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African Art, Interviews, Narratives: Bodies of Knowledge at Work

Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee, Editors
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2013
206 pp., illus. 12 b/w. Trade, $80.00
ISBN: 978-0-253-00691-2.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Center for African Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee's edited collection, African Art, Interviews, Narratives: Bodies of Knowledge at Work, is a highly reflective collection of essays about the work of constructing art history out of interviews. Designed to unsettle and open up the relationship between interviews and scholarship, it speaks to the work of anthropology by aiming to better understand the nature of the interview process itself, how we produce and convey meanings from interviews and related documents. While it will be of particular interest to anthropologists working as museum curators, it will be equally useful to any professional whose craft largely depends upon interviews.

Each of the contributors considers the importance of being self-reflective about the nature of the interview process and how narratives about art and artists are strategically used not only by those who write about African art but also by the artists themselves. Patrick McNaughton, a senior Africanist scholar, sets the tone by revisiting his work with Mande blacksmiths and a hunter's bard. He considers how one's agenda informs how we identify and collaborate with certain individuals rather than others and how and why one pursues certain issues and not others. Paradigmatic of the book's purpose as a whole, McNaughton emphasizes how these issues have significant implications for a reflective evaluation of anthropology as work in terms of how our intellectual livelihoods are constructed through the narratives we weave, or for that matter contest and complicate, and the nature of collaborations and ongoing relationships that emerge in the process.

McNaughton puts forth a series of textbook ideas and questions on the work of the artist and the work of the anthropologist or art historian in studying artists' lives and works. He writes: "When you ask artists to talk about their work and experiences, will you learn about who the artists are, or who they want to be, or who they want you to think they are?" (p.13). In essence, the work of talking about art - how and why it is made, and its history - is completely different from the work of making art. Hence McNaughton asks whether we really should "expect a complete or exact answer" about their work and what it means and why they made it? (p. 13). Accordingly, he calls for a balance between clarity and obscurity, given that an interview does not include things that the artist chooses not to share or, for that matter, things that the anthropologist or art historian does not bring into the conversation. As political agendas may be implicitly involved, and especially working towards the goal of achieving "a state of factuality" in which accepts ambiguity and contradiction, McNaughton stresses that anthropologists "cannot and should not avoid shaping what we say based on our experiences" (p. 15). In this way, we attempt to put into words that which may be of no interest to the artist. In short, there is an incommensurability in the nature of our work and theirs. Artists sometimes simply talk about their art and lives in ways that obscure what the anthropologist is seeking to know in order to advance their own professional stature. By way of contrast Silvia Forni discusses the artist Seni Camara, whose life and work has been mystified not by her own intent. Indeed the range of narrative possibilities is as broad as the type of arts considered in these essays.

The other authors, scholars at different stages in their careers and artists as well, explore these and other issues in a wide range of African art forms and contexts. Each provides nuanced and complex analyses that variously serve to counter previously simplified or "flattened" dominant historical narratives about African art. For instance, Joanna iski, a relatively younger scholar, arrived in the field in 1998 just after the death of two leading artists, Moustapha Dime (1952-1998) and Djibril Diop Mambety (1945-1998). During her interviews, the artists frequently referred to Dime and Mambety, leading her back to consider the early days of the Dakar art world and above all to the affection those earlier artists had for their "professor" Pierre Lods. In so doing, Grabski provides a counter-narrative to the dominant scholarly vision of Dakar's post-colonial art history as a Senghorian project, for the figure of President Leopold Senghor has overshadowed the role of lesser known figures also involved in the Senegalese post-independence art world in the 1960's. Grabski's interviews have brought Lods out of Senghor's shadow. In this way Grabski argues absences can be productive, that is, can be "crucial to revising flat interpretations" [p. 33] fostered by previous dominant narratives.

Silvia Forni considers the late Senegalese ceramic artist Seyni Camera who had little if anything to say about her work in stark contrast to the mythology the exhibition world and art markets built up around her as a magician of the earth. Forni shows how narratives created through exhibition catalogs have long-lasting effects on the way artists are subsequently defined. These narratives can either support or undermine what artists have to say about their work as they respond to discourses that have been built around their identities and art. For example, on a broader level, though some modern African artists reject previous ethnic - often primitivist - narratives for others these narratives have allowed them to confirm and enhance their sense of identity. The essential point of this book is simply that there can be no totalizing narratives for African art history or for that matter anything else in the work of anthropology.

