Kate Cowcher. Art Bulletin. Volume 101, Issue 3. September 2019.
Against the backdrop of colonialism, European writers and artists exalted art from Africa, but it was in the midst of the Cold War that midcentury Soviet and American scholars pursued Africanist art histories as distinct academic fields. Their concurrent projects, revealing divergent approaches and methodologies, burgeoned amid international programs and interdisciplinary research climates, in an era of intense geopolitical rivalry. The United States still dominates Africanist art history, yet the import and legacy of Soviet scholarship has been underexplored, especially on the African continent.
In a bookshop in Nigeria in the early 1970s, Oxford Africanist historian Anthony Kirk-Greene was surprised to find, amid local publications and student texts, books published by the Soviet Union written in the West African language Hausa. Alongside political novels and dictionaries, there was a biography of Lenin, which Kirk-Greene wryly noted had added the word subbotnik (the term, introduced after the October Revolution, used to refer to a day of voluntary public work, completed on weekends) to the Hausa-Russian dictionary. This incident alerted Kirk-Greene to the relative ignorance of the Western academy to the “sizeable phenomenon of Hausa literature published in the USSR.” If Soviet involvement in Nigeria had registered in the West (notably, its support for the government in the Nigerian Civil War), Kirk-Greene highlighted that “a quieter consolidation of the Soviet presence… in the sphere of Hausa studies” had occurred under the radar. In truth, emerging bodies of “Africanist” scholars in the East and the West were cognizant of the growth of academic interest in the continent across the First and Second Worlds from the 1950s on. If the specifics of such interest (say, Russian-Hausa literature) had limited circulation in a geopolitical climate not suited to collegial exchange, both blocs knew that at the dawn of the age of colonial liberation knowledge about the continent of Africa had become distinctly hot property.
How did this Cold War appetite for knowledge about Africa specifically impact the development of research into art and visual culture on the continent? How did discourse in the East converge with or differ from that of the West on the subject of art from Africa? How did geopolitics and ideological demands affect methodological approaches to visual material? Historiographic surveys of African art studies remain relatively few. In 1989 the journal of the African Studies Association, African Studies Review, published two large, seminal surveys documenting the evolving examination of African art from the parallel, and sometimes overlapping disciplinary paradigms of anthropology and art history. In the first essay, “African Visual Arts from a Social Perspective,” Paula Ben-Amos traced the various “conceptual models”—the functionalist approach, the structural-symbolic approach, and the historical-particularist approach—that scholars had utilized over the course of the twentieth century to analyze the social significance of art in Africa. Organizing her inquiry around the development of these models, whose origins were found in European sociology and anthropology, Ben-Amos surveyed the work of a large range of mostly American or United States-based scholars. While acknowledging the breadth of scholarship and the new directions that younger Africanist academics were pursuing, Ben-Amos used both the introduction and the conclusion of her essay to express concern that a persistent adherence to these three conceptual models had contributed to the pervasive view that African societies were “small in scale, highly integrated, and slow to change.” She ended by calling on scholars to pursue new paradigms, ones that were “more emic, more integrative, and more comparative,” in order to counter the dominance of Western epistemological frameworks.
Monni Adams’s response to Ben-Amos was “African Visual Arts from an Art Historical Perspective,” and it remains one of the most comprehensive surveys of the emergence of Africanist art history in the West. Here, Adams traced the genealogy of African art historical research in the United States from its “dual heritage” in anthropology and museum studies through its various concerns in the 1970s and 1980s, from style and iconography to function and symbolism. While she crucially identified the intellectual trajectories of the first (1950s-60s) and second (1970s-80s) generations of Africanist art historians, Adams, like Ben-Amos, did not explicitly consider the social and political context of this work. In focusing on rigorous documentation of the content of broad swaths of scholarship, both of these seminal surveys avoided extensive analysis of the institutional contexts in which it had flourished. Although briefly noting the concurrence of decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as the impact of Erwin Panofsky on postwar American art history, Adams did not interrogate why the specifically art historical study of Africa—one with concerns for iconography, style, aesthetics, and history rather than just ethnography or functionalism—had become institutionalized in the United States to a much larger extent than in Europe, where anthropology remained the authoritative discipline.
Adams did not, for example, specifically explore the impact of the politically expedient growth of area studies or the involvement of many American second-generation Africanist art historians in such “intercultural” programs as the Peace Corps, founded in 1961. The Autumn 2017 issue of African Arts—and, notably, Robin Poynor’s article “Ancestors and Elders: Personal Reflections of an Africanist Art Historian”—goes some way to redress this by highlighting the importance of Title VI funding, allocated through the 1958 National Defense Education Act, to the generation of interdisciplinary centers of humanistic, Africanist study. However, Poynor is keen to stress that, despite the implications of benefiting from programs broadly implemented to increase American influence in the then-Third World, Africanist art historians were not “merely agents of hegemonic American imperialism.” Poynor is right to reject a reductive historiography that presents the development of Africanist art history in the United States as merely an arm of soft-power politics, yet a closer interrogation of the beneficiaries of the “Cold War framework” is needed, and consideration should be given, in particular, to the impact of various Cold War-era programs not only on the considerable growth of Africanist art history in the United States but also on the very methodological approaches that it fostered.
By taking a step out of the United States to consider the Cold War from a more global viewpoint, we can glean insights that put that country’s extensive academic endeavors into important perspective. Neither Adams nor Poynor considered, for example, that while American scholars Douglas Fraser, Robert Farris Thompson, and Roy Sieber were forging new art historical approaches in the United States, Soviet writers such as Vil’ Borisovich Mirimanov and Dmitri Olderogge were also pursuing new histories of creative culture in Africa. They, like their American counterparts, were the beneficiaries of a certain political climate. In both countries, academic appetites burgeoned in parallel, sometimes challenging but often working alongside existent anthropological interests. Fieldwork opportunities, broader African studies agendas, and foreign policies related to Africa were frequently divergent, factors that critically shaped approaches to African art from either side. Nonetheless, art historical scholarship on African visual culture boomed in the era of geopolitical hostility, and grew specifically within the ideologically competitive climate of colonial independence.
The term “Cold War” in reference to Africa too often connotes strategic battles for influence, in which African states and statesmen are seen as pawns on a board. Odd Arne Westad has provided a pathway out of this framework by detailing the negotiations that “Third World” leaders undertook with the superpowers and the choices they made between the two “hegemonic models of development on offer.” In his insistence on a “Global Cold War,” Westad uncovers African agency previously missing from the discourse. Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga goes further, clarifying that “Cold War” referred specifically to how Americans, via George Orwell, described the period. Mavhunga shows that the Soviets did not use the term, seeing the period as a battle between “the world’s progressive forces” and imperialism. Terminological differences, of course, reflected ideological ones, and each inflected their respective views of Africa. From the Soviet perspective, the continent was peopled by brothers in arms who needed assistance in expelling imperialism. For the United States, it was calling for freedom, from communism as much as colonialism. Mavhunga further critiques the view of Africa as passive. He posits “mutual weaponization,” whereby in response to the superpowers using the Third World as puppets, the Global South used the purveyors of a Cold War as “weaponries… to achieve their [own] objectives.”
