Showing posts from January, 2011

CFP: Critical Encounters: A Graduate Student Symposium in Honor of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Critical Encounters: A Graduate Student Symposium in Honor of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, Art History Department, and Institute for African Studies announce a graduate student symposium in honor of Sidney Littefield Kasfir.

Keynote address

Friday, April 22, 2011

7:30 pm

Chika Okeke-Agulu, Assistant Professor of Art History, Princeton University is a curator, artist and art historian and co-author of Contemporary African Art Since 1980, will deliver the keynote address.

Graduate Symposium

Saturday, April 23, 2011

9:30 am – 5:30 pm

“If tourist art, the lowest common denominator of what is thought by Westerners to be inauthentic in African art, can be deconstructed in ways that make the definition of authenticity full of self-contradictions, then the same kinds of questions can be asked even more readily about other non-canonical categories such as “elite” or “international” art. Now, in the closing years of the twentieth century, it is perhaps time to bring the canon into better alignment with the corpus, with what African artists actually make, and to leave behind a rather myopic classificatory system based so heavily on an Africa of the mind”

— Sidney L. Kasfir, “African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow” in African Arts

Throughout her career Dr. Sidney L. Kasfir has sought to rethink the way scholars, artists, museums, and viewers understand and categorize African art. She has attempted to expand our classificatory system, without allowing generalizations to dilute the complex efforts of artists, cultures, and visual languages. This symposium, organized in honor of her retirement from Emory University, considers three themes to which Dr. Kasfir has contributed: Commodification and Tourism; Heritage; and The Artist, the Workshop, and Cultural Brokerage.

Proposals should consider one of these three major themes. Papers should be twenty minutes in length. We welcome submissions from graduate students from any discipline and at all stages of their studies working with visual culture in Africa. Airfare and accommodations will be provided for students whose papers are accepted.

Deadline for submissions: Please send your cv and a one-page abstract by mail or email no later than February 5, 2011 to:

Elizabeth Hornor

Marguerite Colville Ingram Director of Education

Michael C. Carlos Museum

571 South Kilgo Circle

Atlanta, GA 30322

Ehornor [at]

Selected speakers will be notified by email by March 5, 2011.

John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts: Compromise, Negotiate, Support

Compromise, negotiate, support

Suppose that a secure display facility were to be built in Benin City that conformed to modern international standards of conservation and climatic control: the moral case would then be very hard to ignore

By John Picton, published online 24 Jan 11

In 1897 Benin City, to the west of the lower Niger in what is now Nigeria (and distinct from the modern country of Benin, formerly Dahomey), was invaded by British military and naval forces in retaliation for the killing of British personnel by rebel chiefs in the area. The royal palace and much of the city was destroyed, the king was sent into exile, returning to Benin only in 1914 for his burial, and several thousand works of art in cast brass, sculpted ivory and wood, wrought iron, coral beadwork, woven textiles and other fabrics, and other materials, were looted by the British personnel. No plan of the palace was made, and no record of the distribution of its artworks. It was a process of both folly and vandalism legitimated only by the status of the officers who, of course, bagged all the best material.

Almost immediately this art began to be disposed of in London salerooms, the ethnographic museum in Berlin quickly acquiring what remains the finest and most comprehensive collection of Benin art amongst all the museums of the world. Once the British Museum had woken up to what was happening it secured a collection of 16th-century brass plaques, and in the years that followed began to put together what is now the second-best collection of Benin art; and as material continued to appear in the salerooms of London almost every museum in Europe and America with any claim to collections of international status was able to acquire Benin material. Moreover, in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, collaboration between the Nigerian colonial government and its Department of Antiquities, and British Museum personnel, the Nigerian Museum, Lagos, was able to acquire what is the third-best collection of Benin art. Meanwhile, in Benin City itself a small museum was founded to house the few objects that had missed the hands of the marauding British in 1897.

Upon his succession to the throne, in 1914, the new king, Eweka II, set about the wholesale reinvention of Benin City, reviving its ritual and ceremonial culture, making the best of such political authority as the colonial overlords would allow within their policy of government by indirect rule, and commissioning the writing of an authorised history of the city, kingdom and empire, by a local chief. Eweka also commissioned new works of art, setting up altars dedicated to his father and grandfather, and their predecessors: the artists, after all, had not been exiled nor their skills somehow taken from them. It was altogether the greatest and most successful of all anti-colonial projects in sub-Saharan Africa; and in Benin City today the king retains his authority (even the public display of a photograph of the king must be authorised by the palace, its secret police keeping a very close eye on things). Moreover, throughout Benin history the prestige of kingship has depended, at least in part, on the king’s ability to command the work of artists and direct innovation in Benin visual culture. The prestige of kingship and the ownership of works of art are indeed so intertwined that it should come as no surprise that there is a hunger in Benin City for the return of the material looted in 1897.

