"African Arts" Explores Issues of Identity and Representation in African Cultures

"African Arts" Explores Issues of Identity and Representation in African Cultures

Autumn 2001 Issue

On the cover of the Autumn 2001 issue of African Arts (Volume 34, Number 3), a mannequin leans back in a swing and in a gesture of giddy seductiveness kicks off an extravagantly ruffled slipper, which seems almost to fly off the page just past the journal’s logo. What are we looking at? Why does the image seem familiar, yet exhilaratingly new? Is this African art?

The artist who created this provocative installation is Yinka Shonibare, and its title, The Swing (After Fragonard), explains the viewer’s not-quite-déja-vu reaction to the work. The painting on which it is based, by the eighteenth-century master of the Rococo style, is routinely included in survey texts on European art history. The French scene of the coquettish swinger and her swain is all pastel tints and porcelain complexions. In his take, Shonibare gives us a cocoa-skinned headless mannequin who with complete abandon kicks up her skirts made of the colorful and exuberantly patterned batik fabrics that are worn throughout Africa. As Nancy Hynes and John Picton point out in their separate contributions to the article “Yinka Shonibare,” these textiles are seen again and again in the artist’s work, startlingly coupled with its subject matter—a re-creation of a typical English parlor, a fox hunt, a family on the moon. As for the question “Is this African art?,” Shonibare—born in Britain, raised in Nigeria, presently based in London—might impatiently brush aside such impulses to label, to essentialize identity. Best to read the insightful pieces by Hynes and Picton.

Coincidentally, two other articles in this issue are by members of the faculty at UCLA, and they provide ample evidence of the richness and breadth of the resources for African cultural studies on this campus. When the editors of African Arts heard a lecture given by Françoise Lionnet (Department of French and Francophone Studies), hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion, they promptly invited her to turn her presentation into an article for the journal. “The Mirror and the Tomb: Africa, Museums, and Memory” opens with the recounting of an incident from a novel by Michel Tournier, in which a Berber shepherd leaves his Saharan home to search for a photo of himself taken by a French tourist. Near the beginning of a journey that will eventually end in Paris, the young man, Idris, slips into the French-supported Saharan Museum in a nearby village. There he confronts the glass-encased presentation of his culture. A guide speaks to a group of tourists about the familiar objects still used in everyday life—mortar and pestle, leather bottles, grinder—now depersonalized and patronized. As the bewildered Idris approaches the case, he glimpses his reflection “superimposed onto an ossified culture”: the museum display, which in that moment contains his own image, is both a mirror and a tomb.

This fictional encounter prefaces Lionnet’s elegant analysis of Western approaches to museum displays of African art. Drawing from sources ranging from Aristotle to James Clifford, the author examines the psychological and emotional effects of two very differently conceived exhibitions, “Treasures of the Tervuren Museum” and “Living Tradition in Africa and the Americas.” Lionnet hopes for “a more humble approach to knowledge and representation than is usual in academic and museographic contexts.” Her article is a mirror into which every museum curator should gaze.

Steven Nelson, who began teaching in UCLA’s Art History Department last autumn, also addresses issues of identity and representation. In “Writing Architecture: The Mousgoum Tòlék and Cultural Self-Fashioning at the New Fin de Siècle,” he looks at the reasons for the recent resurgence of the dome-shaped clay house (tòlék) of the Mousgoum peoples of Cameroon. By the early 1990s this remarkable structure, praised by André Gide in his 1927 account of his travels to central Africa as having “a beauty so perfect, so accomplished, that it seems natural,” was disappearing from the landscape. By the end of the decade it had become an icon of Mousgoum identity.

In Pouss, Cameroon, Nelson documented the building of new domed houses and the proliferation of the tòlék’s image on stamps, money, and especially murals. In this thoughtful article, firmly anchored in interviews with local people, he argues that these images can be read as text and that they constitute a Mousgoum recognition of the importance of cultural heritage, a heritage that can be manipulated to both reconstruct identity and appeal to the tourists who are an important part of the local economy.

The remaining article in this issue, “The Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum,” written by a trio of curators at the London institution, celebrates the momentous return of the African collections to the British Museum proper after an almost thirty-year stay at the associated museum devoted to “ethnographic” arts. Christopher Spring, Nigel Barley, and Julie Hudson take the reader, room by room, into the new permanent galleries, explaining the philosophy underlying the installation and pointing out the breadth and depth of the collections, unquestionably among the most important in the world. This fact is underscored by the numerous illustrations of gallery views and specific objects, ranging from a famous 16th-century ivory mask from the Benin kingdom of Nigeria to a decorated ostrich egg from the San people of southern Africa to an interpretation of a Kalabari masquerade by contemporary sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp.

Though diverse in subject, these four articles intersect and overlap in fascinating ways. In their shared concern with issues of identity and representation, they reveal the scholarly self-examination that today invigorates the study of African cultures.

Published: Friday, January 25, 2002