Key here is a concern for seeing the Cold War as a messier period of negotiated positions framed from the top (or the North) down by the rhetoric of ideological extremes. An overview of pre-Cold War studies precedes a survey of Soviet and American scholarship. The application of a bifurcated framework serves to draw attention to its very inconsistencies. While both sides used combative language against the other’s intellectual agendas, new scholars of African art shared global interests, from an appreciation of aesthetic sensibilities to accounting for ancient cultural histories on the continent. Forums for exchange existed, such as the 1967 International Congress of Africanists attended by Soviet and American scholars, held in Dakar, Senegal. Like Kirk-Greene’s discovery of Soviet research on Nigerian bookshelves, its location demonstrated that Africa was not just a subject of investigation but also a site for intellectual exchange between academics presumed separated by the Iron Curtain.
Beyond Description and Praise
At the end of World War II, African art scholarship remained largely rooted in Europe. As identified by Adams, it was the preserve of two camps—the anthropological establishment and museum and gallery professionals—which, although not entirely mutually exclusive, had different ways of approaching and analyzing objects of African art. The anthropology camp, most of whom conducted embedded fieldwork on the continent, consisted of academics such as France’s Marcel Griaule, whose Masques Dogon (1938) had revolutionized understandings of Dogon masquerade through its extensive accounts of mythology, social ritual, and performance, and Belgium’s Frans Olbrechts and P. J. Vandenhoute, who undertook important research on Kongo sculpture and art from the Ivory Coast, respectively. To suggest that European anthropological approaches constituted staid ethnography would be misleading. Olbrechts, for example, had organized an exhibition of Kongo art in Antwerp in 1937 that challenged the typically ethnographic manner in which African art was exhibited. He insisted on arranging objects according to style rather than by ethnicity. He went on to publish Plastiek van Kongo in 1946, which expanded on his innovative method of “morphological analysis.” Olbrechts had written in 1943 about the need to appreciate the specifics of cultural context in order to understand African art. He believed that the persistent lack of cooperation between ethnographers and art historians ensured that studies of African art remained deficient.
The museum and gallery world had been enamored with art from the African continent since the early twentieth century, when artists in Paris had first “discovered” African sculpture and appropriated its so-called “primitive” forms for the avant-garde. Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik (1915), contemporaneous with wider European exaltation of African art, partially anticipated Olbrechts in its assertion of formal appreciation over ethnographic categorization. As Z. S. Strother has noted, in its use of juxtaposed photographic images that facilitated formal comparisons, Negerplastik consciously departed from the to-scale, clustered photographs of ethnographic museum publications that invited more typical “scientific” analyses. It was, Strother contends, in its assembling of a “doctored and highly selective” corpus of object photographs that Negerplastik “conjured ‘African Art’ into being as a corpus that had literally never existed before.” However, Einstein’s analysis remained at the level of formal observation, which, with the exception of generalized statements about the religious function of African sculpture, fell short of the contextual analysis that Olbrechts later called for. In 1921, Einstein published Afrikanische Plastik, a text with a notably more historical approach to African art (an approach that Strother posits may have been motivated by reviews of Negerplastik that criticized its lack of historicizing). The later text explicitly hoped to inaugurate “specialized research” into histories of art from Africa, an aspiration that seemed at odds with contemporaneous primitivizing appetites for decontextualized African forms. Yet, in the 1950s, gallerists like Ladislas Segy, who moved from Europe to New York in 1938, were still thanking the “Cubist revolution” for initiating an appreciation of “one of the great artistic heritages of the world.” In the 1960s William Fagg, who would become the leading British voice in African art studies from his position as curator of the African collection at the British Museum, London, sought to facilitate understanding of African sculpture by examining its relation to “European concepts of art.” Fagg would make significant contributions to histories of the art of Benin, but he persisted in writing about African art within European art historical parameters and in speaking in increasingly archaic terms of “tribal” art and of “tribes” as discrete cultural entities. On the eve of the Cold War primitivist adulation lingered, with the European art historical academy showing little interest in forging new ways to critique and understand African art, either on its own or in collaboration with anthropology.
One important exception was “L’art nègre,” the special edition of the pan-African quarterly Présence Africaine, published in Paris in 1951. Here, Fagg’s history of Nigerian art appeared alongside writing by Griaule, Henri Lavachery, Georges Balandier, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Howlett in an issue that insisted on moving past romantic appreciations. As Lavachery contended, it was imperative to consider how European expertise could help colonized Africans to rediscover their artistic heritage as a reflection of their new belief in themselves. As Présence Africaine‘s Senegalese founder, Alioune Diop, emphasized in his introduction to the 1966 expanded version of these papers, it was no longer sufficient to simply “describe or exalt.” The study of African art in Europe, Diop asserted, must be attuned to the shifting social and political needs of the African continent, notably, that of decolonization.
Diop’s introduction was an optimistic call to the European academic establishment to pursue art historical scholarship in support of the urgent and sensitive political processes of colonial disengagement, processes that once-colonizing European nations were undertaking with varying degrees of unwillingness. While the writers who contributed to “L’art nègre” presumed, as did most progressive intellectuals, the inevitability of imminently liberated African nations, European states were still debating the subject and statuses of their empires; there was no unilateral acceptance of independence. Charles de Gaulle’s immediate withdrawal from Guinea—civil servants, paperwork, lightbulbs, and all—when in 1958 Sékou Touré led his country to vote against joining the French Community (a supposedly equitable network of France and her former colonies) was emblematic of a European arrogance that could not fathom a truly independent Africa. In a political context that was at best ambivalent and, at worst, hostile to actively supporting the processes of decolonization, where could a scholarly approach to African creative cultures fit in the European academy? If the smattering of articles published on the subject of art in the Royal Africa Society journal, African Affairs, between 1949 and 1970 is any indication, Diop’s clarion call went largely unheeded within the United Kingdom’s community of academic Africanists.
In fact, it was not until 1971, twenty years after the first appearance of “L’art nègre,” that the University of London would permit art historical doctoral research in African art. Then Ruth Phillips, supervised by Guy Atkins at the School of Oriental and African Studies, sought to undertake an art historical PhD on Mende art. She was sent to the Courtauld Institute of Art, the arbiter of academic art history in the United Kingdom, to justify how fieldwork in Sierre Leone could yield art historical research. A board consisting of Alan Bowness, John Golding, John Shearman, and Sir Anthony Blunt approved her case, but Britain already appeared far behind the United States, where Sieber had completed his African art history dissertation in 1957.
