Jan 25, 2008

"Four California Museums Are Raided"

The January 25 edition of the New York Times reports on sweeping FBI raid of four art museums in California as part of an investigation into the illegal smuggling and acquisition of looted antiquities from China, Native American sites, Thailand and Myanmar. The affected institutions include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Silk Roads Gallery in Los Angeles. The raid was triggered by charges that prominent museum patrons and art collectors had illegally acquired looted objects that were subsequently donated to museums who received these objects despite awareness of their dubious origins. The Museums deny the charges and FBI investigations are ongoing.

Jan 19, 2008

"Black Is, Black A'int..."

I am watching with horror the persistent argument about Barack Obama's racial identity and whether he is "black enough" or to put it crassly, African American enough racially to represent the aspirations of black peoples in this election cycle. This question is a very disturbing one for an African immigrant to America to confront, and I fear it caps a very divisive topic in global African discourse. It also illustrates an anxiety of influence that marks African American culture in the post-civil rights era, when political and economic power at last began to accrue to African Americans in greater quantities. The struggle to define who can legitimately partake in this emergent power perpetuates a disturbing politics of race in African American culture, which mirrors the larger cancer of race in the USA. Although he is very specifically running a campaign that tries to transcend the limited horizon of reactive racial politics, Barack Obama is affected negatively by both political contexts and the concern over his “blackness” which is now a topic of discussion in the African American community.

The question of how to define “black” and African American identity has been topical in the USA since African immigrants began to emerge significant numbers into the mainstream of American culture. Until the 20th Century, much of the modern African Diaspora shared a common origin in Slavery. For four centuries, African peoples of different ethic groups were kidnapped and forcibly relocated to Europe and the Americas to serve as slaves. However, not all Africans who ended up in the West were slaves. A population of free blacks existed in both Europe and the Americas whose freedom derived from several circumstances: some were freed by their masters, others bought their own freedom, and others still jumped ship or settled in countries like London, Spain and France. (The Moorish control of Al-Andalus (Spain) and parts of Portugal from AD 711-1492 left a sizeable African population in both countries, which interaction accounts for the darker skin tones of this population today. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, Portugal was basically considered a black country by northern Europeans peoples. The Mediterranean region had also long been a cultural confluence between black Africa and Europe, a fact effaced from current historical narratives by its Eurocentric orientation). In spite of this shared history of slavery, not all Diaspora cultures are alike. North American cultures (particularly in the USA) created a black underclass that remains segregated from mainstream American culture even today. For a long time, this black underclass was repressed first by slavery, then by rigid Apartheid laws in the 100 years following the demise of “Civil War Reconstruction” in the late 19th century and finally by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan that became instruments in genocide targeted at free African Americans well into the 2oth century. During this period, the dominant white culture brutally suppressed African customs and practices (Africanisms) although a substantial amount of such practices survived and is evident in African American cultures today. Despite Federal laws outlawing discrimination, African Americans are still second-class citizens in American culture and largely remain an underclass hedged in by implicit and explicit racism. (The whole planet received a shocking illustration of this fact in the recent debacle of Hurricane Katrina, which assisted the city of New Orleans in a dastardly form of ethnic cleansing which evicted African Americans from the city). In this dispensation, the lighter your skin is as an African American, the more acceptable you are in white culture: this in turn has created an internal racism and class division that undermines a unity of political action among African Americans today.

In the past decade, vocal voices in the African American community have started pushing to define African Americans as only those people of African ancestry who descend from Slavery. This excludes African Americans deriving from the second wave of African immigration into the USA that started in the late 20th century and shows no signs of peaking. We are seeing this discussion played out on the national stage through criticism of the candidacy of Barak Obama among some African Americans. In the finely tuned politics of American ethnic identity, Barack Obama is a multiracial person of African and White American parentage. His father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas. His cultural background is multiethnic, including Asian cultural heritage from partly growing up in Indonesia. He completed his education in white Ivy League schools (Columbia, Harvard Law School) but his adult cultural orientation is black from personal association with black causes and his political office representing black people in the South Side of Chicago. Since American law defines a black person as someone who has even one single drop of black blood in them (and this law is probably still on the books in many states) Obama is legally black but he also made a conscious choice to identify with his black heritage. Nevertheless he grew up mostly with his white relatives. Despite this fact, most of the reportage I’ve seen on him in this campaign has made much out of his Kenyan heritage without a corresponding reporting on his white Kansan heritage. I saw recently a TV report showing one of Obama’s paternal relatives from Kenya (schuking corn no less) who led reporters to the site of his father’s grave. After watching this report, I was left wondering: Why is Obama not claiming his white heritage or declaring himself a white person? Where are Obama’s white Kansan relatives? Why are they not campaigning for their son and helping him draw out the white vote? Why is the press not pointing out this fact as much as they point to his African ancestry? (Click here for pictures of Obama's white family members. Pictured above, Obama with his mother: below, Obama with his maternal grandparents). An obvious answer is that the American media is interested in casting Obama as a black man thus racializing the candidate in a manner that negates his viability. Additionally, when African Americans question his blackness, they are speaking in the same kind of scurrilous racial code as when white candidates speak of “family values”. I am surprised that many African American commentators have now adopted this same attitude to Obama’s candidacy and very worried that black people may be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

