African Studies, Art and Architecture, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Read an Excerpt from “What Is African Art?” by Peter Probst

This month, we’re highlighting a new book by Peter Probst that dives into the invention and development of African art as an art historical category. Posing questions central to our understanding of the field and its history, What Is African Art? takes a critical look at what exactly we mean when we talk about African art. In this post, Peter shares the epilogue to his new book and offers some insight into this project.

Peter Probst: “Over the last ten years, hardly any other academic field has attracted so much interest and criticism as the study of African art. In response to the public discussions of blackness and the manifold legacies of slavery, museums and universities have started to restitute African artifacts and decolonize their curricula. Given the dynamic character of these developments, it is astonishing that a full monographic historiography of African art studies is still missing. In my new book, I engage with this absence by posing a seemingly simple question: What do we talk about when we talk about African art? By investigating the historically different answers to this question from the late 19th century to the present, my book uncovers important insights into the making and remaking of a field that has become the subject of lively debates about its colonial history and the quest for a decolonial future. Read the epilogue to see if there is a way ‘out of the dark night’ (Achille Mbembe) the colonial legacies have bequeathed us.”

The range of meanings reflects the long and varied semantic shadow that starts looming when one begins to talk about “African art.”

What do we talk about when we talk about African art? Let me end my interrogation of this question by following up on the notion of a decolonial future that concluded the final chapter. Is there a way “out of the dark night” the colonial legacies have bequeathed us, as Achille Mbembe recently put it?

As we have seen, a defining feature of the decolonial agenda is its heterogeneity, or rather its multivalences as being a demand, a vision, an epistemological critique, and a stance of resistance and defiance all at once. The range of meanings reflects the long and varied semantic shadow that starts looming when one begins to talk about “African art.” Location matters. Voices from the North dominate this talk. If voices of the South speak up, they need to publish in the North (and preferably in English) to get heard. The decolonial turn and agenda are not in the least a reaction to this condition. It aims to ward off the glaring light of the North casting its discursive shadow on the South. Let’s recall that Éblouissements, the title of the 2017 Lubumbashi Biennale, was inspired by Joseph Tonda’s critique of imperial modernity as a society of techno-capitalist spectacle that dazzles its subjects. Protective local glasses are necessary to see one’s options moving forward—but in what direction? Which vantage point is used to envision the future?

Of course, there is no single position, only multiple, competing ones, a fact that makes talking about African art burdened with an excess of meaning. Again, location matters. It makes a difference whether one addresses the question at the Basel Miami art fair or in Lubumbashi. One option would be to get rid of the signifier all together; there is no African art, only art in Africa and its diasporas. The option has prominent proponents. As [Yinka] Shonibare and [Okwui] Enwezor once famously argued, the definition of Africa and the West go together. The two are intertwined. One cannot define Africa without Europe, just as it is impossible to define Europe without Africa. Both definitions are entangled; they work both ways. Hence, practices of cultural translation—exemplified by the history of Dutch wax cloth, Shonibare’s favorite medium—might be more fitting than the insistence on authenticity and difference. But there is a third diasporic option, an option of yearning and mourning, as it were, that keeps pushing the long history of domination and violence, erasure, and extraction into the fore. The manifold legacies of the transatlantic slave trade have made Africa also about remembrance and longing, a “project of desire,” as the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne recently put it. Hence, whatever the position that one adopts, the “rock” remains. It breathes like the figure in Kentridge’s film Monument.

In 1990, the rock was about the legacy of apartheid hovering over the hopes of the newly emerging “rainbow nation.” Today, the image of the figure chained to the plinth alludes to the artefacts chained in the museums of the North and the attempts to free and repatriate them—to bring them home—one of the key demands of the decolonial agenda. Certainly, the agenda is not new. Demands to return cultural property illegally amassed during imperial and colonial times have long been made. In recent years, however, the debate on restitution got new momentum (see the introduction). Hamady Bocoum, the director of the new Muséedes civilisations noires in Dakar, and Malick Ndiaye, the artistic director of the 2022 DAK’ART, are clear on this point. They subscribe to a position of “insubordination” that rejects both the critical postcolonial stance for its neglect of the ancient riches of African history as well as the West’s assumed connoisseurial authority in valuing and validating cultural artifacts. It is worth citing their reminder:

Let us address history: When the modern museum took shape in eighteenth-century Europe, its preoccupation with the systematic classification of knowledge by means of objects was derived from the great catalogues of the sixteenth century and from cabinets of curiosities, which aimed to be reflections of the world in miniature. The museum secularized the religious objects it contained, stripping them of their sacred dimension. Divorced from their ritual contexts, they became art objects seen as manifestations of a nation’s creative spirit. It is important to recall this history that classifies objects as art as it has had profound consequences. It allowed for the appeal to a universal category that enabled museums to argue that objects that had been stripped of their original character no longer represented African heritage. Exhibited in the museum, objects came to acquire a universal dimension that shifted questions of origin and ownership to notions of stewardship. But how valid are these reifications of art?

One could extend the question by linking it to the question of repair and repatriation. Restitution, for a long time an anathema in the Global North, has become a reality and with it the debate over the prospects and possibilities of “resocializing” restituted objects in their original location. How will the new meanings, translations, energies, and networks the objects formed abroad reconcile with the expectations, hopes, and anxieties awaiting them in their old homeland upon their return from exile?

Of course, there is no single position, only multiple, competing ones, a fact that makes talking about African art burdened with an excess of meaning.

It is too early to know the answer. What matters is the question. Afterall, it is only consequent that real practical steps toward shaping the decolonial future of African art need to begin with the return of objects from the field’s colonial past. The “new relational ethics” [Feldwine] Sarr and [Bénédicte] Savoy have demanded in their restitution report echo a new sense of openness that results from an unraveling, decentering, and breaking down of distinct patterns of power and dependencies. Surely, differences exist. Various options are on the table. But given the excess of meaning, what else would one expect? “African art,” let alone “Africa,” has turned into, or perhaps has always been, an inexhaustible quotation. Its multiple translations have made it subject to many forms of (re)imaginations, and(re)configurations. As such, the talk about “African art” is likely to stay. What its future will look like—where, how, and what we will be talking about when we talk about “African art”—will depend on the emancipatory power of the talk, how much it can challenge, counter, and eventually overcome the structural asymmetry among those doing the talking.

Peter Probst is professor of art history and anthropology at Tufts University. He is the author or editor of several books, including National Museums of AfricaOsogbo and the Art of HeritageKalumbas Fest, and African Modernities.

What Is African Art? is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.