While in Europe disciplinary anxieties (or ambivalence) over where African art studies belonged persisted, in the United States and, indeed, the Soviet Union space was opening in more interdisciplinary climates, led by what University of Michigan history professor Robert B. Hall called “Area Studies.” The politicizing of African art studies that Présence Africaine had initiated took on new meaning as the dawn of colonial independence collided with the age of ideological extremes. Although Adams asserts that sub-Saharan African art studies in the United States remained in the difficult, often marginal position of not really “[satisfying] the demands of either” art history or anthropology, from the 1960s on, “Africa” as a regional focus and as a unit of academic specialization unquestionably gained a foothold in American art history, a situation that was not replicated in Western Europe. Although art history as a discipline did not exist in the Soviet academy, African art rose quickly on intellectual agendas. Speaking to largely American audiences at the 1962 African Studies Association meeting, Ivan Potekhin, head of the recently founded Africa Institute (Institut Afriki) in Moscow, proudly cited Olderogge’s work on Benin bronzes and his text “West African Art,” as well as Y. Lebedev’s “The Art of Tropical Africa” and other forthcoming work. Potekhin lamented that art scholarship was scant, but he promised improvement. “Our people want to learn about the history and culture of the African nations,” he stated, “… they demand much of us.”
Polycentric Supersystems and the “War Against Imperialism”
In 1958 W. E. B. DuBois encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to establish an “institute for the study of Africa.” During his visit to Moscow and Leningrad DuBois conversed with the Soviet premier and suggested that the best means for the Soviet Union to assist in the “socialist development” of African nations was to undertake “scientific study” of the continent and to “make the results of [such] studies available to the African people.” It seemed that Khrushchev heeded DuBois’s advice. Such action was in line with a renewed Soviet interest in the African continent, in the wake of Ghana’s liberation from colonial rule in 1957 and the emergence of Third World solidarity at Bandung in 1955. In 1959 Khrushchev announced the creation of the Africa Institute, an interdisciplinary complement to the older Institute of Ethnography in Leningrad. This commitment to research was matched by the creation of opportunities for Africans to visit the Soviet Union. The establishment in 1960 of the People’s Friendship University, subsequently named after assassinated Congo leader Patrice Lumumba, offered education for Third World youth, along with an extensive program of student grants.
An aspect of the Soviet Union’s broader political aspirations to engage the continent, the Africa Institute was charged with the “extensive study of the urgent scientific problems”—the social, political, and economic development of Africa in the wake of the long struggle against colonial oppression and the new fight for national liberation. This the Soviet Union had long seen itself a champion of, following Lenin’s 1919 declaration that imperialism was the “highest stage of capitalism.” Anti-imperial zeal had driven Soviet studies of Africa since the late 1920s, when party delegates had resolved, in the interests of the Comintern, to reach out to colonized sub-Saharan Africa and encourage the development of communist parties there. Hungarian professor Endre Sik was tasked with shaping a “Marxist science of black Africa” to complement political objectives. Sik’s efforts influenced Soviet African studies for several decades, which remained centered on denouncing colonialism—a noble goal, yet one that often neglected realities in favor of ideological agendas. By the 1960s anti-imperialist rhetoric was shifting away from criticizing Europe alone; the 1961 “Programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” emphasized that “US imperialism [was] the chief bulwark of modern colonialism.” The denouncement of colonialism, old and new, remained an important strand of African studies, which was refocusing energies on research deemed constructive of socialist sympathies in Africa.
A “scientific” history of African art was a key part of this renewed endeavor. As a 1966 Africa Institute publication asserted, it was the job of Africanists to recognize that culture “reflects the complex structure of modern African society and plays an important part in building up the future of Africa.” It was incumbent on Africanists to “make known the African contribution to civilization.” As Potekhin emphasized, there was a long history of Russian interest in African artistic and literary culture. The Institute of Ethnography had housed a collection of African art since the late nineteenth century, and as early as 1900 Boris Turaev’s book Ethiopian Manuscripts in St. Petersburg (Efiopskie rukopisi v S. Peterburge) had come out. The pre-1950s, Comintern-driven academic environment, however, had not prioritized research into African art, preferring instead to concentrate on history, economics, and politics.
And yet, it was in Russian that one of the earliest texts discussing African art as art, not simply as material culture or ethnographic specimen, had been produced. In 1919 the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment posthumously issued Iskusstvo Negrov (Negro Art) by Latvian writer Voldemars Matvejs, who published under the name Vladimir Markov. Promoted by Levkiy Zheverzheev and Vladimir Mayakovsky, Iskusstvo Negrov had a cover design by avant-garde artist Nathan Altman. Markov had spent 1912 and 1913 traveling through Europe viewing African art collections from Russia to England. In each place he photographed objects to illustrate his text, which he prepared in 1914. Markov’s writing, contemporaneous with Einstein’s, insisted that Africa was “rich both in a historical and artistic sense.”
In his text, perceptibly similar to Einstein’s, Markov made an early attempt to systematically define “Negro” aesthetics via formal analysis of museum holdings. His observations were distilled into three conclusions. First, he saw the “language” of African art as “the play of masses.” This referred to liberation from naturalistic representation; the human form consisted of a series of “arbitrary” and “autonomous” masses, some geometric, corresponding to relevant bodily features. Markov found such play with proportions and weights “striking in its originality.” Second, Markov was moved by the expressive nature of African sculpture, considering the use of “plastic symbolism”—the arbitrary invocation of an eye, for example, by any object or marks—as a particularly African talent. Markov believed that ethnographers who would seek information on the specific visual languages of plastic symbolism employed in African art “would understand that the Negroes are a profoundly thoughtful people.” His final observation acknowledged the multifarious techniques used in the production of African sculpture and the variety of materials employed; Markov emphasized the range of skills required to produce the objects he encountered.
Although acknowledging his considerable debt to German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, Markov sought to understand “Negro art” differently. He saw Frobenius’s approach as concentrated on tracing foreign influences on African art, notably the Etruscans, and positioned his own interest in pursuit of “indigenous” or “inherently African” qualities. As Jeremy Howard’s translations of Iskusstvo Negrov reveal, Markov acknowledged that Africa boasted rich arts that included Christian manuscripts and cave painting, alongside the sculptural forms more familiar to European audiences. Arguing that the former were complex enough to warrant their own separate study, he stated at the outset that objects from West and Central Africa were the focus of his research. Beyond highlighting continental diversity, Markov exhorted the reader to acknowledge historical development: the Benin “Olokun” head, for example, provided evidence that bronze work had been undertaken on the continent for centuries. While Markov’s terminology echoed some primitivist adulation du jour, his praise of African creativity and his emphasis on its complex history was markedly unique; in his text’s close attention to formal qualities alongside historical details, it stressed that the arts of Africa (and their creators) were neither inferior nor beholden to European standards of beauty. Romantic though his language may appear, it was nonetheless infused with respect for what he considered a “serious, independent art with its [own] strict laws and traditions.” In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, in a country that saw a fraternal linkage between itself and oppressed Africa, Markov’s scholarship would take on a renewed significance.
In 1969 Olderogge, leading the African Department at the Institute of Ethnography, felt compelled to reacquaint his readers with Markov, whose first text had fallen into obscurity. In his introduction to his catalogue of African art from the Institute of Ethnography, Leningrad, Olderogge underlined that Markov’s text had been published when “the young Soviet Republic was going through its most difficult years of foreign intervention and civil war.” Thus, unlike Einstein, he had remained unknown to the Western specialists who went on to shape the study of African art. For Olderogge, who did not always toe the Soviet Africanist line, it was important for his readers to note that it was in Russian that one of the first texts to treat African art as “independent, rich and varied” appeared.