The sudden turn to debates of “how black is Obama” reflects less on the candidate than on the political immaturity of African Americans in the current dispensation. How many times have you heard such a question arise in the case of white candidates? The power of whiteness comes precisely from the fact that divergent non-African ethnic groups are comfortably incorporated into global whiteness as their political and economic power emerges. In the history of American immigration, Germans, Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish peoples have been treated as minorities to the Anglo-Saxon culture at one point or the other. They have all also successfully become absorbed into whiteness, which is why the USA can continue to claim that white people make up a majority in the country. This absorption was not easy: fierce battles between “nativists” and “immigrants” has a long history here and persists to this day (see Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York for a cinematic treatment of the issues). For the remnant “minority” groups, the balkanization of ethnic identity reinforces their status as an underclass. For the black peoples of the USA, their position as an underclass has been further reinforced by the upward mobility of other ethnic groups into whiteness. As the above named ethnic groups are absorbed into whiteness (with the attendant upward mobility in political and economic power) African Americans have been made to feel stagnant and stuck at the bottom of the ladder. This reinforces the idea that black people are incapable of progress and further justifies the exploitation of black communities as sources of cheap labor not far removed from slavery.

Any African immigrant into the USA will tell you that the first lesson one learns is that some American make important distinctions between Africans and African Americans. In that regard, being an African immigrant may actually put you in a slightly higher social class than African Americans. However the second lesson one learns is that most people don’t make the distinction at all and treat people with black skins worse than lepers. One must therefore acknowledge how the deep politics of race in the USA shapes African American responses to African immigrants and acknowledge their pertinent anxiety. At the same time, strictly speaking, from the viewpoint of most Africans, African Americans are white people. In Nigeria, they are called by the same name “oyibo” by which Nigerians refer to white people. This is because ethnic identity in Nigeria is culturally determined and African Americans are culturally and I dare say, ethnically, Americans. Obama’s candidacy provides a chance to develop a more sophisticated view of racial identity in America because of his multi-racial heritage and also because he appeals to a future in which transracial identity becomes recognized as the norm it has always been in human culture. Racial intermixing is the dirty history of American racial politics, which is why Obama recently discovered that he is in fact a distant cousin of Dick Cheney. In this regard, racial politics in America and globally has always masked the raw politics of avaricious power. If white Americans can absorb all kinds of ethic identities under the broader rubic of whiteness, why can’t African Americans take advantage of the same idea and try to absorb various African ethnicities into blackness in the USA. This has the potential to increase their political power instead of sustaining the usual practice where fragmented ethnicities dilute their capability for broad-based political action.

Above all, it would be useful if everyone drops this argument about “blackness”. No one is black enough when you get right down to it and we are still all members of one human race. No doubt, the idea of Blackness is a political construct with obvious real-world impact on African Americans. One cannot make too much of the suffering of African Americans in the Western world (or that of Africans who suffer equally and in even more horrible circumstances but hey, let’s leave that aside for the time being). It is time for African Americans to start adopting a politics of hope and possibility instead of a politics of victimhood and that is precisely what Barack Obama offers. As such, African Americans would do well to pull closer to their black brethren instead of trying to create yet another internal division that does nothing but weaken our overall capabilities. As a wit once stated, we may have come over on different ships but we are all, black persons alike, in the same boat. We can continue to squabble until the boat capsizes or we can pull together for the greater good.

Jan 15, 2008

Modou Dieng in Dakar

The Oregon-based, Senegalese born contemporary African artist, Modou Dieng, is currently in Dakar Senegal with a group of his students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA)on a hands-on interactive investigation of the arts and culture of Senegal as part of the PNCA's Global Studios Program. During this visit, the students are maintaining a blog for posting their impressions of and pictures of their interactions with various contexts in Senegal. Modou Dieng's artwork graced the cover of the inaugural edition of Critical Interventions, which was published last summer.

