Arena for Contemporary African, African-American and Caribbean Art


Fig. 3

Frank Ugiomoh (University of Port Hartcourt) writes about the difference between Art History in Africa and African art history. His conclusion makes clear why this topic is still urgent. He says: “The inversion, on the long run, of the “art world consciousness” into “world art consciousness” where diverse art worlds experience one another, within the interpretive possibilities that the history of art and its theoretical infrastructures offer, remains an ideal.”


Recently two texts on modern Nigerian art came out of press with claims to address some noticed gaps in Nigeria’s art historical narrative. The first is written by a trained architect turned painter and art critic, Onyama Offoedu-Okeke and the second text is by an architect and collector Jess Castellote. Offoedu-Okeke’s book entitled Artists of Nigeria 1discusses the social, historical and cultural contexts that frame modern Nigerian art within a general framework. Offoredu-Okeke, in the introduction, informs that he is inspired by the absence of authoritative text that brings into focus the historicity of modern Nigerian art. On the other hand, Jess Castellote’s Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections: New Trees in an Old Forest, 2is an edited volume of collected essays with accompanying illustrations of artworks. His objective is to make the collected corpus available to “others to want to know more about locally based Nigerian art and to give it a greater visibility in a global art world.” 3 Castellote shares the same motivation as Offoedu-Okeke considering his objective regarding a “concern about the lack of a corpus of historical-critical work on the art now produced, valued and collected in Nigeria” by its artists. 4 A common feature of both books is their reliance on schematic artistic biography and photographic illustrations devoid of interpretive or critical commentary. 5 In other words, the texts lack an integrative narrative of an artist and his or her work with a mind on historicity, which is one way to facilitate value for an art history. The limitation brings to the fore, therefore, the art historical value of the texts. In spite of their extravagant outlay of artist’s works, the texts validate the photographic album art historiography that ethnographers encouraged in the past for art history in Africa. 6

In November 2011, the art historian Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie’s book entitled Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art 7 made a public appearance. The book like the one edited by Castellote is focused on a private collector’s: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection. According to Ogbechie the objective of the book is to shed “light on an unexplored aspect of African art collecting through its analysis of the Akinsanya’s collections.” 8 Such works have always been located outside Euro-American canons as they have never made a mark in the “knowledge production that are used to validate ‘authentic’ African art.” 9 Hitherto African collections have usually been relegated to prescribed standard that “subverts the necessary reinterpretation of artworks that may lead to knowledge of new alternative forms.” 10

I have called attention to the books above considering recent developments in the History of Art, which started in East Anglia, where the discipline is globally re-designated as World History of Art. My concern with such expansion which, excitedly, is novel, is who canonizes the historical nature of non-Western art especially African art history in such grand idea? Where African art history has paraded a theoretical profile that is ahistorical, how does it fit into the idea of a World History of Art, without compromising the notional grounding or conceptual frame of the history of art? And are we not once again courting the familiar tracks of the grand narrative where the West has always determined the historical character of African art history as well as those of other non-Western cultures?

James Elkins, 11 considering the problematic which a global art history posits and with concern for the inherent or implied agenda in grand narrativizing, which the project presupposes, has established a few indications that the history of art as a discipline can be known by. One of these is the theoretical contrivance of history of art. It is what gives the discipline its character. Although this apparatus has its origin in the West it has become global through intercultural appropriations and applications. In a sense then, such adoption, while guaranteeing the uniqueness of the discipline, gains currency because of national or regional character and supposed starting point and focus of an art history. An observation of Elkins, which validates the objectives of the efforts of Offoedu-Okeke, Castellote and Ogbechie, is the absence of any meaningful art historical writing in many non-western cultures. What may be considered as art history remains critical writing that is diverse in nature; such efforts include newspaper writings, exhibition catalogues entries, monographs on artists and trends, artistic biographies etc. A full scale review of Offoedu-Okeke and Castellote, considering their objective to fund consciousness of Nigerian art history, are their limitations already stated which minimize the value of their stated objectives. But for Ogbechie, one encounters a clever dependence on the canons of the history of art, in line with his training and engagements. An integrated text on the traditions of African art and their contemporary manifestations along with the problems of hazy chronicles, ubiquitous provenance and historicity is organized by Ogbechie’s pedigree. This concern is aptly demonstrated in the section focused on Benin art works, most of which now enjoy a new status within the framework of museum aesthetics. 12

Fig. 1a

Fig. 1b

Benin Kingdom, Lyase, bronze, 40.6 x 22.9 x 15.2 cm. Depository:Femi Akinsanya’s Collection, Lagos, Nigeria.