For Russian scholars, Markov had resurfaced three years earlier in 1966, when a final essay attributed to him was published in the journal Narody Azii i Afriki (Peoples of Asia and Africa). It had been written in Markov’s name by his longtime companion, Varvara Bubnova, who had developed it from its original format as a conference paper from 1920, based on Markov’s notes. Entitled “On the ‘Principle of Weightiness’ in African Sculpture,” the text expounded Markov’s analysis of three-dimensional forms from Africa, with a particular focus on their uses of weight and mass as a sophisticated mode of formal abstraction. As Strother, Irēna Bužinska, and Howard highlight, it is notable that Bubnova published this article, with its emphasis on the complexity of African sculptural forms, not in an art historical journal but in one closely associated with the project of “international friendship” that saw the Soviet Union assert fraternity with the decolonizing nations of the nonaligned world. Markov’s attention to details gained a new political significance.
In the Khrushchev era, Markov’s call to investigate “strict laws and traditions” was heeded as scholars pursued new research projects aimed at categorizing and chronologically ordering the arts of Africa. Led by art critics and anthropologists such as Olderogge and Vil’ Borisovich Mirimanov, Soviet studies of African art were often concerned with denouncing the notion that African art was “primitive,” praising its functional qualities, and, above all, establishing long evolutionary narratives of aesthetic development. The 1960s witnessed a significant growth in Soviet writings about art from Africa. Texts in Russian included Mirimanov’s slim volume Istkusstvo Afriki (1964), jointly written with Galina Chernova, which was one of the first Russian publications to stress the significance of the earliest rock and graphic art as an urtext for histories of African culture. Mirimanov, in particular, would go on to analyze African art as an integral part of a cultural superstructure anchored by an ever-changing political-economic base. In 1966, Chernova claimed that Soviet scholarship was, in fact, more rigorous than the “bourgeois ethnography” practiced in the West, which used “culture” more loosely to refer to “an entire way of life.” More significantly still, the Marxist base-superstructure approach allowed Soviet scholars to appreciate contemporary art found in Africa’s growing cities as critical manifestations of the continent’s newest stage of economic and political development.
The 1966 Essays on African Culture illustrates Soviet priorities. Published in French and English, it was designed for audiences outside the Soviet Union. In 1962 Potekhin argued that, if published only in Russian, Soviet research would not be read by the international Africanist community that it so often took issue with. The volume included essays on Ethiopian architecture, Nigerian literature, and the tensions between “tradition” and “modernity.” E. A. Veselkin’s essay unpacked Ghanaian premier Kwame Nkrumah’s concept of the “African Personality” as more “substantial” than “Negritude,” which he characterized as being too nostalgic for lost greatness. Holding the “African Personality” up as progressive, Veselkin also contrasted it with Fagg’s insistent definition of African art as “tribal,” criticizing the pursuit of “tribal” art as culturally isolating. Veselkin, preempting Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s “invented tradition,” maintained that the defense of tribalism was what European colonialists had pursued in order to divide and rule. Further, Veselkin added, those who seek to preserve “traditional institutions in their pristine state… [play] right into the hands of neocolonialism.” The encouragement of new “national character” was a central component of all-round material development. Veselkin stressed, however, that the study of such “character” should emphasize continental commonalities, not differences, in order to find “the particular that each people can contribute to the common [original emphasis] treasure house of world culture.” The Soviet Union’s centralized multinationalism exemplified the forward-moving cultural development that Africa needed to strive for.
Flaws in Western writings about African art were the focus of Chernova’s contribution, which confronted Ralph Linton’s introduction to Eliot Elisofon’s The Sculpture of Africa (1959). Chernova first took issue with the term “primitive” (Linton’s title was “Primitive Art”), which, she argued, “bourgeois scientists” used to describe the art of “‘uncivilised’ peoples,” regardless of the time under discussion. She acknowledged Linton’s wrestling with the term, and yet criticized his subsequent decision to use “non-European” as equally problematic. This shift lumped artists from Africa, Australia, the Americas, and Asia together, Chernova claimed, in opposition to European peoples; “it simply [puts] up a wall whose name is ‘civilisation’ to divide them.”
Although she credited Linton with opposing racist theories that equated “non-European” art with that of children or schizophrenics, she held that his failure to historicize “non-European” art led him to wrongly characterize its differences in relation to European art. These included the contention that non-Europeans were unconcerned with aesthetics and with “rationalizing” their art and materials, that portraiture was rare, and that abstraction was rife. African art was not, Chernova asserted, abstracted “from real life” but rather “stylized” in relation to a lived reality. Such “stylization,” according to Chernova, was, however, neither stable nor solely “African.” “[African] art… like any other,” she insisted, “changes with the changes in the artist’s ideology and perception of the world, which, in their turn, are determined by concrete historical conditions.”
Linton served as straw man for Chernova’s more general critiques of “bourgeois” Western clichés about Africa. At the same time, her essay made clear the emphasis placed by Soviet scholars on integrated histories of African art. Twenty years before Johannes Fabian would criticize (Western) anthropologists for relegating their studied “Other” to a timeless “ethnographic present,” Chernova accused Linton of exactly that. Unlike Fabian, she did so based on her commitment to understanding African art within Marxist historical parameters that characterized the continent as ever progressing.
Mirimanov was the foremost proponent of this approach. His contribution to the 1966 volume made the case for a dramatically long history of art that connected Saharan rock art with the masks and sculptures gathered in European collections. “L’Occident, patrie du grand art rupestre?” was one of Mirimanov’s first attempts at charting continuities in African production. He further emphasized charting “traditional stylistic continuities” and writing a “continuous development of African art” in an article in the 1971 edited volume Problems of Cultural Development (Construction) in Independent African Countries, which was reviewed very favorably by J. B. Osaga Odak in the Nairobi-published East Africa Journal. The very appearance of Odak’s review, of course, demonstrated that such texts, although obscure in the West, were distributed and read by scholars across the African continent.
Mirimanov’s scholarship found its fullest expression in his 1986 tome Iskusstvo Tropičeskoj Afriki: Tipologija, Sistematika, Ėvoljucija (The art of tropical Africa: Typology, system, evolution), a book that Emilia Ilieva considers marked the “apex” of Soviet African art study. Here, he sought to pinpoint the “synchronic” and “diachronic” aspects of African art and to define its “common general laws of artistic development.” Part 1, focusing on “synchronic” analysis, begins with the continent’s earliest art and centers of its production, from the Sahara to southern Africa. This section examines morphological characteristics, dividing the continent into four large regions—West Sudan, the coast of Guinea, the Congo basin, and East Africa—within which a bevy of different “artistic schools” is noted. The “clan or tribal stage” is characterized as a historical moment in the histories of these schools, responsible for the development of certain social structures.