Nigerian Artists Are Angry

Posted below, is a report from Mufu Onifade, on the proceedings of a recent seminar in Nigeria to examine the state of Nigerian arts. The post, written in quaint Nigerian English, examines the frustrations of Nigerian artists arising from constraints on their practice within the country. Many of the aritsts mentioned already have significant national careers but are largely unknown in the wider global arena.

Nigerian artists are angry
By Mufu Onifade
Guardian Newspapers Nigeria
January 14, 2008.

FOR the first time in a long time, Nigerian artists converged at the Universal Studios of Art, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos to register their displeasure at the state of Art in Nigeria. Their anger was directed at all concerned quarters including the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), the National Gallery of Art, the Federal Government and the artists themselves. It was a unique intellectual gathering that provided an opportunity for artists to freely air their views. This was the 4th in the series of Universal Studios' annual seminar held on Tuesday, December 11, 2007 within the Studios' premises. Titled The Challenges of Art Practice in a Developing Economy, it was an open forum deliberately designed to wear a toga of informality as reflected in the welcome remarks by the Chairman of the Studios, Mr. Bunmi Babatunde, who was represented by Mr. Monday Akhidue, vice chairman.

The idea of an informal forum was to create a special pedestal for art practitioners to interact freely without any form of official impingement that usually trails formal gatherings. While this particular gathering conformed to a typical roundtable sitting arrangement, the high table itself allowed for effective control of proceedings. It was occupied by Monday Akhidue (Universal Studios), Philomena Ojugbana (Mydrim Gallery), Ademola Azeez (moderator) and Kehinde Adepegba (rapporteur). Others included Kenny Badaru (representing Society of Nigerian Artists), Alhaji I. B. Balogun (President, Visual Art Teachers Association of Nigeria), Samuel Mazoya (Artist/Head, Admin, Learn IT Academy and Training Centre, Lagos), Edosa Ogiugo (full time studio artist), Alex Nwokolo (Artist/Businessman), Dr. Ronke Adesanya (Artist/lecturer, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan), Juliet Ezenwa (Artist), Sulayman Deji-Etiwe (Chairman, National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners, Lagos State Chapter) and Olu Ajayi (Chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists, Lagos State Chapter).

No doubt, the seminar, sponsored by Mydrim Gallery as a monologue to the annual art exhibition that was to open four days later, was well attended. The beauty of the gathering was found in the fact that artists really took advantage of the opportunity to address many matters affecting their career and profession. Many bottled-up grudges were divulged for the purpose of smoothening rough edges of the art profession. For example, Edosa Ogiugo opened up a can of worm rocking art training at the Yaba College of Technology. According to him, a few of his colleagues who were committed to full time practice (including Abiodun Olaku, himself and others) were engaged on part time basis by the College to lend their professionalism to the training of the College's higher students. In spite of the enormity of their contribution in this regard, they were maltreated, to the extent that no records were kept of their training activities; whereas the knowledge they imparted was able to produce many highly skilled artists that are today young masters in their own right. There were more of such expletives, many of them directed at the Society of Nigerian Artists, the government art agencies and parastatals as well as artists themselves, but the general consensus among all participants seemed to border more on perennial lackadaisical attitude of SNA and its inability to call the shot where necessary.

While the gathering missed the usual romanticized presence and eloquent postulation of Mr. Kolade Oshinowo, amiable national president of SNA, who would have seized the opportunity to absorb the way forward for the Society, Olu Ajayi, chairman, Lagos State chapter of the Society declared point-blank that the Society did not have the power to correct many of the artistic anomalies gracing the Nigerian environment. As expected, the crowd did not buy such a declaration, and this collective outrage was timely echoed by Dr. 'Sehinde Ademuleya (from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) who did not mince his words in correcting the wrong sentiments expressed by Ajayi. However, in his characteristic I-have-other-appointments-to-catch manner, the Lagos helmsman did not wait to either get or respond to the feelers. He unceremoniously left his members in the midst of a misty artistic contemplation.

Indeed, the Nigerian artist is angry. Whether he is a full time practitioner like Abiodun Olaku, Edosa Ogiugo and Bisi Fakeye or combines his practice with some other official engagements like Samuel Mazoya and Ebong Ekwere; whether he has sought solace in politics like Bayo Odulana and Sabitu Hassan or he still combines art practice with teaching like 'Sehinde Ademuleya, Ademola Azeez and Ronke Adesanya, the truth is: the Nigerian artist is angry. He is angry at the operations of the Society of Nigerian Artists, which looks powerless in controlling the activities of its members. He is angry that SNA, like the National Gallery of Art, does not have a dignified database for Nigerian artists. He is angry that governments at all levels do not know the value of art or its significance to cultural, economic and technological advancement. He is angry with the founding fathers of SNA who have failed to make the Society as effective as the Nigerian Bar Association or Nigerian Medical Association.

