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

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Joanna Grabski and Carol Magee bring together a compelling collection that shows how interviews can be used to generate new meaning and how connecting with artists and their work can transform artistic production into innovative critical insights and knowledge. The contributors to this volume include artists, museum curators, art historians, and anthropologists, who address artistic production in a variety of locations and media to question previous uses of interview and provoke alternative understandings of art.

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12 Chapters

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1. Talking to People about Art



Without thinking about it deeply, you might not realize that talking to people about art is a practice fraught with difficulty. First, there is the fact that visual art especially, but also music and performance, deploy form to produce an effect in ways that often defy authoritative explanation. Art takes you to places filled with thoughts and emotions, but by a very different route than you would have traveled had words alone been the vehicle in which you rode. Indeed, it sometimes seems that art exists to provide a landscape of exploration and analysis in which words work only with the greatest deliberation, and then at the cost of losing some of art's provocative potency. When you talk to people about art, be they consumers or producers—audiences or artists—you face the problem that words can be clumsy, obfuscating, diffusing tools with which to record the making and experiencing of visual culture. It might be easier to use words to examine the things that exist around art, such as artists’ biographies, influences on their work, the influence they have on others, the ways they manifest technique, or the goals they seek to articulate, though these topics too impose obstacles and are not as straightforward as they might seem. But exploring the broad world of art, from artists’ backgrounds and abilities to the effects that artists seek to create and the experiences that audiences gain from art, is vitally important if we are to comprehend expressive culture's depth of resonance in the human condition and its relevance to all human affairs. So we must seek ways to use words that foster understanding of a creative domain that often seems anathema to verbal exposition.


2. Ghostly Stories: Interviews with Artists in Dakar and the Productive Space around Absence



Do we cite merely to repeat the words of the other, or do we do so in order to enact or reenact an inimitable gesture, a singular way of thinking, a unique manner of speaking? If the latter, then the quotation would in each case mark a limit, the place where the inimitable gesture of the dead friend becomes inscribed, and thus repeatable, comparable to other gestures…. Each time, citation would mark the beginning of a unique and singular life as well as its brutal interruption.


Since the late 1990s, I have made several research trips to Dakar, where I re-encounter the people who have made this space meaningful and purposeful for me. Just as our re-encounters are shaped by who is present, they inevitably involve exchanges about who is absent. I have come to think of absence as an increasingly significant, if not defining, theme in my research with artists in Dakar. While an artist's absence is often attributable to travel for exhibitions or workshops, what I am talking about primarily is absence due to an artist's death.1 During one stay in Dakar, I was struck by the various ways that such absence was registered and represented in exchanges with friends and colleagues: Abdoulaye Ndoye showed me the portrait silhouette he made of the late Moustapha Dimé (Figure 2.1); Fodé Camara wore a T-shirt dedicated to memorializing Djibril Diop Mambety (Figure 2.2); Oumou Sy called for a moment of silence to honor all those no longer with us during her opening remarks for the Semaine Internationale de la Mode de Dakar; and Germaine Anta Gaye displayed the ex-voto boxes she made in homage to the late Ousmane Sembene. I take these examples to illustrate absence as a productive space that generates representational and interpretive practices. Insomuch as artists produce visual work reckoning absence, they also talk about and around it.


3. Can the Artist Speak?: Hamid Kachmar's Subversive Redemptive Art of Resistance



I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it: “Embrace me without fear…. And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak.”



Berber artists are not really concerned about personal styles; nor do they care if they are remembered as individuals. Their goals are to present personal views…expressed through the lexicon of collective memory rooted in the tradition of tying knots, combining motifs and taking care that the grammar is not breeched.