The second part of Mirimanov’s book is dedicated to “diachronic” research, with data arranged in rough chronological order, albeit one that is “interrupted by lacunae.” Mirimanov conceded that a strict chronology would be impossible. He sought a “stratigraphy of certain layers” to best appreciate African art’s diachronic development. He developed a four-stage scheme that detailed the Primitive Communal Era, Era of Class Formation, Early Class Societies, and the Contemporary Era. Within each stage Mirimanov identified the characteristics of artistic evolution. In rock art the development of the plastic ideogram marked progressions from image to sign. Sculpture’s evolution was traced relative to “quantitative deformation” (diachronic; formal changes over time) and “qualitative deformation” (synchronic; spatial factors such as relations between different schools). The establishment of courtly societies led to the creation of an artisan class and the professionalization of African art, which was bound to shifting governance structures. Art from Africa, Mirimanov insisted, needed to be examined not only “at the level of the local artistic schools, but as an entire system or, to be more precise, supersystem.” This “supersystem,” Mirimanov posited, was both “polycentric… consisting of many hierarchically organised mutually interacting systems (art centers)” and “multilevel, since it combines unequally developed systems and subsystems (schools of art, styles, substyles).”
While Mirimanov’s text included extensive analysis of various arts, from Nok sculpture to Dogon masks, it is his formalization of an ever-evolving “supersystem” that best characterizes the grand aspirations of Soviet histories of African art. In 1983 Anatoly Gromyko laid out a similar four-stage system to answer the “acute problem” of “present-day African art,” namely, “continuity.” Gromyko went one step further, accusing Western colleagues of actively seeking to prove African “intellectual and artistic inferiority.” In a twist of logic, he suggested that in focusing on micro “local field studies” rather than the macro “historical” picture, following the Soviets, Western scholars were doing a great disservice to Africa. Tellingly, Soviet African studies did not often, unlike its American counterpart, involve embedded fieldwork. Certainly some Africanists, notably Potekhin and Olderogge, carried out research on the continent, but a greater premium was placed on the writing of grand art history. Masks, figures, and other works in Western museums were examined as historical objects, whose primary stage of utility had passed with the arrival of new social and political systems.
Soviet scholars lauded Africa’s postcolonial urban arts, including painting, photography, and sculpture seen on the streets and in the art academies of cities such as Accra, Nairobi, and Lagos. These arts, some of which Fagg had dismissed as “an extension of European art by a kind of voluntary cultural colonialism,” emblematized for Soviet scholars cultural advance in sync with a “transitional” political phase. Gromyko even claimed that “new, progressive African art on the basis of realistic traditions… [could solve] the entire set of tasks connected with independent socio-economic, political and cultural development.” Mirimanov stressed that contemporary arts, although marking a new era, were part of the historical continuity of African art. His reasoning differed from thinking in the West, which in the 1960s saw modern and contemporary arts as a break from traditions that had been destroyed by colonial rule. In the Soviet teleological narrative, hybrid art that combined modern practices from outside Africa with local traditions were a necessary and positive product of a turbulent stage.
Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union was not just active in praising such practices, it was instrumental in forging them. From the late 1950s, “realistic traditions” in painting and sculpture, including lengthy life-drawing classes, were taught to many African artists who gained scholarships to schools such as Moscow’s Surikov Academy. Ethiopian artist Bekele Mekonnen was one of the last of the Cold War generation to receive an education in the Soviet Union, arriving for study in the late 1980s. While his predecessors—students in the 1960s and 1970s—remembered fondly their time in Moscow and Leningrad, Bekele arrived in the later perestroika period, when attitudes toward African students were shifting away from the rhetoric of “international friendship” and toward less savory, nativist feelings that students of color did not belong. Bekele recalls overhearing professors mocking his and other African students’ abilities, a memory that is markedly different from the experience of his fellow Ethiopians in the 1970s who had gained accolades such as the “Red Star MA” degree from the Surikov and Leningrad Academies. Despite this souring of relations in the latter years, the impact of Soviet art education on the development of modern and contemporary art in Africa is significant. The encouragement of realism as a “useful” aesthetic mode (albeit not one that was rigidly defined) cannot, however, simply be reduced to a tale of the Soviets imposing “socialist realism.” Rather, this emphasis on realism, understood in Gromyko’s terms broadly as art that both depicted and was engaged with current realities, was motivated by the faith that such representation was best suited to this era of rapid urban economic and social development.
Communist Fears and Fieldwork Frontiers
The Cold War’s impact on African art study in the United States is less immediately apparent; leaders in the field were not, unlike some of their Soviet colleagues, inclined to cite national political agendas as motivating factors for their research. Many of the field’s pioneering scholars actively protested American interventions in the name of ideology, specifically, the Vietnam War. If Soviet studies of African art were conceived as an integral part of the official “war against imperialism,” the development of African art history in the United States was a less deliberate product of Cold War-era shifts in academic agendas and foreign policies. Although such research was not explicitly motivated by a desire to support American interests, it was inspired by and made possible through programs established in the name of national political agendas, from National Defense Education Act (1958) Title VI funding to frontiers of intercultural exchange facilitated by the Peace Corps. Africa’s entry into American art history occurred not because of that discipline’s greater inclusivity but in the midst of an opening up to Africa as an essential terrain for research, concomitant with the rationale that this terrain had become the “greatest open field of maneuver.”
The first interdisciplinary African studies program was founded at Northwestern University in 1948 by anthropologist Melville Herskovits, using a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. A student of Franz Boas, Herskovits was fascinated by African artistic culture, and he was committed to understanding it within its specific social and historical context. In 1926, he revealed a precocious intolerance for haughty art-world speak that waxed lyrical about the formal qualities of African sculpture without providing any insights into the purpose or origin of the object. Herskovits was so irritated by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro’s publication Primitive Negro Sculpture (1926) that he wrote several scathing reviews of it in different publications. In Social Forces journal he excoriated Guillaume and Munro’s formalist descriptions as “a smothering mass of verbiage,” while in the Arts he criticized their obstinacy in evaluating art “in vacuo, so to speak” and their “Ivory Tower” detachment. He ended the latter review by declaring that “the comprehension of African cultures… is a sine qua non to the appreciation of African art.” This was a position that Herskovits only became more committed to after he undertook his first fieldwork trips in the late 1920s. Fieldwork would become a critical component of American African studies under his guidance, and, as the recollections of one former student, Justine Cordwell, attest, Herskovits maintained a close supervisory correspondence with those he sent into the “field.” Cordwell recalls receiving responses from Evanston to her fieldwork notes insisting that she was not asking the right question or that she “just [wasn’t] getting in deep enough!” Herskovits’s deeply personal commitment to fieldwork would find fulfillment in his teaching and, later, the African studies program at Northwestern, which attracted students such as William Bascom, James Fernandez, Simon Ottenberg, and Warren d’Azevedo, each of whom would pursue groundbreaking research in the historic and contemporary arts of Africa.
