Globalization, heritage and contemporary African arts

For the past decade, I have conducted research on museums, exhibition practice, and contemporary creative communities since the colonial period, primarily in Francophone West Africa. Throughout my research, heritage and globalization have both figured prominently, and I have often perceived an inherent tension between the two as they relate to contemporary African arts. This tension, I believe, has any number of parallels in binary oppositiotns by now very familiar to scholars—e.g., traditional-contemporary, local-global, which are tension, taking selected recent personal experiences as a point of departure: the recent Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) Triennial Conference, curatorial work, and an informal conversation with a non-specialist art collector. Ultimately, none of the commonly conceived reifications holds up in current creative or intellectual practice, though classification systems, terminology, and institutional structures perpetuate them.

From March 31-April 3 2004, the 13th Annual Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) took place at Harvard University. Though ACASA is based in the US, it is arguably the premier forum for scholars of African art worldwide. The most striking aspect of this conference was the unprecedented number of presentations focused on contemporary artists, creative practice and fine arts. Scholars are giving a great deal of attention to contemporary African arts, and research on related topics has increased exponentially in the last decade. Despite the growth in research, I would argue that exhibition practice necessarily lags behind academia due to the inherent constraints of institutional structures, which constitute a more mediated forum. As such they are not able to respond to theoretical trends as quickly as individual scholars. At the level of individual research, scholars have more autonomy to work with contemporary artists and studios; in Africa and the global African diaspora community, while organized exhibitions require a different degree of institutional support, and often years to prepare.

The notable increase in scholarly attention and exhibitions would seem to bode well for contemporary African artists seeking markets for their work. However, the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian is unusual in that the institution is devoted uniquely to art from the African continent, and as such its funding is devoted to building a regionally specific collection/art history. More often, African art is found in American fine arts museums with general collections, and whose missions are to present a comprehensive world art history: for example, the Cleveland Museum of Art articulates its mission to « augment, preserve, exhibit and foster undestanding of the outstanding collections of world art it holds in trust, » while the Detroit Institute of Arts « brings the culture and history of the world to Detroit’s doorstep.» In this context, African collections have tended to align with longstanding canons in which authenticity is highly prized. In museums holding general collections—i.e., whose scope spans the entire globe—it is more difficult for curators to advocate for the purchase of contemporary African artworks for various reasons.

First, when funding is restricted, there is often a tendency to build on collection strengths, and at this point in time few collections have a strength in contemporary African art. Second, because there is little precedent for collecting work by contemporary African artists, there is no clear criteria/standard for collection (i.e., as opposed to tradition-based work which has a longer history of study and associated canons). This would seem to pose a problem for the development of markets for contemporary African art where artists may or may not draw on those widely recognized traditions. Finally, in museums with a more general collection, work by contemporary African arts play a different role than, for example, an institution such as the National Museum of African Art, which has a specifically regional missive. In the context of a general collection, it is not always clear where a contemporary African work fits into the existing framework. The conventional departmental/institutional organization that predominates in American museums holding general collections, then, may pose a practical problem: in which department should contemporary African art reside, and from what sources is funding allocated?

For instance, at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), there is one work created by a contemporary African artist, the well-known ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, Kenya-born and current United Kingdom resident. As of spring 2004, the CMA’s Odundo vessel was placed at the intersection of the Sub-Saharan Africa gallery and adjacent Modern/Contemporary galleries, attenuating the historical tension between « traditional » and « contemporary » and noting the conundrum in label text. In fact, the Odundo lies officially within the purview of the « Baroque and Later Decorative Arts and Sculpture » department rather than Contemporary or African. Like the CMA, the DIA holdings from Africa consist primarily of tradition-based artworks from sub-Saharan Africa. The exception, again, is an Odundo vessel, which falls within the African collection. Since it was acquired in 1997, the ceramic vessel has been exhibited in various contexts, including decorative arts galleries, and is planned for the upcoming reinstallation of the Africa galleries (2008).

I would argue that it is no coincidence that Odundo’s work is represented in museums who have longstanding collections of African tradition-based art. Odundo’s ceramic vessels relate to traditional potting techniques, and also speak to the artist’s global experience : the artist takes inspiration not only from potters in her native Kenya, but also Pueblo potters with whom she has worked in the US, and from images of Victorian women whose curves were manipulated and exagerrated by corsets, bustles and lacing. With these diverse underpinnings, Odundo’s work contributes to multiple histories of art, style and social experience. This aspect of her work is particiularly salient for general museums whose exhibitions address those multiple histories. Where museums are interested in incorporating contemporary works in a specifically African art historical narrative, the ability to link Odundo’s work to a tradition on the continent is key. At the same time, in theory, the work can also fit into a more global narrative, and bridge existing departments.

Tradition, it seems, plays a critical role for museum visitors’ experience of contemporary African art. During the course of the exhibition Ethiopian Passages : Dialogues in the diaspora at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (2003), I led several tours of the exhibition to various audiences—docents, staff, general public, family—and in each case, someone would stand before one or another work and pose the question, « What about this is African ? », implying that patron interests hinge on recognition of a perceived African tradition. When that connection was not immediately apparent, the contemporary gallery at the NMAfA was disorienting for many visitors.

Theoretical challenges to concepts of a static tradition notwisthstanding, the shift towards interest in contemporary arts and artists sits uneasily in some sectors, and is inherently at odds with development initiatives targeting development of the cultural industries that more often favor initiatives tied to heritage preservation. African art markets are well rooted in the victorian primtivist paradigm to which authenticity and difference are pivotal (cf. Philips & Steiner 1999). The essential dichotomy playing into preoccupation with heritage preservation is the longstanding perceived binary opposition between tradtion and contemporary. Where the visual arts are concerned, traditional and contemporary are based on broad generalizations: traditional art has generally been considered as that which adheres to longstanding forms in African cultures such as masks and sculpture, which possess a perceived purity of form—that is, devoid of external influences—and appear representative of a particular stylistic tradition. By contrast, contemporary has been recognized as work that reflects clearly external influences, such as painting or photography. As time has passed, however, that distinction has become increasingly artificial.