Building bridges between the past and the present, Africa and the Diaspora, Joseph Jordan compares the contemporary case of the Moroccan born artist Hamid Kachmar. He finds parallels in Kamchar's work with the legacy of Aime Cesaire, the Surrealist Francophone poet from Martinique who was one of the founders of the "negritude" movement of which the above-mentioned Senghor was a Father figure. Revisiting his interviews with the artist in the course of planning an exhibition of the artist's work Jordan argues that the oppositional politics in Kachmar's work returns us to Cesaire's cultural resistance to colonialism. Kachmar's art, in his view, echoes the legacy of Frantz Fanon in a redemptive way through celebrating his "native" Amazigh culture. Further afield, Kim Miller considers explicitly political issues through engaging the work of the feminist activist embroidery work of Sandra Kriel, a South African artist.

Miller details how Kriel's anti-apartheid radicalization took place, how Kriel became empowered as an artist and a feminist. She goes on to relate her subsequent success as a resistance artist through subversive stitching as in her For Our Fallen Comrades series that used art as a means for public mourning providing an alternative to the collective memorial ceremonies which were banned at that time. Carol Magee, on the other hand, presents a very different kind of study and art that also speaks to politics in South Africa and globally. This chapter is about the representation of the work of Ndebele bead artists as modeled in photographs in the 1996 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue shot in South Africa. She explores the striking differences between local and international reactions to such art. For instance, the Ndebele artists whom she interviewed responded in very different ways to the images than she had imagined they would. Magee had expected to find offense. Instead her informants were amused. One for instance giggled about the absurdity of an adult model wearing a young women's beaded ritual waist apron around her neck. The other photographs, such as the bare breasted model with Ndebele mural, inspired body paint generated even more animated responses. In reflecting upon how these reactions ran completely contrary to the original expectations that the author had brought with her into the field, Magee provides an excellent example of the value of the work of the interview and how very different cultural narratives inform our reactions to art.

Andrea Frohne's chapter expands upon the political dimension. She revisits the politics and struggles over narratives of the past as they emerged and played out during the controversial and highly contested process of planning, creating and completing the African Burial Ground in Manhattan. Here the competition for merely the design of the exterior part of the memorial became a major source of conflict over who would tell the story, how and for whom. It lasted for over a decade beginning in 1991. The memorial was finally opened in 2007 and the interpretive conflict is ongoing. For instance, one of the most vocal critics of the project became a guide to be sure to be able to participate in providing her view. Christine Kreamer, the senior curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, adds to this reflection on the transformation taking places in regards to memory and the public sphere as regards the work that museums are doing towards inviting greater public participation. In her chapter, she revisits a series of exhibitions at the Smithsonian that have included artists' voices. Interviews and oral histories have become part of a paradigmatic shift in museum practices. "For example, the 'African Voices' Exhibition, a permanent hall with changing elements at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, adopted the strategy to foreground the voices of Africans and people of African descent in the interpretive material on view . . . "(p.150). In the same way, the National Museum of African Art has supplemented its exhibitions of contemporary African art with filmed interviews in which the voices of artists, such as Sokari Douglas Camp and El Anatsui, are included, that is, they talk directly to the visitor about their own work. As Kraemer notes: "Rather than reliance on the authoritative voices of curators or other specialists, the paradigm has shifted to the sharing of observations and information, a process that may have little to do with "truth" and more to do with the appeal of a dialogic experience where all are welcome" (p. 159). In essence, to re-emphasize this point, the interviews are provided so as to allow the artists to explain their own works directly to the public. They are in this way able to explain for the record why they create such art and what it means to them. These interviews are archived on the Smithsonian's web site, and this approach extends the working life of these exhibitions and the power of the artists to provide their own narratives to a global audience. Finally, echoing the main point of the edited collection, that there can be no totalizing narratives, Kreamer concludes: "The investigation of culture should not result in a seamless vision" (p. 160). Taken together then, the memorial project in New York and the exhibition tactics at the Smithsonian are designed to engage and incorporate multiple perspectives. This is done not only to address frictions within the communities served and between the state and the civil society but also to achieve the goal of offering multiple open ended inclusive narratives so as to preclude the possibility of totalizing narratives.

