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Review of African Art and Agency in the Workshop


By William Rea

Review of African Art and Agency in the Workshop, by Sidney Kasfir and Till Förster (Eds). Indiana University Press. 2013. 410pp. ISBN 978-0-253-00741-4 (pb). £19.99, $27.00

The odd thing about this book is that it seems so quiet, that more has not been made of it in the art historical world, that both of its editors have been quite tight lipped about it, that it hasn’t received the publicity that it should have. This is a very good book, and however involved the process of putting it together has been, the end result should inform students of African art history for some time to come.

This is all the more so because the book offers modest ambition. There are few panegyrics of theoretical exposition offered here, and where they are they feel oddly out of place with the overall aims of the volume. Rather, what this book offers is a systematic documentation, through carefully constructed case studies, of the place of work in the making of African art. That this is important is because this work has so often been ignored in favour of an art history that places the “connoisseurship of contextual meaning” before the work of the work of art. It is an art history that has forgotten that all art is a “pure practice.” What this volume also demonstrates is that the work of the work of art is often hidden by markets that profit from this labour.

At the same time the book offers an understanding of the way in which the ground of African art historical studies is changing. From role of the work of art in the forms of political cosmology as witnessed by Nicolas Agenti in chapter two through to “workshops” of Oshogbo discussed by Chika Okeke-Agulu in chapter six (and forgive this critic’s West African bias, comparison could be made across a number of chapters) the book bears witness to the way in which artistic production, and the circumstances of that production change across the continent.

What is strikingly clear is that the formulations of an African art history are in flux; that in the terms of an art history, the commentators are not entirely sure what is actually going on. This might seem like a fundamental criticism of the subject, but, in the terms of this volume, as set by this book, it is undoubtedly not. Rather it should be regarded as a celebration of an artistic diversity that refuses any easy categorisation.   Presented here, through each chapter, are local understandings of the way in which artistic production in Africa is generated. Undoubtedly, given the rubric within which the volume was produced, the attention is on the collective, the workshop, and this rubric seemingly denies access to the various wider social situations within which the work of art might exist. Yet the clarity of localism presented here begins to give bones to what an African art history might look like if that art history can ignore the pressure to present itself as a supplement to an anthropology of culture, or indeed an African cultural studies.   Again, this is not to ignore the contribution of a number of authors who seem to be working toward a model of culture that finds its manifestation in industry and entrepreneurship, but this is surely, in itself, a reflect of practice “on the ground.”

The final chapter, a coda, by Kasfir, looks to what a future of African art history might be.   Here she makes a more than evident case that, while the popular perception of that history is one that will inevitably involve an analysis and critique of the modern, of the named studio artist, there is still plenty of scope in that art history for grappling with those makers who do not, can not, gain access to an international avant garde. What she presents is a clear manifesto for understanding how those makers contribute to, and work within, the conditions of a modernity that would ignore them.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 102-103]

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