With the above contrast we are reminded once again that often we are inclined to write what we read. In a sense, a scholar who is well seated within the theoretical frames and nuances of his or her discipline is bound to always to transcend its imposed limitations real or imaginary. This is precisely what Ogbechie has shown. For others, there is always the tendency to follow well-worn tracks that may have become outmoded with little or no innovations.13 Supposed African art histories, more of ethnographic engagements, parades texts that are skewed historically as they, largely, are products of ethnographic research. Geoffrey Batchen’s work entitled “Snapshots: Art History and the Ethnographic turn” aptly locates the canonized index of African art history as presented by western institutions of art history and criticism. In African art history one encounters a model which “moves horizontally from site to site across social space.” 14 This historically faulty theoretical base is what funds the tabulation of images in what I have referred to as photographic album historiography. 15

The above status has remained what same Western institutions of art history and criticism prefer to label “Art History in Africa” instead of African art history as a component of World History of Art. How do we configure the inclusion of the non-Westerner and its “art world” (art’s overall discursive practices) within the “world art” scenario? The recent texts from Nigeria discussed above open up to a deficiency in its interpretative and critical practice. Yet to define a national art worldliness requires a prodigious engagement in critical and interpretative engagements that are at root, national (cf. Dele Jegede, Ian McLean and James Elkins). 16 Peter J. McCormic, referencing Danto on the linkage between “representations and interpretations” stresses that “an artwork is the sort of mere thing that requires interpretation. For interpretation, like baptism, Danto claimed, endows a mere thing with ‘a new identity, participation in the community of the elect.’” 17 But the discourse rationality that has dominated African art and its interpretive strategies and criticism, hence, its supposed history, has largely been Eurocentric. It is this Eurocentric conceptual infrastructure that now stands for Africa within a World History of Art conceptualization. In a nut shell the conceptual frame of African art history within a world history of art amounts to a false purchase.

The globalization of the history of art as a discipline as McLean 18 notes debuted with John Onians as head, at the University of East Anglia’s School of Fine Art when it was renamed School of World Art Studies and Museology at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. By this act Onians successfully overwrites the conceptual origin of the art world as conceived by Arthur Danto in 1964 along with its structural specificities that were grounded in Euro-American episteme. Included here is the nostalgia for the western man to have a domestic hold on the discipline of art history to the continued exclusion of non-Western cultures. The epistemological structures of the World History of Art as conceived, thus, is a strenuous effort to obliterate the distinctions between art history and anthropology; where anthropology has all the while been considered a disciplinary option with which non-Western cultures offered any meaning to the consciousness of the West. But anthropology, with its eyes ever tuned to the structural underpinnings of culture, cannot offer the kind of narrative discourse, which is at once diachronic as it is synchronic to any object of culture, where meaning flourishes without bounds.

