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Review of African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity


By Will Rea

African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity. Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2007. Pp.381. ISBN 978-0-253-34892-0. $29.95.

Sidney Kasfir’s paper, “One Tribe, One Style: paradigms in the historiography of African Art”, published in 1984 is one of those articles that have become compulsory reading for all students of African art history.[1] In it, she details the development of the early forms of African art historical models and then, by applying her research on the Idoma in Nigeria she demonstrates clearly how the imposition of so called tribal boundaries by the colonial regime in Nigeria affected the way in which the discipline of African art history developed. This book essentially starts with that essay and offers an extended meditation on it, but it also brings to bear a comparative analysis that spans Africa, bringing to material on the Idoma of Nigeria an analysis of the representation of the Samburu of Kenya.

The conceit through which this comparison is made is a study of the institution of young male warrior grades – but this is a book that intends and achieves so much more than a simple cross cultural analysis of male youth. It is a book about art, history, colonial representation and global commodity flows, as well as providing a wealth of detail about the ways in which specific institutions and societies in Africa have been modelled and changed by their interaction with the colonial and post colonial world.

Three broad accounts structure the work, each placed in a loose chronological framework (in four parts) that begins with the first colonial reactions to Nigeria and Kenya and finishes with the representation of these societies and their material forms in globalisation.

Part one details the ways in which a field of representative discourse structures the colonial reactions to both Kenya and Nigeria. It offers documentary support for the different reaction of the British to the land and environments of each place – reactions that are still felt in the construction of the modern world’s attitudes to, and representations of, Kenya and Nigeria. In this section, Kasfir sets the parameters around the representation of young men and the structuring historical narratives that follow from those representations. Parts Two and Three of the book develop from these narratives, but here the focus is on the way in which (the) material worlds of the Samburu and Idoma were constituted, constructed and developed during the colonial and immediate post colonial period. This is the most obvious art historical section of the book, and Kasfir is clearly writing to (and against) an art historical audience. The chapters in these parts are full to bursting with art historical themes and the comparative analysis that structures the book is extended through numerous other case studies. The final part of the book tracks the changing status of Idoma and Samburu material culture into the form of the commodity in an international art world and the role of material culture in the continuing production of (global) representations of Nigeria and Kenya.

This is a big book – perhaps too big. The central conceit, at times, gets in the way of narrative flow and perhaps pushes things together that might have been more usefully held apart. It is also pyrotechnic in the amount of material that it places in front of the reader (there are citations to almost every major scholar in African art history, often with detailed discussions of their work) – to the extent that the dazzle begins to distract from the central themes. Nevertheless, as with her “one tribe” paper, so with this book: there is little doubt that it will be compulsory reading for critical African art history syllabi for years to come. Aside from the specialist detail on Samburu and Idoma it distils many of the themes now running through the re-evaluation African art history, a re-evaluation that Kasfir and a number of others (such as John Picton) have been pushing for some time. Broadly, this is a movement away from the synchronic analysis of styles and forms that sit in “front of” ethnicity and identity toward the close historical analysis of artistic production. This book takes history very seriously, and in doing so, it brings a properly researched post-colonial critical discourse to bear on histories – those of the Samburu, the Idoma and African art history itself. In doing so it shows how art (artefact, material culture, objects…whatever) can both make those histories and be a vital part in our understanding of how the world is represented.   

[1]. Kasfir, S 1984 ‘One tribe, one style ? paradigms in the historiography of African Art’ History in Africa 11 63-93

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 74-75]

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