Yet there has been no formal request by a competent authority for repatriation and no attempt at diplomatic negotiation or, even, litigation. Indeed, it would be a complex exercise given the distribution of Benin art through almost every city and museum of Europe and America, where it takes its rightful place alongside the art of every continent and civilisation in world history thereby demolishing the once-fashionable attribution (in Europe) of “primitivism” to African art and civilisation. The moral argument in favour of Benin City remains nevertheless, not least because the looting of its art is not in dispute, which suggests that some kind of compromise ought to be possible. Here are some suggestions: the recognition by the museums of Europe and America that they do not have unproblematic ownership rights to this material—some recognition, indeed, that the king of Benin might have a case; the loan of material from reserve collections for display in Benin City, whether of a temporary or permanent basis; traveling exhibitions in which some of the great museums—the British Museum, The Museum of Ethnography at Berlin’s Dahlem complex, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example—might collaborate so that Nigerians get to see this material in Nigeria. The problem here, of course, is that adequate facilities of international standard do not exist in Nigeria. But suppose that a secure display facility were to be built in Benin City that conformed to modern international standards of conservation and climatic control: the moral case would then be very hard to ignore.

These considerations have arisen in recent weeks because of the proposed sale at Sotheby’s of an ivory mask carved around or soon after 1500. It is a costume ornament worn by the king, one of five known of this type: one in the British Museum, one in the New York Met; one in Seattle, and one in Stuttgart. It had been acquired by Sir Henry Galway (or Gallwey, 1859-1949), as Deputy Commissioner and Vice Consul of the Niger Coast Protectorate, and responsible for sending the king into exile; and the mask had remained with the Galway family since his death. The proposed sale would certainly have created a new record for the value of a work of African art, but the mask was withdrawn from sale, possibly because of the volume of protest coming from supporters of repatriation. Its present whereabouts and future are currently unknown. One imagines a private sale will be negotiated for a sum far less than that anticipated by public auction, and as the purchaser will prefer to avoid the attention of the repatriation lobby the mask will effectively be lost to public view for a generation. This is surely an outcome to no-one’s advantage.

John Picton is Emeritus Professor of African Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Animated Political Commentary from Nigeria

Social networking sites, bless them. Bino and Fino today linked to these videos on Facebook. You will have to agree with us that these are beautiful examples of animation coming out of Nigeria as well as of this particular kind of Nigerian humour I admire. So let's hope we will see more from the artist/producer of these videos! You can find their Youtube channel here.

AS Judd (1917) on African Sight

As I wrote yesterday, I have been flicking through Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise again. If you have any interest in how images, films in particular, are ‘read’ across cultures you may already have come across the John Wilson’s account of the chicken in the margins of William Seller’s educational film on the tropical hookworm (which you can watch here). Burns (2002: 200) quotes John Wilson:

‘This man – this sanitary inspector [William Sellers] – made a moving picture in very slow time, very slow technique of what would be required of the ordinary household in a primitive African village in getting rid of standing water – draining pools, picking up all empty tins and putting them away, and so forth. We showed this film to an audience and asked them what they had seen, and they said they had seen a chicken, a fowl and we didn’t know there was a fowl in it. So we very carefully scanned the frames, one by one for this fowl and, sure enough, for about a second, a fowl went over the corner of the frame.’[1]

The reaction of Wilson’s Nigerian audiences to this film has been quoted repeatedly to illustrate arguments that seeing is culturally conditioned: We do not simply see. We do learn how to see as we are socialised into our societies.[2] This, however, was not quite how Seller’s interpreted the reactions of his Nigerian audiences. Burns (2002: 198) explains that Sellers had ‘originally begun teaching health lessons with a magic lantern but had decided that his audiences were incapably of recognising two-dimensional pictures.’ He quotes him:

‘It is well known that if an illiterate African is handed a photograph of himself or some scene to him he will invariably turn it to the wrong way up in an effort to focus his eyes on the picture.’

Seller’s eventually concluded that local audiences comprehended motions pictures more easily than still pictures. They, however, could not ‘impose any logic on them.’ Burns (2002: 198) quotes him explaining:

‘They looked upon the films as a collection of animated photographs a few of which they could appreciate, but they were quite unable to link the scenes together to form any kind of story. … if films were to be successful in conveying a story or teaching a lesson to these people they would have to be specially made …’

Burns discusses the particular filming techniques Sellers suggested in more detail in Watching Africans Watch Films (2002) as well as in Flickering Shadows (2002).

This all serves as a rather extended introduction to a quote I stumbled across yesterday evening (yes, a lot of stumbling recently in my research) and want to share with you: AS Judd’s (1917) account of African and European sight published in ‘Native Education in the Northern Provinces of Nigeria.’ (Journal of the African Society. Vol. XVII. No. LXV).