In the fall of 2009 Hamid Kachmar, a young Moroccan artist of Amazigh heritage, was featured in a solo show in the Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum located in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The mission of the Brown Gallery and the Stone Center is “to critically examine all dimensions of African American, African and African Diaspora cultures through its education program and through the formal exhibition of works of art and other items.”1


4. Photography, Narrative Interventions, and (Cross) Cultural Representations




Every year in the wintry cold of late January or early February, Time, Inc., releases the much-anticipated Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The swimsuit-clad models are meant to transport readers out of the doldrums of winter to the warmth of tropical locations (e.g., Bermuda, Bora Bora, Dominican Republic, Mexico). Shot in a different location every year—Sports Illustrated identifies the locale each time, but in many ways one beach could be any other—each issue offers a fantasy world of sun-drenched fun. Occasionally, however, a site is chosen that manifests its location specifically through well-known land formations or the indigenous architecture. Such is the case with the 1996 swimsuit issue. Shot in South Africa, its presentation of Ndebele visual culture is fundamental to establishing the locale for readers. Beaded jewelry is most common, though there are two images in the photo essay in which Ndebele wall painting predominates.1


5. Narrating the Artist: Seyni Camara and the Multiple Constructions of the Artistic Persona




Exhibition narratives have long-lasting power in determining the ways in which artists and their work are perceived and appreciated by the public and scholars. Even when the stance taken by curators of successful exhibitions is criticized by reviewers and academics, the implications of their discourse may persist for years. Sometimes, the intellectual and political narratives informing an exhibition prove to be so powerful that they completely mute the personal input of the artists included in the show. At other times, these narratives may subvert or reinforce what artists say about their own work. In all cases, these narratives have great potential to define artists’ works and professional personas.

In this chapter I address the relationship between curatorial narratives and personal self-presentation by focusing on Seyni Camara, a Senegalese sculptor from Casamance, who made her first appearance on the international art scene in the oft-cited seminal exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989).1 Apparently indifferent to the concerns of art critics, Camara presents herself in a way that seemingly replicates the framing proposed by “Magiciens de la Terre.” However, a closer look at the narratives developed by Camara and her critics reveals a much more complex picture in which personal visions are entangled with local cultural references and global ambitions in an ever-evolving negotiation.


6. Interview: Akinbode Akinbiyi



Interviewer: After months of trying to arrange a meeting with Akinbode Akinbiyi, I eventually tied him down to a date and time in what he calls his home city, Lagos. He actually lives in Berlin, and it was there that I often emailed him. Of Nigerian parentage, he was born in Oxford, England, just after the Second World War. He claims that one of his first childhood memories is of his parents talking about the horrors of this war, the weight of darkness that came across in their discussions and in the quiet modulations of their adult voices.

At the age of three and some, he left Oxford together with his recently born brother to return with his parents to Lagos. There, his memories are much clearer and he remembers vividly walking to primary school nearby the home in which they lived, the wide expanse of the streets spread out before him.

Mr. Akinbiyi, those early walks to and back from school, were those the beginnings of your wanderlust?


7. Interweaving Narratives of Art and Activism: Sandra Kriel's Heroic Women




This chapter considers the relationship between the process of political radicalization and the production of visual culture in the work of Sandra Kriel, a South African artist who depicts politically active women in her work. A participant in South Africa's resistance art movement, Kriel came of age as an artist and activist during the fight against apartheid, and she is now well known as a politically engaged artist.1 Less is known, however, about the ways in which her commitment to social change and her collaborations and conversations with anti-apartheid activists directly shaped her creative work, in particular her efforts to make visible the integral role that women played in South Africa's struggle for freedom. Not only do the practices of collaboration and conversation bear directly on Kriel's formation as an artist, and especially her political activism as a form of knowledge production, but these are also the tools with which I learned about Kriel's work. The significance of these processes became clear to me during my extensive interviews and conversations with Kriel (2007–2010), which took place in the larger context of my research on South African women artists and activists. The text that follows traces her participation in women's and arts organizations by building an artistic biography from our interviews, and analyzes how her activism in turn led her to pursue an artistic vision that helped create and sustain political identities and recognition for women. Toward this end, I first consider Kriel's political radicalization as it developed largely through conversations and interactions with other activists.


