The boundaries of the field are being revised

The fact that “the boundaries of the field are being revised” is the first really significant evolutionary change to occur since the inception of the discipline of African art history in the early 1960s. We’re not in the midst of a crisis; rather, we are experiencing a shift in values that engages ideas associated with postmodernism and colonial/postcolonial discourse.

The current situation seems a logical response to the art world’s long overdue recognition that Africa has much more to offer than just its traditional or classical arts. This, coupled with art history’s reorientation to include a much broader spectrum of material (visual) culture, has created a situation that many of us who are studying and teaching the visual cultures of Africa find exciting but also challenging. Can one person successfully handle all manifestations of visual culture for the entire continent, especially in the context of mentoring graduate students?

Is there a problem if, as Sidney puts it, you are “more familiar with masks and shrine sculpture than Triangle workshops and Biennales” and you have a student who is engaging modern or contemporary issues? I don’t think so. I have found it rewarding to learn with my students and have found the burgeoning discourse on visual culture and colonial/postcolonial society in Africa fascinating. But it has been a challenge staying on top of all that is now being written on the subject. Since my own research is focused on “classical” traditions, I have made sure that students pursuing subjects dealing with colonial/postcolonial art and society also work with a mentor who is familiar with modern/contemporary art and critical theory. Ideally, I’d like to see Michigan State University hire a specialist in contemporary African arts, but it is unlikely that this will happen anytime soon.

We are not alone in revising the boundaries of our field. Parallel shifts are occurring in other ,areas of art history, including Latin America, Asia, Oceania, Native North America, and the Islamic world. Increased awareness has led to a demand that these modern and contemporary traditions be integrated into art history curricula. But most art history programs are not able to support specialization in all regions. The visual cultures of colonial and postcolonial societies throughout the world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can, and perhaps should, be studied in a comparative context. The content of a great deal of contemporary art in Africa, especially that produced by academic artists working in Africa or abroad, may be grounded in local (African) tradition, but the audience to which this work is directed, the formal idioms of expression, and the broader sociopolitical issues that it addresses are global. Though it is critical to seek an understanding of the specific environment in which a particular artist or work of art lives, it seems that many of the issues being explored by scholars and critics of modern and contemporary African art are shared with scholars working in other parts of the world, especially those areas with histories of political or cultural hegemony by the West. It is perhaps more viable, at least in the short run, to think of a single faculty position in contemporary world arts, filled by an individual with research experience in a specific geographic area and with a strong grounding in critical theory and some knowledge of other world traditions.

Over the last few years I have offered a graduate seminar that deals with twentieth-century academic art in Africa, and have integrated the interpretation of modern and contemporary traditions into my undergraduate courses. This semester I am using Sidney’s new book, Contemporary African Art (2000), for the first time. It has made dealing with these issues much easier and more meaningful for the students. But at the same time it has exacerbated a problem with which I’ve been struggling for several years. I am finding it more and more difficult to work with the conventional organizational schema based on geography that many of us who teach African art history continue to use. I currently offer two advanced undergraduate courses; one deals with west Africa and the other with the rest of the continent. I am considering an alternative scheme that replaces these two courses with three that are based on the general approaches that have informed our interpretations of visual culture on the continent. The first will consider pre-twentieth-century Africa–traditions that have been interpreted in an archaeological and/or historical context; the second will examine visual culture in an ethnological context, drawing upon the literature of aesthetic anthropology and art ethnography; and the third will consider modern and contemporary issues–an analysis of twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture grounded in contemporary theory.

I think it is going to be a while before the dust settles. In the meantime it is important that we maintain the dialogue that was triggered in 1999 by Fred Lamp’s “First Word” and is being continued here. Perhaps it would be useful to carry the discussion into a more dynamic forum, such as an electronic discussion list (i.e., H-AfrArts) so that more individuals may participate. Sustaining a constructive dialogue will ensure that this evolutionary change is a positive growth experience for the field.

Some of Diakite’s artworks

Ce Djan (The Tall One), 2000. Handbuilt vessel with lid, underglazes, crackle glaze; 102cm (40″). The University of Iowa Museum of Art. Iowa City.