If we compare the sight, for instance, of an African boy with that of the average European, we find that the African has developed a keenness especially in detecting moving objects, such as the movements of game. Movement arrests his eye as it does not the eye of a European. The European tries to discern the form or the shape of the object looked for and not so much the movement, and hence does not detect so quickly. Pictorial representation may convey much to the European mind, but to the primitive pagan pictures of the most familiar objects are not quickly understood. Especially is this true of landscapes, the perspective as shown in Western art is not comprehended by the untrained mind, the colour only is seen by the eye. A stereoscopic slide is more readily understood. (Judd 1917: 8)

Note that Judd, who apparently was based in what was then Nassarawa Province, distinguished between ‘pagan’ populations and Muslims.

It is obvious that the Moslem would have very little place for pictorial art in his social system, part from the decorations of his house, his household utensils, or his clothing. (Judd 1917: 3)

The effect of the unconscious training of the eye is seen in the relative time it takes for a Moslem as compared with a pagan boy to learn printed characters. The Moslem, although perhaps unable to read the Arabic Character, has some idea of the form of letters from often seeing them, and when he is introduced to the Roman character he sees a difference in the shape of the black marks before him, and my experience has been that he more quickly learns the alphabet than does the pagan. (Judd 1917: 7-8)

Here, Judd’s assessment, of course, reflected wider colonial discourses that at least in Nigeria considered local Muslim polities as more civilised (though still not as civilised as Victorian England) than non-Muslim societies.

[1] If I’m not mistaken, this is from an interview with Wilson published in as ‘Film Literacy in Africa’ in the journal Canadian Communications (vol.1(4) summer, 1961, 7-14) Wilson is quoted more extensively by Marshall McLuhan (1962: 36-37) in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

[2] One discussion I particularly enjoyed – and, yes, it quotes Wilson as well – is Kulick & Willson’s (1994): ‘Rambo’s Wife Saves the Day’ published in the Visual Anthropology Review (Vol. 10(2). 1-13). The article has also been reproduced in Askew & Wilk (2002), ed.: The Anthropology of Media: A Reader.

Giant in the Sun - Colonial Film Unit (CFU) Clips at Website of the British Film Institute

I have been flicking through Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise again. And then I went online and found that some films by the Colonial Film Unit are available online via the British Film Institute. Watch Giant in the Sun, a ‘study of Northern Nigeria as it prepares for self-government’:

The commentator introduces Africa as the 'continent of the future' before he outlines, through a map, the different regions of Nigeria. First, the film highlights the continuing traditions of Northern Nigeria. Men travel on camels, while at the market a snake charmer performs while women cook food. 'Old native hand industries are very much in evidence', most notably in the production of jewellery and glass. At the industries in Bida, the commentator explains how the region's government is 'reconciling' modern production methods with traditional skills. In particular, the film shows the training centres established by the government, for example at Abuja, where preference is given to 'traditional native potters'.

Further traditional industries are represented by the dye pits of Kano, and weaving. This is followed by footage of a big new textile plant 'established by the Northern region development corporation together with a famous British firm'. The commentator notes that 'the workers are nearly all Nigerian', and this is also the case at the canvas and rubber shoe factory in Kano, which uses 'homegrown rubber from Western Nigeria'. Next the film shows the manufacture of tinned food and bottles, highlighting how 'mechanised industry is more and more becoming a part of modern industrialised Nigeria'. Sweets and cosmetics are also produced, yet nuts remain the single biggest industry. After further shots of industrial production, the commentator emphasises the continuing importance of agriculture, through shots of the Fulani tribe.

The film next highlights the efforts of the government in controlling disease and in improving health care. An African doctor administers medicine while a local nurse looks after a baby. This leads to a section on education, showing the efforts made for both Muslim and Christian children. Scenes from a higher education college follow, followed by footage of 'mock meetings' conducted by the Institute of Administration in order to train members of district and village councils. It attempts here to explain how government works, showing the district council in operation. This is followed by scenes of dancing, music and sport. It concludes with a 'Sallah' - a traditional festival and celebration - and a regatta. Finally, a compilation of scenes reinforces the film's messages. 'The foundations have been well laid by other older hands. The people of Northern Nigeria face the future with confidence, knowing that with the natural resources of the land and by their own efforts they can justify the proud title of Giant in the Sun'.

Find it here (sorry, there doesn’t seem to be any means of embedding the clip) and more films can be found here.

Its propaganda, of course, and should be watched as such but can anybody identify in more detail these images (posters? wall hangings? printed cloth?) at the walls of the glass workshop in Bida?

Video Recording of 'Curating in Africa' (21 October 2010, Tate Modern, London)

I just received the news that the video recordings of October 2010’s symposium Curating in Africa at Tate Modern are now available at the institution’s video channel (four parts). Enjoy.