The Nigerian artist is also angry with some of his own colleagues whose use of nomenclature subjects the profession to ridicule. As a matter of reference, Abiodun Olaku offered typical examples of two young artists who recently described their own works as world-class paintings. To further propel and buttress such arrogance and insensitivity, the two artists were exhibited by two government parastatals. While Sola Ayibiowu (who is still a student at the University of Lagos and is reputed for only being on the average) was exhibited by the National Gallery of Art in Lagos, Bunmi Oyesanya, a relatively young female artist who graduated from Auchi Polytechnic was exhibited by the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. They both put up what they called world class paintings, but which in truth carry a serious question mark bordering on work quality. "This kind of approach," thundered Olaku, "to art by artists and government art agencies or parastatals can be checkmated by SNA."

The seminar successfully drew participants (mostly artists, art teachers, art historians) from Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Edo and Benue States. In the end, they all agreed that SNA, as the only recognized artist body, has an enormous role to play in correcting many of afore-stated anomalies already perpetrated through sheer care-free, official bottleneck from governments and ignorance or individualistic tendencies, especially on the part of the Nigerian artist.

Jan 11, 2008

Returning the Krater

The New York Times reports on the return of the Euphronios Krater to Italy by the MET in a long struggle over the repatriation of dubiously acquired art. Of interest is the agreement reached by the MET to return some artworks to Italy in exchange for a long term loan of other artworks to the museum. It is important to note that such arrangements presuppose an engagement among equals, an attitude absolutely missing in discussions of illegally African art held in Western museums. The obvious fact here is that Western museums and governments have one set of rules for dealing with each other and another set of rules (or none at all) for engagement with African and other non-Western peoples. Here then is a perfect illustration of the Orwellian paradigm that all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Jan 10, 2008

Notable Person: Valente Malangatana

My notable person for this week is Mozambiquan artist and UNESCO Artist for Peace 1997, Valente Malangatana. The following brief essay on the artist is taken from the presentation of the artist on Africa/Contemporary Art Gallery. (Click here for Mario Pisarra's critical engagement with the works of Malangatana which attempts to redefine the reception of the artist. Click here for images of his artworks.):

"Born in 1936 in Matalana village, southern Mozambique, Malangatana's early years were spent attending mission schools and helping his mother farm. At the age of 12 he went to Maputo (then Lourenzo Marques) to find work and in 1953 was employed at the tennis club as a ball boy. This enabled him to resume his education, attending classes at night, and it was at this time that his artistic talents were recognised.Tennis club member Augusto Cabral gave him materials and helped him sell his work. In 1958 Malangatana attended activities of the artists' organisation Nucleo de Arte, and he received support from the painter Ze Julio. The following year his work was exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group exhibition, and two years later Malangatana held his first solo exhibition at the age of 25. In 1963 his poetry was published in the journal Black Orpheus and the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa. The following year Malangatana was detained by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. In 1971 he received a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and studied engraving and ceramics. Since 1981 Malangatana has worked full-time as an artist.

Among his achievements Malangatana has been awarded the Nachingwea Medal for Contribution to Mozambican Culture, and has been pronounced Grande Oficial da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique'. He has exhibited in Angola, Portugal, India, Nigeria, Chile and Zimbabwe, and his work is in collections in Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Switzerland, USA, Uruguay, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Portugal. He has also been commissioned for several public art works, including murals for Frelimo and UNESCO. Malangatana has also been active in establishing cultural institutions including the National Museum of Art; the Centre for Cultural Studies; the Centre for the Arts; a youth skills training centre in Maputo; and he was also one of the founders of the Mozambican Peace Movement.

Malangatana's works have always projected a bold vision of life where there is a communion between human, animal and plant life. He draws on his indigenous heritage whilst simultaneously embracing symbols of modernity and "progress", synthesis of art and politics. Recognition of his stature is implicit in the statement made by UNESCO's Director-General Federico Mayor when he presented the UNESCO award. Mayor noted that Malangatana is "much more than a creator, much more than an artist- someone who demonstrates that there is a universal language, the language of art, which allows us to communicate a message of peace, of refusal of war."

Met Director To Retire

Philippe de Montebello, long-serving director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new York, has announced plans to retire. The New York Times report of his announcement praised Montebello for steering the Met to a preeminent position among world-class museums but also noted that while Mr. de Montebello has won broad admiration for his stewardship of the museum, he has sometimes drawn criticism for a reluctance to embrace contemporary art and a dismissive attitude toward claims by archaeologically rich countries to objects they say were looted and sold to Western museums. It will be interesting to see how the MET negotiates some of the issues of restitution confronting the museum in the wake of Montebello's retirement.