Diakite describes this piece as a little granary or storage pot, based on the large pots that stand at the corner of family compounds in Malian villages and, less frequently, in urban neighborhoods. The shape of these storage vessels evokes, for Diakite as for others raised in rural households, the power and mystery of unseen riches, for the food and other goods held in these containers are the focus of much longing among small children. Diakite equates himself with such a vessel, for his own young children view him as the powerful repository of goods and knowledge. This piece is richly adorned with linear patterns and fanciful creatures, including a ci wara figure, the distinctive wooden antelope headdress worn at agricultural celebrations among the Bamana.


Kote (Spinner), 2000. Handbuilt earthenware, underglazes, glaze; 68cm (27″). Courtesy of Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery, Portland, Oregon. This brilliantly glazed piece is multilayered in its signification. The Bamana word kote refers to a child’s top made of a snail shell. Kote is also a dance characterized by spinning steps. For Diakite, the act of spinning has particular significance, for he views it as a metaphor for human interaction: “Spinning means a person is open; you can see every dimension around a person who is spinning. Just turn around and you will realize that the things around you stay in place, so the person standing still can see you from all sides.” Spinning, he notes, is clearly the natural state of things, for the earth itself is always turning. The adornment of this piece reflects Diakite’s interest in animal characters, which play key roles in the stories and lessons he heard as a child at his grandmother’s house.


Koro Kara, 2000. Handbuilt earthenware, underglazes, glaze; length 51cm (20″). Courtesy of Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery.

As they are in much of Diakite’s work, animals are key iconographical elements of this piece, their symbolic roles based as much in the artist’s own imagination as in indigenous Malian thought. For him the snail represents courage and morality. The animal’s hard shell conceals its interior, just as a morally correct person will conceal a secret despite pressures to reveal it. Diakite sees the frog that adorns the side of this long-legged snail as another symbol of courage, and of perseverance as well. He explains, “In the snow of Alaska, you can find frogs. In the deserts of Timbuktu, you can find frogs. People underestimate the power of frogs.” This fantastic creature, then, offers a model for ideal behavior.


MishiKun Masks, 2000. Handbuilt earthenware, underglaze, glazes, porcupine quills; right, 61cm (24″); left, 71cm (28″). Courtesy of Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery.

These elaborately painted masks represent a pair of horned animals, each with a porcupine quill sprouting from its head. As with paired ci wara antelope headdresses, one is male (the larger of the two) and the other female. Diakite has used clay rather than wood to portray the masks and marionettes used by young people in Malian villages and small towns. There, groups of masks are danced to entertain audiences at public festivities, such as harvest celebrations. They refer to the importance of the relationship between humans and animals. Animals are sources of food and transportation, and at a metaphorical level, in stories and myths, they serve as models for human behavior.

The Tales I Tell, 1996. Earthenware, acrylics; 102cm (40″). Courtesy of Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery.

Because he travels between two homes, Mali and the United States, Diakite finds himself serving as an interpreter for his family and friends in both places, relating stories about life elsewhere. The fantastic head atop this cylindrical body stands for Diakite himself, his hand on the front of the body, gesturing as he describes faraway places. The interlocking people, animals, cars, and houses that encircle the piece illustrate the interlaced lives and stories that draw distant people closer together.

Djeliba, 1999. Earthenware, underglazes, glaze. Diameter 51cm (20″). Courtesy of Pulliam-Deffenbaugh Gallery.

Along with elaborate vessels and sculpted creatures, Diakite creates platters, plates, bowls, and a variety of other forms that are sold as both functional objects and works of art. This platter celebrates djeliw (sing. djell), the Mande historian-singers who play powerful social roles as repositories of detailed historical knowledge and supporters of important families. At the center of the composition, a singing djeli plays his kora, the harp-like instrument closely associated with djeliw throughout the region. The densely painted border that surrounds the powerful musician-historian represents all of history, evoked by the djeli’s epic songs.

