this type of publication is not yet possible; all scholarship in the field of African art history is relatively new . . . and documentation for modernism on the continent is still largely undigested. Even the discourse on African modernity is still in the process of being formulated” (14).

That said, Salami and Visoná should be commended for compiling this major contribution to the study of modern African art as well as for their editorial skills and the unusual candor with which they encourage the reader to seek other publications to fill in some of the gaps in the volume.

Babatunde Lawal
Professor of African, African American, and African Diaspora Art, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University