In the Cold War’s earliest years, however, American interest in African art was most extensively taken up by a constituency who shared with Soviet scholars a desire to elevate respect for African culture and to denounce imperialism: African American academics and cultural leaders. Since the Harlem Renaissance, African American intellectuals had been celebrating African art. Alain Locke’s 1925 essay “The Legacy of Ancestral Arts” had argued that the European “discovery” of African art unearthed a “classical” tradition from which to draw inspiration. In the era of colonial liberation that also saw the stirrings of the civil rights struggle, the powerful appeal of this art resurfaced in the poetry of African American writers like Margaret Danner. In her 1960 collection Impressions of African Art Forms, she proclaimed that African art must be “uncaged from the safe captivity of the Exhibition area, the sociologists’ notebooks, and the journals of aestheticians and historians.” In the poem “An American Coach of Aesthetics,” Danner wryly dressed down an academic expert of African art whose “speech is plain but sweet Ph.D delight.” Here, Danner characterized her appreciation of Africa’s “bubbling aesthetic principles” as more intense than his cool academic detachment, indicating that her understanding was heightened since her context was “this melting pot. Here in America, here in Detroit.”
From the 1930s, at Howard University, one of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States, classes on African art were taught by artists and scholars such as Lois Jones and James Porter, who in 1953 favorably reviewed the Présence Africaine‘s call for African art research to serve political needs. In 1950, Porter brought Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu to Howard, facilitating an unprecedented exhibition of contemporary African art. Porter went on to write about African art’s value as a source of cultural pride for African Americans. Following Herskovits’s groundbreaking work The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), which had emphasized the need to investigate the vestiges of African heritage in African American culture as a means of denouncing the assumption that “the Negro is a man without a past,” Porter traced the “transcultural affinities” between African art and its Diaspora that he perceived in volumes such as Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars (1958) and Pan-Africanism Reconsidered (1962). Both of these were published by the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC). AMSAC, founded in 1957 following the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris, was the American partner of the French Société Africaine de Culture (SAC), headed by Diop. It arranged conferences and lectures promoting discussion of African art. In 1965 it established African Forum, a journal publishing articles on African and African Diaspora culture and politics.
These endeavors claimed to be above the burgeoning ideological struggles of the age, seeing the emancipation of both Africans and African Americans as a higher goal. As Diop wrote to his “AMSAC brothers” in the introduction to Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars, “we have no part in the East-West conflict.” Yet, as Hugh Wilford has shown, AMSAC was not all it seemed. By the late 1960s it was hounded by accusations of CIA funding, stirred by the lavishness of its New York accommodations and its steamrolling of Nigeria’s SAC in 1961, when it set up its own office in Lagos. AMSAC’s sponsorship of major showcases such as First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar in 1966, characterized by Ebony magazine as “[illustrating] the genius, the culture and the glory of Africa,” suddenly seemed shady. As Pearl Robinson argues, the State Department had stressed that alongside Africa being the “greatest open field of maneuver” in the era of “worldwide competition,” discrimination against the African American population posed a public relations threat, particularly in view of the Soviet Union’s denouncement of colonial oppression. In a curious twist, “nonaligned” African American scholars were drawn into the Cold War through an association purportedly funded to promote a more positive view of race relations in the United States, via the promotion of African arts.
The leading organization for the promotion of contemporary African art in the United States in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was the Harmon Foundation, a philanthropic body founded in 1925 by William E. Harmon for “the advancement of opportunities for members of the black race.” Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Harmon Foundation had provided awards and other patronage to African American artists. In the age of decolonization, under the leadership of Mary Beattie Brady and Evelyn Brown, it had turned its attention to the African continent, offering scholarships and exhibitions in the United States to more than three hundred artists between 1947 and 1968. These efforts were underpinned by a belief in the importance of an “intercultural exchange flow” and of art’s role in fostering peace and understanding, a mission that was highly resonant with the cultural agenda of the Cold War in the United States. John C. Walter has argued, however, that, despite this resonance, there is no evidence that the foundation was a directly financed tool of the State Department (in the manner of AMSAC, perhaps).
As well as bringing leading contemporary African artists, such as Gerard Sekoto, Skunder Boghossian, and Ibrahim El Salahi to the United States, the Harmon Foundation made a major contribution to histories of African art by publishing texts on contemporary art in the 1960s. Its second publication, Africa’s Contemporary Art and Artists (1966) by Brown, was a landmark survey of hundreds of artists from across the continent. In its depth and diversity, the text presented a direct challenge to the antiquated European anxieties that modernist art in Africa was either derivative of European forms or made at the expense of lost traditions. In its commitment to utilize its programs to “make friends” with those who were “coming forward into freedom and self-determination,” the Harmon Foundation proved itself to be both a useful cultural actor in the Cold War theater and also, more important, a trusted and valuable ally for contemporary African artists.
Contemporaneous with resurgent African American interest in African art and the Harmon Foundation’s efforts to promote contemporary practices was the founding of the African Studies Association (ASA), with Herskovits as its first president, and the passing of the first Africa-focused dissertation in the field of art history in the United States: Sieber’s “African Tribal Sculpture,” which he, in overly self-deprecating fashion, later proclaimed to be a “lousy survey.” There has been considerable debate on the impact of Cold War policy agendas on the development of African studies in the United States, but it is hard to deny that it was significant. At the time, those leading the interdisciplinary field’s academic institutionalization were cognizant of the political stakes; William Martin and Michael West have exposed Herskovits’s assurance to CIA director Allen Dulles in 1958 that the ASA “would be happy to aid [the CIA] in any way it can.” President John F. Kennedy telegrammed his support to the ASA’s 1962 meeting, at which Potekhin presented Soviet research. As well as emphasizing the “common ties” and “mutual concerns” of the United States and Africa, Kennedy praised the ASA for “illuminating” the continent and for helping the United States communicate with it. By 1962, African studies programs had been established in a number of American colleges, supported first through such initiatives as the Ford Foundation Foreign Area Fellowship Program and, after 1958, by the National Defense Education Act, passed in response to the launch of Sputnik. In 1960 a Joint Committee on African Studies (JCAS) was formed. As Robinson emphasizes, much of this funding and support went to major research universities; thus, African American colleges that had pioneered African arts research largely missed out.
In interviews with Sieber and Robert Farris Thompson, two pioneers of African art history in the United States, for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of African Arts magazine, neither directly credited the boom in African studies as responsible for their choice of career. Both attributed their turn and approach to African art to new classes on non-Western art, to reading anthropology, and to broader shifts in the field of art history—in short, to an atmosphere of indisciplinarity that befit the age. Sieber attributed his interest in the “intellectual depth” of an object to studying under both Meyer Schapiro, in classes at the New School, and William Heckscher, a student of Erwin Panofsky at the University of Iowa, as well to reading anthropologists Frobenius and Herskovits. Thompson, whose “Afro-Atlantic” interests were sparked by boogie-woogie, rumba, and mambo, cited George Kubler and his course on Mesoamerican civilization. Sieber’s early career in particular, however, was shaped by the increased opportunities to study Africa that became available in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On completion of his dissertation, Sieber benefited from a Ford Foundation grant to travel to the continent. He went on to pioneer the program in Africanist art history at Indiana University, which, as a major recipient of Title VI funding, became a leading center for African humanities research in the “area studies” mold.