Baba Wague Diakit

Baba Wague Diakite is an artist who defies categorization–a fact that reveals as much about the limits of artistic categories as it does about Diakite’s multiple talents. Both Malian and American, the artist has been a resident of Portland, Oregon, for more than fifteen years. He expresses himself in many media, from ceramics and textiles to storytelling and architectural sculpture. He creates both “high art,” made for display in museums and galleries, and “craft,” household objects that are made to be used. His work playfully draws together elements associated with “traditional” Malian and “contemporary” American cultures.

The quotation marks that surround several of the terms used above draw attention to their provisional nature and to Diakite as an artist whose career demonstrates their essential artificiality. His work grows out of the diversity of his experiences, which place him as much between categories as within them. Though he draws on a cultural heritage of which he is proud, Wague does not seek to express an essential Malian-ness or African-ness but instead his own humanity. In his words: “My work is not tied up with traditional concerns or techniques…. As much as I am proud to introduce a little of my culture through my art, I do not consider my work to be particularly African.” In this, Diakite shares the concerns of many contemporary artists from Africa, who seek to transcend the labels by which the art market organizes its categories, too often blocking entry to those whose work is not neatly classifiable.

Diakite was born and raised in Kassoro, a small village in the Fouladougou region that lies west of Bamako, the country’s capital. He credits his grandmother’s stories, which mesmerized children at family gatherings, with instilling in him the creative spirit he brings to every aspect of his work. He moved to Bamako in the late 1970s, joining his parents. Diakite has had no professional training, but from an early age he showed a talent for artistic expression, beginning with the creation and performance of puppet shows. I first met the artist through his paintings made using bogolan pigments, which are associated with a uniquely Malian textile known in the United States as “mudcloth.” He learned the technique, customarily the exclusive domain of women, from his mother during a visit home to Mali in 1987.

Since his move to the United States in 1984, Diakite has focused much of his artistic effort on ceramics, also considered to be “women’s work” in Mall. He creates vessels, tiles, plates, and figurative sculpture using a variety of techniques; some pieces are wheel thrown, others slip-cast, carved, or handbuilt. He fires his work in an electric kiln and uses brilliantly colored synthetic glazes–both distinctly non-“traditional” techniques. For Diakite, distance from “tradition” permits greater freedom to experiment: “Traditional artists work in one straight line of thought: to do things the way they have been done in the past. Putting too much creativity into it can cause a problem. Being in the United States, I realize that it is great to respect the past, but also having freedom in art is one of the best things you can have.” He recognizes that the women who make ceramics in a “traditional” manner also work creatively, some producing “fabulously sculptural functional ware.” Yet he clearly separates his innovative approach from that of artists whose work is more recognizably “traditional.”

Africanist art historians have devoted much effort, especially in the past decade, to combating stereotypical views of traditional arts as static, unyielding in the face of individual creativity. Two recent issues of this magazine, in fact, featured studies of individual artists, demonstrating the extraordinary creativity that informs their production in “traditional” contexts (“Authorship in African Art,” special issues Winter and Spring 1999). Diakite shares the views of many artists I worked with in Mali: for them, indigenous arts represent a point of departure for innovations that integrate distinctly contemporary influences, and the notion that they should work in a distinctly African (i.e., traditional) style is a source of frustration. Diakite has found that living in the United States frees him from the expectations that too often color the reception of his work among collectors.

Along with ceramic sculpture, Diakite has created large-scale installations for the Oregon Zoo, Oregon State University, and (in collaboration with his wife, sculptor Ronna Neuenschwander) the North Precinct Community Policing Center in Portland. His largest commission, not yet completed, is to be installed at Disney World in Orlando; it consists of a mural eighty-four feet long and five bronze medallions twelve to fifteen feet in diameter, which will be set into a floor. The artist has published two award-winning children’s books based on African folktales and illustrated with his ceramic tiles. His current projects include the establishment of a cultural center outside Bamako, where he hopes to offer American visitors an opportunity to become immersed in Malian culture, facilitating the same understanding across cultures that he himself has experienced after immersion in American culture. By moving beyond the divisions that often segregate both people and art forms, Diakite eloquently demonstrates the interconnectedness that animates the universe.