8. Politics of Narrative at the African Burial Ground in New York City: The Final Monument





The African Burial Ground located in lower Manhattan was used by Africans and people of African descent from approximately 1700 until 1790. It covered five to six acres and likely contained the remains of ten thousand to twenty thousand people. A small portion of the African Burial Ground was unearthed in 1991 when the General Services Administration (GSA) built on top of the cemetery a thirty-four-story Federal Office Building at 290 Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets. The eighteenth-century colonial cemetery was located in what has become today's Civic Center of lower Manhattan, surrounded by City Hall, Federal Plaza, and the New York Supreme Court. Because the plot of land at 290 Broadway is prime real estate, it was initially treated as such, rather than as a sacred, historical burial site. Eventually, after community activism and governmental involvement, several commemorative art projects were eventually commissioned for the site.1


9. Who Owns the Past?: Constructing an Art History of a Malian Masquerade




Since the 1980s anthropologists have paid increasingly more attention to issues of ethnographic authority, fieldwork reciprocity, and the way that collaboration through interviews profoundly shapes the production of scholarly narratives.1 This chapter focuses on the critical role that interviews have played in my field research and in the writing of an art history of youth association masquerades in Mali.2 My analysis considers the ways that interviews are both collaborative and cumulative processes. I examine my interviews with various individuals and groups and look at the ways that my casual conversations, as well as more formal taped interviews with men and women performers and with male blacksmith-carvers, have been instrumental in the production of an art history of this art form. These collaborations represent different but intersecting domains of knowledge and experience that have each contributed in critical ways to shaping, reshaping, and extending the scholarly narrative about these masquerades.


10. Framing Practices: Artists’ Voices and the Power of Self-Representation



“Who is Olu Oguibe?” An artist! is the answer, not an Igbo or Uliist or whatever else. No one asks “who is Jeff Koons?” and David Hockney is not studied as a Cockney artist.


In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford raised the problem of cross-cultural translations, challenging the notion of ethnographic authority and asking the fundamental question: “Who has the authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity?”1 This question has great relevance to discussions of museum exhibitions as narratives about cultural production from Africa and to considerations by African artists on and off the continent. Since the mid-1980s there has been a shift in the strategies museums adopt to enhance participation and to ensure that museums remain responsive and relevant to the communities they serve. Of particular interest is the extent to which those who are the focus of an exhibition play a role in their own representation. Increasingly, museum professionals recognize the benefits of exhibition models that rethink the singular, authoritative voice of the museum and embrace the telling of complex, multivocal narratives resonant with the realities of lived experience.


11. Undisciplined Knowledge



This chapter explores the possibility of art-writing occupying a space that is “undisciplined,” where it resists categorization and translation into the domain of art history. We propose that such a space is enabled not only through dialogue but also by recognizing the multi-sited character of art-making and the effects that its movement, politics, and social relations can have on writing about and framing contemporary art. Constructed as a series of exchanges between the two of us, this chapter builds on the contingencies and temporal qualities of its own making; we tack back and forth, betraying and probing our own disciplinary biases in an effort to meet in the middle. The chapter is defined by its process, which, despite its mix of anecdotes, external references, and tentative offerings, is not an example of the undisciplined per se, but rather an exploration of its possibilities.

Purpura: In February 2008, I attended a conference at Harvard University, “New Geographies of Contemporary African Art,” in which artist Allan deSouza was asked to present a paper on his work that was written by a scholar who, the audience was told, was unable to attend the conference. What follows is an excerpt from deSouza's presentation.


Appendix: Interlocutors


This book would not have been possible without the generosity and expertise of the many individuals who shared their insights and time. Those listed below joined us in interviews and conversations. They appear in various places throughout our text, and here we recognize their contributions to our narratives.


Sekou Camara

Budagari Coulibaly

Khadja Coulibaly

Nakamissa Coulibaly

Adama Diarra

Mei Diarra

Ousmane Diarra

Moussa Fane

Siriman Fane

Lynn Forsdale Denny

Kirango, Bamana youth association

Kirango, Boso youth association

Kirango, Sòmonò youth association

Adama Mara

Cheik Oumar Mara

Khalilou Tera

Mariam “Mamou” Thiero

Bakary Traore

deSouza and Purpura

Roberto Bedoya

Michael Jesse Jackson

Casper Bruun Jensen


Eveline Barsene

Omar Camara

Seyni Camara

Ndeye Cisse

Ferdinand De Jong

Aby Diagne




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