The question that comes to mind, then, is this : What it is « African », and who decides ? Certainly, this is subjective. Where visual arts are concerned, I suggest that scholars, curators, policymakers take their cue from artists themselves who may alternately value local stylistic traditions, on the one hand, and, on the other, innovative responses to contemporary encounters that other artists—in the past or present—may not share. In fact, a more dynamic and fluid conception of tradition and contemporary experience may allow for wider opportunities and more diverse audiences : that is, contemporary artists whose work synthesizes complex historical dimensions of globalization may speak to alternative audiences and potential consumers. For example, upon my recent return from the 2004 Biennale des Arts contemporains in Dakar, I shared the exhibition catalogue with a local modern and contemporary collector (i.e., as opposed to someone interested specifically in contemporary African art) who, while extremely knowledgeable about modern and contemporary arts in Western art history, has only recently begun to explore artists from other traditions. On this occasion, I drew his attention to one artist in particular, Khaled Hafez, an Egyptian artist and winner of the Biennale Prix de la Francophonie. Hafez’s mixed media work incorporates certain elements that may be recognized by non-specialists as « African »—e.g., hieroglyphs and coptic imagery—even if their specific meaning remains indecipherable. At the same time, the artist draws heavily on popular images from global fashion media and American cinema. While some elements of Hafez’s work were not part of a shared visual vocabulary, the collector did note an appreciation for the use of traditional elements and commented that the use of imagery from international popular media provided him, as a nonspecialist, a point of entry into the work. This exchange illustrates a connection between an artist and geographically distant viewer in which a common visual language serves as a bridge between what is familiar and what is not. Contemporary art exhibitions featuring work by artists such as Hafez may offer an opportunity for facilitating cultural exchange and for synthesizing complex historical dimensions of globalization, and speak to a variety potential audiences/consumers. In the context of American museum exhibitions, creative work by artists well-established in the American and European markets such as Odundo, as well as emerging artists such as Hafez, provides a starting point for museums to include contemporary African artists in their collections. By complicating the conventional categories that underpin institutional frameworks, these artists, perhaps paradoxically, have the potential to further the museum’s missions of presenting a world history of art in the 21st century.

[end here ?]One of the benefits of a general collection is the sheer diversity of materials that are held by a single institution : in an increasingly transnational community, strict regional separations are artificial, not only with respectr to contemporary arts, but historical works as well. Rather than initiating such exchanges and developments, globalization of markets and new technologies has accelerated those processes so that they demand attention like never before. I suggest that globalization, then, is not merely an historical process, but a theoretical perspective that can be applied retroactively. That is, while globalization may be perceived as a very contemporary phenomenon, it is also interesting and important to consider more ancient histories through a similar lens to get a sense of the dynamism of people’s lived experiences further in the past. To think about contemporary art from a curatorial perspective, I see this as having a significant impact on the way curators conceptualize exhibitions. Most exhibitions of African art in the last 50 years have included art designated either as « traditional » and « ethnographic » or that identified as « modern » and « contemporary ». This, by definition, sets up a binary opposition, that reifies past and present, when distinctions between the two are in practice essentially artificial. The presence of art works such as Magdelene Odundo demonstrate one way in which exisiting institutional structures can be diversified within the established framework to allow for wider possilbities/multiple histories.

I find that, often, dialogue surrounding cultural industries/development implicitly equates the cultural change of globalization with (what is perceived as) a regrettable loss of heritage rather than a component of that heritage. However, those that criticize globalization for that reason, in doing so, deny the innovation, creativity, and agency (pouvoir) of local and global communities and individuals. Quite the contrary, extensive networks of communication and movement—both actual and virtual/digital—that constitute contemporary experience of populations worldwide present vast resources from which people—whether artists or members of the general public—can choose at will. Instead, I problematize the dialogue to see how particular niches—in this case, contemporary « fine » arts—relate to the broader rubric of cultural industries and, hopefully, further successful policies benefitting artists.

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First, a comment on vocabulary : I’ll note that the some of terms I use below are problematic, and may reinforce the very problems the classificatory terminology I intend to highlight, and I leave the challenge of reframing these terms for further discussion.

Indeed, this is true worldwide, but I limit the discussion here to the US in keeping with my own curatorial experience to date.

On view February 27-December 5, 2004 and co-curated by myself and Allyson Purpura. Visit the extensive website at

Apart from several works by William Kentridge collected by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens, the National Museum of African Art is the only Smithsonian museum to have collected works by contemporary African artists.

One additional contemporary work, a painting from 19** by the Nigerian artist Wamboje, who had a residency at the nearby Cranbrook Institute of Art in the 19**s, was recently gifted, but has not yet been exhibited.
As a curator and educator, I tend to take this as a positive reaction indicating the potential for a learning experience and change in public perception over the long term through gradual change in exhibition practice.
while acknowledging that their perpetuation may be in part a result of contemporary markets and didactic discussions of ‘authenticity’

Though this view is by no means consistent, even within a particular declaration: for instance, Senegalese art critic Iba Ndiaye Djiadji at once laments the contamination of African tradition (WC) and praises artists who take advantage of advanced media technology: [***insert quote]. This further illustrates the difficulty in distinguishing between local traditions and contemporary global experience.