Returning us to the classic practice of the anthropological study of African art, that is, at its most ethnographic, another senior Smithsonian curator, Mary Jo Arnoldi, revisits her work on youth masquerades in Mali. She shows there how interviews are collaborative phenomena, how performances embody cumulative histories, and how different groups not only "own" these masquerade histories but - depending on one's age, gender, and other status criteria - have different competing histories about the past. She concludes that though her initial impulse had been to forge a cohesive history, she ended up deciding that any attempt to reconcile the very different oral traditions would flatten out the history of the masquerades and masks she was studying. As she puts it: "Indeed the polyphony of these oral traditions can contribute to a more nuanced and complex art history for the masquerades" (p. 138), a point germane to the essence of all the other contributions.

Two of the chapters stand out starkly for their roguish creativity, the chapter by Akinbiyi and the other by the performance artist deSouza and curator Purpura. Akinobode Akinbiyi, the Oxford born Nigerian artist, certainly comes across as the most philosophically inclined and reflective of all the artists considered here. Akinbiyi is an iconic example of the contemporary African artist who draws on many influences and yet is constantly thinking of how his language and identity informs his work. Here he adds a playful creative dimension, clearly a critique of the "often stultifying paradigm of the traditional interview" (p.96), by interviewing himself. He explores the serendipitous process of discovery he uses in his urban photography. His goal is to show how he has made an art form of adventure, how by chance or whim he encounters the people and the places which populate his work. Adding further force to Akinbiyi's creative and open-ended chapter, the artist Allan deSouza uses humor to engage the audience and provide a forceful critique of the interview.

In the highly unusual final chapter on "Undisciplined Knowledge," Allan deSouza, an artist, and Allyson Purpura, a curator at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discuss the ways knowledge about contemporary African art is produced and how competitive power relations affect writing about art. This is not so much an interview as a creative dialogue about the practice of taking an inter-disciplinary, roguish, raw, and yet rigorous approach to their work respectively as artist and curator. Desouza's interest in deconstructing art historical confabulations about mystical truths is deliberately provocative, that is, undisciplined and some might well think though that deSouza and Purpura's essay is too undisciplined. But one way or another, it certainly takes the collection and the nature and the work of the interview into wholly new territory.

All in all, these essays provide compelling examples of the transformations taking place in the anthropological and historical study of African art today, specifically the nature of the work done through and with the interview. They are concerned both with providing more complex narratives than previously found in African art history and put to work to improve the effectiveness and inclusive reach of exhibitions and memorials. They provide textbook examples of the continuing influence of artists of the past in terms of how contemporary artists use stories not only to honor those artists but also to claim authority for their own work through a narrative of lineage. Above all, the critical issue is this. Interviews and data such as academic or non-academic studies, exhibition catalogs and media reports all create narratives and meta-narratives. As these function in art worlds to authorize and project the power of representation we should be careful to collect, examine and account for competing narratives so as not to flatten out history through simplification.

To end with McNaughton then as I began, he emphasizes that, beyond accurate and thorough, deeply careful accounts of artists' work we should accept ambiguity as reality rather than hard and fast answers about what their art means no less their very natures and their life histories. We should pay careful attention to absences, what is strategically left out, the self-promoting competitive agendas involved by artists and authors, to contradictions and conflict as to confabulation. Here lies the irreducible paradox in determining fact and fiction in creating art history, a search for accuracy and objectivity in a world of colliding fantasies and goals. Revisiting a career of data provided through interviews, McNaughton advises that we should be careful to take into account both artists' intentions and people's reactions. He emphasizes that it is important to resist the temptation to reductively produce simplistic explanations that, one might add, introduce new insufficiently complex meta-narratives because they are easy to grasp. For this reason, this is an all-important text particularly for graduate students in anthropology. However, it should be emphasized as a singular point of critique that throughout these essays there is a notable lack of significant engagement, theoretical or otherwise, with the academic literature on narrative and narrativity. And that absence surely calls for future work.


Last Updated 3rd March 2016

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