Jan 7, 2008

The Art Newspaper Special Focus on Africa

The Art Newspaper is currently producing a special supplement on Africa which will appear in its February issue and also as a special separate supplement for distribution at the March 2008 Johannesburg Art Fair. This development indicates a growing interest in contemporary African art from the viewpoint of the art market whose expanding search for new commodities invariably means it will at some point explore contemporary African art as a fungible product. No doubt this new focus will mostly incorporate artworks by African artists who live in the West who have shown in various biennales over the past decade. It remains to be seen whether the emerging market in contemporary African art will incorporate modern and contemporary African art made over the past 100 years on the continent by various African artists who remain largely unknown to the biennale crowd. Aachronym will keep an eye on this story as it unfolds.

Jan 5, 2008

Preserving the Nations's Artifacts...

An interesting take on the question of preserving national artifacts and Africa's cultural patrimony, written specifically about Nigerian Museums by Mr. Essien, a Nigerian reporter, and posted on the website of the Museum Security Network. Essien paints a very unflattering picture of the state of Nigerian antiquities within the Nigerian Museums system and raises several issues that will have to be resolved if the call for restitution of Nigeria's cultural patrimony is to have any relevance.

Jan 4, 2008

Restitution Issues Redux: Montebello and the MET's African Art Collection

Kwame Opoku sent the following essay as a response to the article by Phillipe de Montebello in the Berlin Journal on the issue of restitution of African artworks in the West, mentioned in an earlier post. (CAVEAT: Phillipe de Montebello's comments are entirely his own and do not reflect the position of the American Academy in Berlin).

Author: KWAME OPOKU January 4, 2008.

I become slightly nervous these days when I see an article or a note on the question of restitution of art signed by a European or American museum director, wondering whether we are going to read something that the normal person can understand even if he does not quite accept the argumentation or whether we will be faced with a statement that is so astonishing that one wonders whether we are living in the same world as the museum director. When I read the article, “Whose culture is it? Museums and the collection of antiquities” by Phillipe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, in The Berlin Journal, (Fall 2007, No.15, pp.33-37.). I had the impression that there was no ground for anxiety or nervousness. I was reading a normal article which I may or may not like. But at the end of article came the shock. The director of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts ends his article with the following revealing conclusions:

“As Neil McGregor, the director of the British Museum has often said very persuasively, the Greekness of Greek art at the museum is doubly clear because the art of Egypt and Sumer are available just ten steps away for comparison. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, the treasures in the world’s major museums belong to an international, cosmopolitan society. Our museums are a kind of cultural family tree on whose branches all of us can find ourselves. It would be an odd world indeed if we had to travel to the remotest corners of the earth in order to see art.”

Does the author seriously believe that in answer to a Greek who is demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, one can pacify him or her with the answer that Greek art can be better seen in the British Museum because next to the stolen Greek art he is reclaiming there is also the stolen Egyptian art which clearly brings out the outstanding characteristics of Greek art? That the comparative or contrasting study is best done in London and not in Athens or Cairo? Will anyone dare to tell the people of Benin that the craftsmanship of the stolen Benin bronzes is better appreciated when seen in contrast and comparison to the stolen Ife or stolen Baule pieces in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin? Whom did the museum director seek to convince with this reasoning? Was he perhaps addressing himself only to the converted? What should one say about the statement that: “the treasures in the world’s major museums belong to an international, cosmopolitan society”? I thought until now that the argument had been that those treasures belonged to the whole world but now I read that they belong to an “international, cosmopolitan society”. Does this society include the people of Benin and the people of Kumasi? Do the museum officials even know where Kumasi is? Will the people of the Sahel region realize that they are part of an international, cosmopolitan society? As for the “cultural family tree”, it is probably better not to say anything about it. For in no time in the history of the world have the African peoples been made to feel they were not part of mankind as much as in the 19th and 20th Centuries, in the heydays of colonialism when most of the plunder of African art took place and the so-called world museums, The British Museum in London, The Louvre in Paris, the Ethnology Museum in Berlin, and a host of others were filled with looted African art treasures which they stubbornly refuse to return. Our own days have seen the increased racism which prevents Africans from entering Europe where governments have set up an army, Frontext, with the sole purpose of preventing African refugees from entering Europe. What kind of family is that?