That Sieber and Thompson, along with fellow pioneer Douglas Fraser, chose art history as their field over anthropology is important, for it indicated two things: a belief that art history could include non-Western cultures and, more important, an interest in expanding existing African art studies to encompass art historical concerns for style, aesthetics, and connoisseurship. As Henry Drewal has examined, the 1960s were a period of research and methodological pluralization in which “multiple perspectives” were brought together. Robinson corroborates that from the mid-1950s, anthropological hegemony in the field gave way to a “flux in the disciplinary mix,” true, it appeared, of art studies as much as other areas. The JCAS sponsored conferences mapping the state of the field, as well as future research frontiers. One of these was the 1965 “The Traditional Artist in African Societies,” in which both Sieber and Thompson participated, alongside many eminent Herskovits-educated scholars, including Bascom, Fernandez, and d’Azevedo. As d’Azevedo recalled in 1989, the conference, a watershed in the effort to place African art studies on the broader African studies agenda, was motivated by an “urgent sense” that new approaches were both “necessary [and] imminent.”
If Soviet scholars were drawing all known African arts into a large, teleological, polycentric supersystem, American Africanists were throwing the field open. Yet for all the professions of interdisciplinarity, many of the “new approaches” were articulated via art history’s familiar languages. At the 1968 conference “Traditional African Art,” held at Hampton Institute, Virginia, Richard A. Long insisted that only by defining “scientifically established catalogues” of African art would the “denigrating myth of anonymous tradition-bound artists” dissipate. Long compared the state of African art studies to the study of “Flemish or Italian Primitives a hundred years ago.” Art history’s traditional emphasis on individual “genius” and the discrete object was believed an important counterpoint to generalized ethnographies of African art. As Sieber put it, “in anthropology you are making a point which the object illustrates, and therefore… any object will do if it is of the right class, category or whatever. In art history, one deals with the object as a primary focus… whatever you deal with must be used to explain that object.” Implicit in Long’s assertion was the idea that “scientific” studies of non-Western culture would enable participation in the traditional art historical canon; questions remained as to whether African art had to constitute itself within accepted art historical molds or whether it would force the discipline into new modalities.
If the first generation wrestled with disciplinary terms and methodologies that befitted a postwar shifting interdisciplinary environment, many of the second generation, educated in the late 1960s and 1970s, were alumni of a different, but related, Cold War cultural initiative: the Peace Corps. As Sieber said of his students Christopher Roy and Anita Glaze, who joined him in the early 1970s, their Peace Corps experience had directly led them to find “their niche for research.” Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps, a government program of volunteers that sent American youths to Africa and other parts of the then “Third World” for two years, was designed to enable these young ambassadors to “serve their country in the cause of world peace and understanding and simultaneously assist other nations towards their legitimate goals of freedom and understanding.” Both Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, the driving force behind its foundation, maintained that the program was not motivated by ideological ends, but rather sought to address north-south social and economic divisions far greater than Cold War political divisions. It attracted those wishing to avoid active combat in the name of Cold War politics; during the Vietnam War it offered a partial alternative to military service by way of a draft deferment. Furthermore, a 1961 Public Affairs Press publication about expectations and opportunities for the Peace Corps stated that while in the field, volunteers were free to express opinions divergent from official foreign policy. As African art scholar and former Peace Corps volunteer Thomas Seligman recalled, however, the State Department would not tolerate active protest against the American government, as occurred at various embassies in the wake of the covert bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70.
Elizabeth Cobbs-Hoffman contends that the Peace Corps was born out of concerns about newly decolonized nations’ relationship to a growing Soviet sphere of influence. It was not the first youth volunteering program; the British Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) was established in 1958, initially seeking high school graduates to send to Africa and Indonesia. From France to Canada, other countries followed suit, but the American endeavor was unparalleled in scale and in funding. “The Peace Corps,” Cobbs-Hoffman argues, “was bankrolled by a wealthy government as an expression of its foreign policy.” In contrast to the Soviet Union, which invited thousands of young Africans into its borders for education and training, the United States sent thousands of its youths to Africa to teach, build, aid, and support. This army of young ambassadors for peace, it was hoped, would go a long way to counter the damaging stereotype of the “ugly American,” as depicted in the notorious 1958 novel of the same name.
Both Christopher Steiner and Christraud Geary allude to the immediate and significant impact of the Peace Corps on markets for and collections of African art. Peace Corps alumni corroborate their assertions in memories of bringing objects back from the field as souvenirs of long-term placements. As Gary Collins, now a professor of physics at Washington State University, recalls, besides art there was little else for volunteers to spend their money on; his personal Peace Corps-era collection includes a bronze Senufo mask, purchased from an artisan in Korhogo, Ivory Coast, in 1967. Collins remembers Hausa traders visiting Peace Corps volunteers once a month with new objects to sell, and his photographs of field offices in Togo in the late 1960s show the walls decorated, for example, with Dahomean wall hangings. The quality and “authenticity” of works brought back to the United States by volunteers have been debated, but there is little doubt that the influx of American youngsters brought many new opportunities for traders of African arts and crafts and boosted American interest in such goods.
The Peace Corps also significantly impacted the United States’ postwar leadership in African art studies. Alongside Roy and Glazer, many of the current leaders in the field cut their Africanist teeth as volunteers before pursuing graduate work. Just as funding was being made more widely available for African studies-related graduate fieldwork, the Peace Corps was pricking the research interests of those already in the field. Living in both urban and rural communities for prolonged periods afforded them unprecedented opportunities to see and experience art and architecture. Some art-inclined (and principally university-educated) youngsters even laid the groundwork for their graduate work during their service. When Roy began his doctoral work with Sieber in 1972, he immediately spotted an error in a book by Fagg. Fagg claimed that the Mossi people of central Burkina Faso no longer made art because they had converted to Islam. Having spent two years in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps, Roy knew that this was incorrect and traced Fagg’s source to the then director of Ouagadougou’s art museum, Toumani Triande, who Roy claimed to be “one of the most corrupt people” he’d ever met. Correcting this error motivated Roy, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Mossi masks and became a leading expert in West African art.