The ethnographic turn that currently attempts to stand side by side or rise above art history in the guise of visual culture, as Batchen notes, is instructive. For Hal Forster, as referenced by Batchen, Visual Culture is nothing other than “a post historical reduction.” Batchen furthers Forster’s position thus in a comparative assessment of Visual Culture (an invariant of ethnography), that it equates to the “‘appropriation of the other’ and ‘the othering of the self’ in contemporary art and criticism. In these cases … the ethnographic approach ‘can become a gambit, an insider game that renders the institution not more open and public but more hermetic and narcissistic, a place for initiates only where a contemptuous criticality is rehearsed.’” 19 The views above address the weakness and irony of logo centric rationalism and arrogance where the “Other” is perpetually spoken for by the West. It addresses the irony Linda Tuhiwai Smith speaks of thus; “It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounter with some of us.” 20 But such intellectual mindset remains obscurantist as it is retrogressive to committed advancements in efforts being made to understand world cultures. The intellectual structures that Western art history offers remains one of the sure ways to arrive at the goals of understanding what humanity has made. The appeal Western art history holds out in its theoretical/methodological frame is confirmed in its wide acceptance weather from coercion of any sort or not. For me there is the need to ride on the history of art’s conceptual frame to account for the object – the mere thing – to locate it within the rank of the elect as Danto would have it. The lure of art history as a discipline has attracted scholars of non-western cultures from two important necessities as Elkins 21 makes explicit that for an academic to be enlisted in Western institutions of art history he or she must be grounded in the disciplinary protocols of the history of art. Secondly, non-Western cultures have found the theoretical frame alluring and adequate to the purposes of narrating the object of culture. As such;

The possibility of non-Western interpretive methods looms on the horizon for a genuinely multicultural world art history. Otherwise the “global community” of art historians will continue to refer, in Hayden White’s words, to “congeries of historians from various countries who have adopted the standards of practice of Western professional historians.” 22

Thus, the expected and praxical in the development of art history is that of cooptation or adoption as reality of intercultural negotiations and dialogues would always permit. Where a conceptual infrastructure that frames the history of art excites a global appeal, what is wrong with its appropriation by (an) other? The seeming protection of the ways of art history from the “Other” in the apparent hermetic stance of Western institutions of art history remains negative to possibilities of growth in the discipline. Extending the frontiers of theoretical suppositions and sharpening their continued usefulness is the norm.  Considering then the values inherent in intercultural negotiations McLean’s insight is worth reiterating here.

New ideas usually speak to the future but they also impel us to view the past differently, as if this is the best way to get a hold on what they might portend. … Now, following the new horizons opened up by the intensification and proliferation of globalization, each also seems to have new origins as if they had been embedded in global vectors from the beginning. Likewise, the prospect of world art makes us curious about its origins and relations. 23

The practice of art just at the birth of colonialism began intense and unprecedented iconographic trading at intercultural spheres. For various ideological strategies world cultures abandoned their erstwhile traditions of art practice for new realities. The modernist ideology which propelled the West to the colonization project eventually lost its zeal as a gate keeper in the melee where cultures freely borrowed from one another.

Fig. 2

Aina Onabolu, Portrait of a Lady, pencil on paper, 1942. Depository: Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Collection, Lagos, Nigeria.

A manifest reality which this trading confirmed assumed diverse and progressive tags: from multiculturalism and postmodernism to globalization etc. Consequently, the practice of art and its diverse manifestation cannot but be global. The need to accurately account for humanity’s cultural productions, as a consequence, justifies the idea of a World History of Art. However, this acknowledgment must recognize the locus of all art as emerging from home domains or their art worlds. These constellations invariably speak to a contemporaneity that shuns discrimination. In other words, everywhere now, art is made within sites where temporalities that are diverse and distinct are enmeshed in a singular space that ironically betray provincial and contingent truths regarding the future. In this regard, I present two works from the 11th edition of the Dak’art Biennial 2012. Mamadi Sayidi in Celui qui ne sait plus ou il va, doit-il retourner d’o il vient? is an installation of sculptures.

Fig. 3

Mamadi Saydi, Celui qui ne sait plus ou il va, doit-il retourner d’o il vient?, installation, 1000 x 300 x 75 cm.

The composition is set on a rug of green-white-green synonymous with the Nigerian national flag and set against the backdrop of a petrol dispenser. The work addresses a recent phenomenon of fuel shortage in Senegal. The arduous mass of therianthropes pushing carts, wheelbarrows and bicycles installed on the flag symbol recalls the music track Suffering and Smiling, by the Afro music maestro Fela Anikulakpo Kuti in the late 1970’s. The track flaunts a metaphorical sneer that addresses the willful surrender to domestic colonialism without raising a voice of protest among Nigerians. Nigerians have, for decades, lived through deficient fuel and energy supply. This is the context Sayidi reconstitutes as metaphor for Senegal.