I do not know in what sense the word “cosmopolitan” is used in this context. Most people understand by “cosmopolitan” a person belonging to more than one nation, speaking several languages or at home in several countries. These would normally be the rich, those who have houses in London, apartments in Paris and perhaps a country house in Portugal; the kind of person who eats breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and spends the evening in Berlin. I have not heard it used with reference to the cowherds who spend some days in Ghana and move on to Burkina Faso or Togo, moving through different cultures and using different languages; they may drink Coca Cola, have a mobile phone and occasionally, even eat Italian pizza. The cosmopolitans will normally be Europeans or Americans and most often, well-educated and well-connected but will this description necessarily apply to our average man from Kwadaso or Sururele? Or does the ordinary man from Accra or Lagos not count? Will it apply to Africans who have to apply for every short visit to France, Britain or Germany and are usually treated as undesirables by the various European and American embassies and consulates in the world? There is not a single European government that will grant a visa to an African whose sole purpose is to visit a museum in London, Paris or Berlin .Do the treasures in the museums no longer belong to the ordinary, Baule, Edo or Yoruba or Zulu whose ancestors produced these objects stolen by the colonialists? The museum director must explain to us what he means.

Montebello declares with confidence that “It would be an odd world indeed if we had to travel to the remotest corners of the earth in order to see its art”. What a remarkable statement from a museum director in whose museum there are objects from every corner of the world. When the objects were being collected nobody seemed to have been concerned that they were from the “remotest corners of the earth”. The means of transportation and communications were not all that very developed in those days compared to our modern facilities and yet we are being told there are “remote corners of the earth”. Are there “remotest corners” in Europe and the USA or are they all in Africa, Asia and Latin America? Does “remotest” depend on where we are or is this all measured from London or New York? In other words, is the usual Eurocentricism at work here? The kind of ideology that proclaims certain peoples and their arts as “primitive” and forever “primitive” even though the Europeans are spending considerable force and resources in collecting their works and imitating them or copying their style or deriving inspiration from the same works in order to be modern? I have heard the argument that in this age of internet and good communications, the whole world is connected and that it does not really matter where art objects are located. Apparently, not all museum directors share this view. This argument seems to apply only when the art objects are located in London and New York. Is the Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which signed the infamous Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (2002) renouncing here the principle “that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation?” It seems in the end that the so-called Universal Museums are only universal in the sense that they have stolen objects from the “remotest corners of the earth.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Arts is one of those museums that recently returned to Italy art objects which had been stolen from Italy. This return violates the basic principle underlying the infamous Declaration, i.e., not to return any stolen or looted art object to its place of origin. Having taken this step in favor of Italy, which may or may not be “remotest corner of the earth”, depending on where one may be standing, will he and his colleagues finally start seriously considering returning some of the stolen African art objects back to Africa which is not very far from Italy, depending on where one is standing?

It is noticeable that the director of a museum which boasts of some of the finest pieces of African art did not mention even once in an article dealing with restitution or repatriation, African art. Does the museum not include African antiquities under the designation antiquities? Is this a reflection of the usual Euro-American arrogance towards Africans and of the belief that we will never dare to ask Western Europe and the USA for the return of our art objects? If so, they are making a serious mistake. Or is this a confirmation of the belief of many European and American museum directors that these museums are doing Africans a great favour by keeping our cultural objects? It is true that the writer mentions Egyptian art but following the false ideas of Hegel and co, many Europeans and Americans do not consider Egypt as part of Africa and consequently, Egyptian art, in their opinion, does not fall into the category of African Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, follows this Hegelian line in the organization of its art objects. Thus it has a Department of Egyptian Art which is for Egyptian Art. All other art works from the rest of Africa are in the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Thus Africa as a continent is not recognized as a concept for the learned museum specialists. It seems the arts of the rest of Africa have nothing in common with Egyptian art. It seems the museum directors of Europe and America have arrogated to themselves the right to define what is African and what is not. Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdel Nasser thought Egypt was in Africa and admitted Egypt as one of the founding States of the OAU and now, the African Union. Anwar Sadat and Hosini Mubarak have kept Egypt in the African family of nations. Were they mistaken, not realizing perhaps that the culture of the Pharaohs is better located somewhere outside Africa and not in proximity to Sudan, Mauritania, Somalia, Senegal and Mali? This is a question we will take up elsewhere. Here it suffices to state that this is basically one of the many racist distinctions that Europeans have tried to introduce into African affairs.

Pictured above: Edo Kingdom of Benin, Pendant Mask of Iyoba (Queen Mother) Idia, Ivory with copper inlay, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972 (1978.412.323)

Jan 2, 2008

CFP: Midwest Art History Society Conference

Call for Papers
Midwest Art History Society (MAHS) Conference
Chicago, IL
April 2-5, 2008

Deadline for proposals extended until January 11, 2008.