Roy’s experiential, and initially unintentional, acquisition of knowledge about Mossi art was emblematic of the manner in which the Peace Corps shaped African art study in the United States. Contrasting with anthropological field expeditions in which research objectives were defined and methodologies in place before departure, Peace Corps volunteers were dispatched to Third World destinations with broader training in local languages and cultural history and a faith in liberal international development. Notably, Sieber was one of those recruited to assist with the training of young Peace Corps volunteers; Rosalyn Adele Walker recalls encountering him in 1965 on the campus of Hampton Institute, where he was presenting a series of lectures on African art. Although, as Harris Wofford stated in 1966, the Peace Corps functioned as a “university in dispersion,” offering unique learning opportunities for American youth, what they specifically learned was left open. Seligman, who volunteered in Liberia in the late 1960s and went on to become an authority on Tuareg arts and a leading museum professional, recalls that officials did not care what volunteers worked on, as long as it seemed “useful.” He worked at Liberia’s Cuttington College, looking after and developing its collection of African art, his previous education in art and art history providing a basis in connoisseurship essential for identifying quality goods brought by traders. The open-ended nature of Peace Corps methods and objectives enabled those with an interest in art to engage local practices in unrestricted, exploratory fashion and to gain skills for which there was no set training program.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, former Peace Corps volunteers were responsible for pioneering innovative approaches to African art research. Drewal, who was a Peace Corps teacher in Nigeria in 1965, went on to complete an interdisciplinary PhD at Columbia University Teachers College and ultimately became a professor of art history and African American studies at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. In his research he has accentuated “sensory” engagement, in contrast to traditional anthropological methodologies, which he believes “historically emphasize observation.” Having himself, during his Peace Corps service, apprenticed to a Yoruba artist, he later realized that only by learning to carve himself could he understand Yoruba style and aesthetics. Extending his experience to the broader field of African art studies, Drewal has called on researchers to be “sensorially engaged participants.”
Unlike their predecessors, the second generation of scholars was less hung up on making African art fit art historical models, often challenging art history to accept new frontiers. Suzanne Preston Blier wrote in 2001 that before departing for Peace Corps service in 1969 she “packed away [her] Western art history books (along with the magnifying glass I had used in the Panofskyan iconographic analysis of that era).” Her service in Benin provided the groundwork for a prolific career as an art and architectural historian of Africa and as a scholar who pushed for new methodological tools. Twenty years after she left for West Africa as a volunteer she used her field experiences to critique Panofskian art history. Unraveling the latter’s exacting methodology, Blier argued that the study of African art demanded a more flexible approach to defining “meaning,” one that took into account wider social and political contexts, the influence of users or “geomancers” on an object’s purpose, and the importance of “experiential” research. For her doctoral research in Batammaliba architecture, Blier amassed many interviews and interpreted terminology, revealing a complex semiotic relation between language and the built environment. Recognizing signs was not sufficient; it was imperative that the specifics of location and context foster an understanding of shifting indexicality.
Accompanying innovative attitudes to fieldwork was an emphasis on African languages; Blier, Drewal, Roy, and others relied heavily on specific local language terminologies for research. Although Thompson had demonstrated in the 1960s the need for close attention to language in his exposition of Yoruba aesthetic sensibilities, those who came from the Peace Corps were alumni of a program that put a premium on language skills in order to strive for “two-way communication,” a notion that motivated their research. The “new frontiers” for American youth that the Peace Corps purportedly offered proved to be important frontiers of knowledge and methodological questioning for the study of African art in the United States on a scale that was not replicated elsewhere.
Beyond the Fall of the Wall
The parallel models of Africanist art history developed in the East and the West, each shaped by the political agendas of the Cold War’s leading protagonists, certainly impacted African scholars of African art. Some, such as Babatunde Lawal, a scholar of Nigerian art who traveled to Indiana to study with Sieber, found opportunities to pursue doctoral work in the United States. At the same time, as evidenced by Kenyan academic J. B. Osaga Odak’s appreciation of Mirimanov’s work, Soviet texts circulated on the continent, distributed through various cultural programs that ensured that both academic and popular texts reached African readers. Yet further research is needed to explore the impact of Cold War academic agendas on the development of art historical inquiry on the continent. How did the influx of young Americans impact African academics? How did the arrival of “cultural consultants” from North Korea and Cuba who visited socialist-oriented countries shape academic programs? How did sojourns to the Soviet Union inform African scholars’ and artists’ approaches to histories of African culture?
Certainly, European anthropologists and gallerists had set precedents for innovative research into African culture in the early twentieth century, but it was in the climate of geopolitical rivalry that a bevy of new approaches and attitudes emerged in earnest. The rival Soviet and American concerns for postcolonial Africa shaped their respective “African studies” research agendas and approaches. For the former, liberated Africa was to be firmly brought into a Marxist narrative of teleological development. For the latter, the United States was to insert itself into Africa’s narrative of development, while “safeguarding” her newfound freedom. Soviet African art studies were noticeably concerned with determining large historical systems for understanding African art as continuous development; this seemingly stodgy endeavor, in fact, encouraged an interest in contemporary, particularly urban, art unmatched internationally in its enthusiasm. American studies of African art were a less intentional product of the era, emerging through a growing appetite for knowledge about the liberating continent. Thus, demands for new approaches were inextricably linked to the various government initiatives that institutionalized “African studies” in a notably American way. The impact of the Peace Corps on economic circuits for, as well as studies of, African art still demands further investigation.
The legacy of Cold War academic configurations lingers in various ways. In Russia, although major collections of African art remain, notably, in Saint Petersburg, African art study has not commanded the same sense of urgency that it did prior to 1989. Further, Russian attitudes to Africa have undergone serious transformation; the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of nativism that left Africans, or African-descended Russians, in a precarious position. Films such as Mauritanian director Abderrahamane Sissako’s short Octobre (1993), following the disintegrating relationship between an African student and a young Russian woman against the backdrop of late perestroika Moscow, evoked some of the deeper racial tensions and contradictions that emerged at the end of the era of socialist “international friendship.”
In the United States, the legacy of Cold War-era investments, debates, and programs is more tangible. Field research precedents that were enshrined by second-generation American Africanists have proved a continuous source of debate. The storm around Fred Lamp’s 1999 essay and its concern for the approach of younger generations to African research is emblematic of continuing methodological anxieties. Another persistent debate pertains to the problematic categorical binary of “traditional” and “modern/contemporary” African art—the binary that was absent in the Soviet Union and that the Peace Corps generation confronted through embedded experience. Such debates testify to a vibrant, if rarely harmonious, intellectual community that is unmatched in its institutional acceptance: despite the clarion call for research coming from France, since the 1950s professors of art history pursuing research in Africa have been found predominantly in universities on the opposite side of the Atlantic. With regard to the rest of the West, it would appear that, after 1945, the United States stole the field of Africanist art history.
Yet, whereas the institutionalization of African art studies has certainly been greatest in the United States, the broader global impact of Soviet African art studies, specifically on the African continent, is yet to be fully accounted for. In 2014 Ethiopian artist and teacher Eshetu Tiruneh was busy preparing a large art history textbook in Amharic for young Ethiopian artists. As a former student of the Surikov Academy of Art in Moscow, Eshetu had not studied art history through the American writings of Sieber, Thompson, and Fraser but through the approaches of Potekhin, Mirimanov, and their colleagues. On his desk at the Enlightenment Art Academy in Addis Ababa, besides drafts of his textbook, was a well-thumbed copy of another Mirimanov text, Afrika: Iskusstvo (1967), in Russian. While they may have been forgotten in dominant Western Africanist discourse, Soviet polycentric supersystems endure as resources for Africans of the Cold War generation engaged in writing their own histories of art.