On a different note, this video of Christopher Ofili may be of interest to some of you.

On a Different Note: The Young Ambassadors for Community Peace and Interfaith Foundation, Jos

I try, sometimes more successfully than at others, to keep politics of this blog. Well, other than those directly affecting the arts and cultures. However, after a holiday period spent half following the latest developments of Sotheby’s plans to auction artefacts removed from Benin in 1897 – the part that prominently made it onto this blog – and half latest developments first in Jos and Maiduguri, then in Bayelsa and Abuja,[1] I find it very appropriate to link you the blog of this Jos-based organisation: The Young Ambassadors for Community Peace and Interfaith Foundation.

Young Ambassadors for Community Peace and Interfaith Foundation (YACPIF) is an NGO based in Jos, Nigeria whose mission is to prevent conflict and achieve and sustain peace through a community approach. YACPIF utilizes interesting and engaging activities such as rallies and sports to bring rival armed groups together to create and build lasting relationships. YACPIF registers young people between the ages of 14 to 40 who will stand for peace in a conflicted community as ambassadors of peace.

There are also a Facebook Group you can join and a Facebook fan site to get involved and/or receive updates about latest events.

This to me sounds like a very common sense approach to conflict prevention – and, maybe, there is a place for visual artists and the arts in this as well. As the recent report by the International Crisis Group on the historical and contemporary background to violence in northern Nigeria noted (the news coming out of Nigeria made that feel like appropriate holiday reading):

[Recent violent conflicts] are the product of several complex and inter-locking factors, including a volatile mix of historical grievances, political manipulation and ethnic and religious rivalries. However, the region has historically shown much capacity for peaceful coexistence between its ethnic and religious communities. Local conflicts are sometimes taken to represent the whole of northern Nigerian society, particularly by outside observers, which is far from the case. Traditions of peaceful coexistence show that conflict is not inevitable, and the right mix of social and political measures can alleviate the risks.

And, there seem to be indications that YACPIF’s peace ambassadors were already able to prevent further violence in Jos:

Gada Biyu/Kabong. In the first week of December 2010, Augustine Davou participated in the YACPIF Peace Cup Camp in Jos North. YACPIF has not been able to directly contact Augustine since then, but the following report has come from the Hausa Muslim community in the Gada Biyu area.

After they saw the dead bodies from the bomb blasts, the Christian youths were gathered to retaliate on the local Hausa Muslim community. The youths had started moving toward the Hausa community, but Augustine intervened to stop them from violence. Many of the youths said that they would not agree to put down their arms, but Augustine was a different voice, saying that they should not take the law into their own hands. By speaking peace, he was able to calm the Christian youths.

Angwan Rukuba. Luka Sambo has been involved with YACPIF from its inception. He mobilized the Christian youths from Jos North to attend the first peace rally in Kwararafa. Later, Luka helped to organize another peace rally in the Nasarawa area.

On Christmas Day, youth began demonstrating in Angwan Rukuba after the bomb blasts. Luka went to the site of the demonstration and reasoned with the angry Christian youths, telling them that it was not right for them to react by burning Muslim houses. At one point in his appeal for peace, some of the youth tried to beat him off, but security forces intervened. Eventually, most of the youths in Angwan Rukuba agreed to stop the violence and the demonstration was disbanded.

Bukuru/Gyel. The fighting between the Bukuru and Gyel communities was the most severe in the January 2010 crisis. Magaji Sule was one of the Muslim leaders of the fighting in this area. Two months later, tension began mounting between these communities and it appeared that a fresh crisis would start within hours. However, Rev. Pam was able to convince Magaji and the Christian youth leader to prevent the developing crisis by demanding that their youths put down their arms. Recognized a few weeks later as the first Peace Ambassador at the YACPIF Peace Rally in Bukuru, Magaji has continued to be a strong advocate for peace.

On Christmas Day after the bombings, Magaji helped to call together the Gyel and Bukuru communities to sign a peace agreement. Magaji describes the incident in these words, “When this thing happened, we called all our boys in the neighborhood, our parents, the youth and seniors, all of them. We said, Christians and Muslims, we must unite. We shouldn’t start fighting again. What happened there [where the bombs went off], Allah ya kiyaye. Here, we must stay in peace. We all sat together and decided for peace, and up until this time we haven’t had any problem.”

I should add that I’m grateful to Carmen for making me aware of the Young Ambassadors for Community Peace and Interfaith Foundation, Jos (also see her latest column in the Weekly Trust).

So, on that note: I wish you all a peaceful 2011 and hope that initiatives such as this one not only successfully continue their important work but will also inspire similar projects elsewhere.

[1] … and then waking up the next morning, New Year’s Day, to the street in front of the estate on which I live cordoned off by police because a young man had been shot earlier in the morning and was in hospital in critical conditions …