African Art
This session seeks to highlight the diversity of approaches that characterizes the field of African art as it is studied today. Of particular interest are papers that query the boundaries of the field in terms of media or methodology, that are cross-cultural in scope, or that emphasize connections to other areas of art history. Session Chair: Mark D. DeLancey. Proposals should be typed, single-spaced, no longer than 250 words, include a c.v., and indicate MAHS membership status. All conference participants must be MAHS members at the time of the conference. Session chairs will notify applicants about their decisions by February 1, 2008. It is strongly recommended that submissions be emailed as MSWORD documents to the web addresses listed below with a subject line that includes "MAHS."

Dr. Mark D. DeLancey
Assistant Professor of Art History
Department of Art and Art History
DePaul University
1150 W. Fullerton Ave., 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel (773) 325-8601
Fax (773) 325-1950

New Issue of Africa e Mediterraneo journal, n. 60-61

The post below is culled from H-Net's H-AFRARTS listserve, from a report on the new issue of Africa e Mediterraneo journal, n. 60-61:
"Art objects" in Museums and private collections in contemporary
Africa: the challenges

"This issue of Africa e Mediterraneo, edited by Giovanna Parodi da Passano and Sandra Federici, represents the first step in the reflection path about the representation of Africa in the museums' collections, both in the African and in the Western ones. At the beginning, this path had to last just for one issue but then we have decided to divide the matter in two different issues, due to the size and the value of the contributions. New dynamics are recently involving the patrimonial museums: the need to include pedagogical activities, to overcome the colonial and ethnographic thought, to reach a more conscious and determined public and to express the new identity of the independent states. From the analysis of the dossier emerges how in Africa the discussion about art objects in collections and museums is inevitably linked to wider discussions, as the colonial heritage and the threat of neo-colonialism, both in what concerns the conservation techniques, the ancient objects' perception and the available funds. Furthermore this issue contains a selection of comics narrating stories about immigration towards Europe, created by African emerging authors during the second Africa Comics workshop, organised by Africa e Mediterraneo and part of the off program of the Dakar Biennial. The workshop, headed by the Italian authors Maurizio Ribichini and Manuel De Carli, and by the Senegalese artists TT Fons and Samba Ndar Cissé, has been organised with the collaboration of the Centre Associé pour l'Education au Média and of the municipality of Dakar, and financed by the Region Friuli Venezia Giulia.

The journal:
Africa e Mediterraneo journal is edited by Africa e Mediterraneo association (www.africaemediterraneo.it) and is published by Lai-momo cooperative. It is a quarterly journal which, from 1992, aims to analyze issues related on economic, historical and cultural issues in the African context. Moving from an anthropologically-oriented editorial policy, Africa e Mediterraneo seeks a critical understanding of the global cultural flows and the cultural forms which define Africa in the late twentieth century. The journal presents occasions where cultural and social differences emerge as public phenomena, manifested in everything from highly localized cultural events, to popular culture or to global consumption and information networks. Each number is composed by a dossier and articles of African literature, art, cinema, philosophy and music, in addiction there are also articles related to intercultural themes, cooperation, education to development and migration."

For information
Africa e Mediterraneo
Via Gamberi 4 - 40037
Sasso Marconi - Bologna
Tel. +39 051 840166
Fax. +39 051 6790117
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Fisk University's Financial Crisis

One of the more interesting stories I've been following is the financial insolvency of Fisk University and its attempts to forestall a disastrous closing of the institution by selling off a few of its prized art collection which includes important artworks given to the University by acclaimed American artist Georgia O'Keefe. At last report, the O'Keefe heirs have fought tooth and nail to prevent the University from selling any of the artworks because, they argue, a sale would violate the terms of the O'Keefe bequest. The University if now struggling to raise about $6.2 million dollars in operating funds to keep its doors open.