WRAPPED IN PRIDE Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity A Curriculum Resource Unit Lyn Avins and Betsy D. Quick UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1998. 162 pp., 20 color slides. $40 soft-cover.

This curriculum resource unit for teachers was developed in conjunction with the traveling exhibition of the same name, organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (catalogue reviewed on p. 13). It is divided into four spiral-bound sections, which are followed by rich appendixes that include a poem by W. E. B. Du Bois, a kente-weaving song, a bibliography, glossaries, and extensive notes on the beautiful slides that accompany the publication.

The introduction provides brief yet comprehensive information on the Asante people of Ghana and an overview of the exhibition, whose 700 objects encompass individual works of art and many others “employed in recreated market environments as found in Ghana and the United States” (p. 11). The exhibition comprises several sections: The Weaving of Kente, The Market, The Wearing of Kente, The Fine Art of Asante Kente, The Fine Art of Ewe Kente, The Colors of African Unity, From Kente to Quilts, A Calendar of Cloth, and Portraits of Kente, which show prominent African American leaders wearing the cloth.

This resource unit is built around twenty colorful slides and a plethora of black-and white photographs scattered throughout the various sections. Unit 1, “The Leader, the People, the Nation,” provides an extensive general history of Ghana and the Asante kingdom and its leaders and leadership arts.

In unit 2, “The Making and Design of Kente Cloth,” Avins and Quick chronicle the evolution of the Asante and Ewe weaving and describe the delicate and time-consuming processes of putting the cloth together. The four distinct tasks that accompany kente weaving are explained in detail: winding threads into skeins and laying them out in the desired color pattern; threading the loom with the prepared warp threads; weaving the cloth to the desired length; and, finally, sewing the narrow strips together. Thorough descriptions of various warp-stripe patterns and weft designs are enhanced by images depicting the weaving process, which facilitate one’s understanding and appreciation.

Unit 3, “The Contexts of Kente Use in Ghana,” is replete with examples: the Adae Kesee, or the procession of the Asantehene and other paramount or divisional chiefs; durbars, or public audiences at the courts of local or paramount rulers, where the most important chiefs are carried around in palanquins; installations and funerals of chiefs; palanquin linings; gift giving from historical times to the present, as witnessed by the presentation of kente to England’s Princess Mary on the occasion of her wedding and more recently to the Clintons on their visit to Ghana. The continuing commercialization of the cloth has led to its use in baseball caps, backpacks, ties, shoes, bags, purses, and other accessories.

Unit 4, “The Pan-African Movement and Kente in the United States,” extends its view beyond Ghana. Clad in kente, Kwame Nkmmah and his entourage visited Washington in 1958 and 1960, when Eisenhower was president. When W. E. B. Du Bois received his honorary degree at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1963, he donned an exquisite kente-based academic gown. In the United States, the cloth has become an integral part of the lives of African Americans, woven into events like Kwanzaa celebrations, Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and graduation at all levels. The conspicuous display of kente testifies to the widespread use and symbolism of this textile, once the “exclusive prerogative of Asante or other Akan chiefs” (p. 20).

This book is truly a rich resource that goes beyond kente; it is also a useful tool for teaching history and comparative cultures. The thought-provoking questions that begin each unit, the outlined activities, and the discussion in each lesson within the units will challenge and stimulate students. At the same time, such additions as proverbs, folktales, and descriptions of cultural activities like naming ceremonies make this a truly enjoyable publication. The names and the messages of the ten different kente patterns on the accompanying poster itself are a mine of lifelong learning. The Wrapped in Pride curriculum resource unit and its activities should be a mandatory addition to all lessons on African studies, especially since kente continues to be an integral part of the lives of African Americans. strongly recommend this book for libraries of all kinds.

KWASI SARKODIE-MENSAH is manager of instructional services at the O’Neill Library at Boston College, where he is also an Adjunct Professor in the College of Advancing Studies.