Fig. 4.

Sydney Ngqinambi, Black Horses, oil on canvas, 150 x 200, 2012.

In another work Sydney Ngqinambi in Black Horses, sketches the distant history of the South Africa as a nation in its now multi racial configuration. The white, red and black horses that make their way from a distant horizon framed by a disquiet sky on-the-move address the past of South Africa as it anticipates its future. Ironically this multi-racial reality is framed by a black identity as the title of the work suggests. The above contexts are guides to the practice of an art history or even the way other people perceive others historically.

By way of concluding there are obvious advantages in expanding theoretical infrastructures in academic disciplines. Such honing comes through their application to diverse contexts. The global appeal the history of art holds out now is to its advantage. The death of modernity actually approximates the death of the gate-keeping mentality over the disciplines in the humanities, which was rife in the West. In non-Western cultures such mind set created intellectual aphasia complex that funded dissonant narratives that have at best been labeled “Art History in Africa.” Where disciplines are defined by their invariant foundations what is of value for practice should be to explore the limits of such foundations. In this way the measure of difference that each national art history brings forward would remain a plus to the discipline. This is what the current buildup in Nigerian art history, within the mix of African art history, holds out for world history of art. Like the blending of contemporary national art worlds into a contemporary schema, the World History of Art should be set to enrich the understanding of Contemporary Art. What becomes the reality would be a confirmation of the true reality of a multiplicity of existing in time. It will also promote the experience of each and separate relationship that makes up a given contemporaneity that is worth its knowledge value. The inversion, on the long run, of the “Art world consciousness” into “world art consciousness” where diverse art worlds experience one another, within the interpretive possibilities, which the history of art and its theoretical infrastructures offer remains an ideal.


Frank Ugiomoh

End Notes

  1. Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, Artists of Nigeria, Milan: 5 Continents, 2012
  2. Jess Castellote, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections: New Trees in Old Forest, Ibadan: Bookcraft 2012.
  3. Castellote, Ibid. 18.
  4. Offoedu-Okeke, Ibid. 11.
  5. Frank Ugiomoh
  6. Frank A O Ugiomoh,”Photologos and or Narrative Semiotics: Which Way to Rehabilitating African Art History”, Third Text, 18:1, (2004), 1-11.
  7. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art, Milan: 5 Continents, 2011)
  8. Ibid. 24.
  9. Ibid. 57.
  10. Ibid. 209.
  11. James Elkins (ed), “Art History as a Global Discipline” in Is Art History Global?, James Elkins (ed.) New York and London: Routledge, 2007 3-23.
  12. Ogbechie, ibid. 173-205.
  13. Frank A O Ugiomoh, “Frank Willett versus Werner Gillon on African Art History: A Critical Appraisal” Kiabra: Journal of Humanities, 4:2 (2008) 103-117.
  14. Geoffrey Batchen (2008) SNAPSHOTS, Photographies, 1:2, 121-142, DOI: 10.1080/17540760802284398
  15.  Ugiomoh, (2004) ibid.
  16. Dele Jegede, “Art, Currency and Contemporaneity in Nigeria, in Castellote, ibid, 38-55.
  17. Peter J. McCormick, Modernity, Aesthetics and the Bounds of Art, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990, 3.
  18. Ian McLean (2011) The world art art world, World Art, 1:2, 161-169, DOI: 0.1080/21500894.2011.611166
  19. Batchen, ibid.,
  20. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition, (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012) 3.
  21. Elkins, ibid.
  22. James Elkins (ed.) “On David Summer’s Real Spaces” Elkins, ibid. 62.
  23. McLean, ibid.

(Key words: Africa, History, Art, World, Non-Western, West, Art world)


Brief Biography

Frank A. O. Ugiomoh is a professor of art history and theory at the University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. His theoretical mainstay is historiography of art history. He has published widely on the subject of African art historiography. His book entitled The Crisis of Modernity: Art and the Definition of Cultures in Africa is expected to come out of the University of Port Harcourt Press early in 2014.