Fisk University, founded in 1866, is a prominent member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities of the United Stated (HBCU). Distinguished alumni include US Congressman Alcee Hastings, Alma Powell- wife of Gen. Colin Powell, W.E.B. Dubois, Matthew Knowles--the father and manager of Beyonce Knowles, and many other important African American personalities. Its art galleries contain significant examples of African American art and its art school was founded by Aaron Douglas, the Harlem Renaissance artist luminary, who taught at Fisk for twenty-nine years. If one were looking for an institution that carries the weight of African American intellectual history in the United States, Fisk surely fits that category. The story of its financial difficulties is thus hard to understand and it underlines an earlier point I made about the undervaluing of black knowledge and history in general. In the year 2008, it is scandalous that such a prominent African American university is struggling to raise a few million dollars to stave off closure. It is even more scandalous that it thought of selling off its important art holdings to raise part of this money. Implicit in this consideration is the fact that O'Keefe's artwork may be the most valuable artwork owned by the museum and that no artwork by any of the African American artists in Fisk's art collection is remotely near in value to what the O'Keefe is worth. Now, O'Keefe was certainly a major painter but no more significant that Aaron Douglas or other African American artists who worked in very difficult conditions of racial apartheid and were actively denied access to spaces and resources for showing their works. The low value of art by these artists and the low value of their historical memory in general supports what James Clifford describes as the art/culture complex in which (to paraphrase) the value of white art is directly proportional to its differentiation from black culture. While art historians are happy to celebrate O'Keefe as a significant American painter, they view Aaron Douglas' artworks as mere aspects of African-American cultural expression, a mode of cultural signification of less value than white cultural expression. This is the scandal underlying the field of art history and visual culture exegesis and it derives directly from the entrenched racial politics of political, economic and cultural discourse in the West.

The greater scandal however is that black peoples (African Americans especially) have failed to understand the precariousness of their position in the global order. Given the egregious history of African American marginalization in all spheres of American culture, one would expect the US government to devote some of the multi-trillion dollar budget it is expending on the wars abroad to shore up some black colleges at home, say a billion dollar per school endowment fund to enhance the value of black education in the lopsided American educational system. But I guess the Hurricane Katrina disaster has clearly shown that African Americans constitute a Third-World enclave in the USA and are not even much valued as human beings. But why are African Americans themselves not proving capable in sustaining their own institutions? In an America with an increasing number of major African American titans of business, sports, politics and financial wealth, the demise of Fisk University and other HBCU's constitute a failure of catastrophic proportions. The standard practice of major universities is to create endowment funds to raise money for their operations. Yale's endowment alone topped $22 billion this year, mostly from private donations. Most of the reports on the Fisk insolvency seem incredulous that the university is not working on an endowment fund instead of trying to raise money piecemeal. It may however be doing so because of a lack of success in previous efforts to secure significant funds. I subscribe to a newsfeed that reports on philanthropy in the US where it is routine to see the Gates Foundation giving multimillions of dollars to cure AIDS in Africa (a worthy effort) while other donors routinely give gifts in excess of one hundred million dollars to favored institutions and charities. Warren Buffet recently gave the Gates Foundation billions of dollars to support its effort, thus making the Gates Foundation, with its endowment of over $34 billion dollars, one of the richest institutions on the planet. There is in short a lot of money floating around but most of it bypasses African American needs. I have never heard (and will like to know) of anyone giving $100 million to an HBCU even though such gifts have by now become fairly routine for many white colleges. Since this is the case, one wonders whether African Americans themselves are not distressed by this development and why there hasn't been a more concerted effort to energize an endowment drive to secure the kinds of funds needed to support institutions such as Fisk.

Of course, the larger issue is the overall failure of African and African Diaspora institutions to secure any significant share of global wealth. It is however true that African American wealth has increased in the USA but failed to stem the tide of failing African American schools or the vast increase in the incarceration of young black men who many states spend much more money to incarcerate than it spends on education. (The prison industrial system has been described as an extension of African American slavery: the African American Jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis recently described it as a move From the Plantation to the Penitentiary). In similar manner African wealth is increasing but the continent still remains mired in underdevelopment due to lack of prioritization (endemic corruption; money spent on wars but not on infrastructural development, etc.). African politicians are busy stashing away vast amounts of national funds in Western banks while African institutions of higher learning have stagnated even in South Africa where black schools remain grossly underfunded. (This was not always so: I studied at the University of Nigeria at a time when it had a fearsome reputation as a major center of intellectual endeavor. Alumni from this school command the respect of their peers worldwide). Fisk's insolvency is thus the tip of a global problem about how African and African Diaspora peoples are slowly but surely contributing to their own demise by failing to understand the global nature and implications of black marginalization. Without active and sustainable institutions of higher learning, and without access to important white schools (Ivy league admission of African American applicants have plummeted to their lowest level since the Jim Crow era, especially since the Supreme Court gutted Affirmative Action programs) what do African peoples have to look forward to other than serving as a global underclass in perpetuity? Fisk's problems demand innovative solutions which are so far not forthcoming. In the meantime, these problems seriously threaten a pillar of African American intellectual endeavor. The threat of its demise is a long way from Dubois' dream of a Pan-African renaissance and farther away from Martin Luther King's dream of black advancement. If Fisk University shuts down for lack of funds, a dirge would be in order, along the lines of the bitter biblical lament: how are the mighty fallen!!!