Connectivity, Transcultural Entanglements and the Power of Aesthetic Choices in Africa

Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, University of Cambridge,

Vera-Simone Schulz, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut,

Following the transcultural and global turns in the humanities and social sciences, studies of issues of connectivity, transcultural interactions, processes of exchange and long-distance entanglements have been key contributions to the fields in the past 15 years, when also the mobility of objects and artistic responses to imported artefacts from the medieval to the contemporary period gained more and more prominence throughout the disciplines. When it comes to the African continent, however, such questions are often deeply problematic, since the humanities still have to deal with the weight of colonial discourses, racist concepts and rhetoric.

This session seeks to sound out ways of how to study connectivity, transcultural entanglements, and the role of and artistic responses to imported artefacts from 500 CE to the present day in Africa, without seeing Africans as passive beings ‘influenced’ by people and objects from afar. The session will provide a platform for transdisciplinary dialogue between art history, archaeology, anthropology and history. It will investigate issues of connectivity and mobility both across and beyond the continent, often evident in complex networks of proximity and distance. It will illuminate the impact of imported objects and the key role of local production. It will also unpack issues such as mimesis, inventiveness, the use of imported artefacts, their adaptations and transformations, creative responses to possibilities and challenges, and the power of aesthetic choices by means of case studies to probe methodologies and conceptual innovations for new studies on Africa’s multiple entanglements with the wider world.

Speakers & Abstracts

Visualising Kingship in Early Solomonic Ethiopia

Jacopo Gnisci (University College London)

To date, almost no research has been carried out on the illustration of Psalters  in medieval Ethiopia, as proven by the fact that there have been no English-language studies devoted to the topic. This study focuses on the illustration of Psalters during the early Solomonic period (1270–1527) and, in particular, on the portraits of David and Solomon in the Juel-Jensen Psalter. After determining what these miniatures have in common with other traditions (focusing on context such as Egypt, Syria, Armenia and India for which there is evidence of connections with Ethiopia), it singles out what makes them unique, to show that the portraits were structured around Ethiopian imperial ideology which considered the country’s emperors as descendants of David and Solomon. By demonstrating that the images in the Juel-Jensen Psalter are distinctly Ethiopian in character, it shows that the commonly held idea that Ethiopian artists were able at best to slavishly copy subjects is untenable and that their work can be appreciated only if one considers how their communicative strategies were connected to the sociocultural, political and religious system within which they operated.

Southern Africa and Indian Ocean Interactions: What we know, what we think we know and what we don’t know

Shadreck Chirikure (Oxford University)

Interdisciplinary research in the southern Indian Ocean continues to expose that this region was a crucible for the interaction of peoples, ideas and materials from multiple worlds in Africa, Asia and beyond. A decomposition of the various studies suggests that very little is known about the antiquity and evolution of China–Southern Africa relations through time. The recovery of possible Song dynasty celadon from Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe confirms that indirect contact existed between our region and the Far East, from the late first millennium AD onwards. However, the total number of undisputed Chinese objects ever recovered from the interior is not very high, when compared to the East African coast. This raises questions relating to the little explored topic of the mechanics of circulations of objects, ideas and peoples between the hinterland and the coast. For example, was the interaction direct or indirect? As a follow on, do small numbers of exotics equate to scarcity, rarity and high values in the interior? This paper marshals available archaeological evidence from Southern Africa to show that direct and indirect contact existed between the Far East and Southern Africa, with intensity accelerating through time, especially from the late first millennium AD onwards. Recourse to concepts from African philosophies offers useful suggestions regarding the possible ways in which Chinese exotics and those from elsewhere articulated with local value systems, resulting in co-option and friction at the interface of the pre-existing and the incoming.

Photographic Entanglements: Doric column imperial studio backdrop in Cameroon

Valentine Nyamndon (De Montfort University)

As an imperial photographic backdrop, the Doric column is identified in colonial and post-colonial photographic studios in Cameroon. There are few contributions to address Doric columns as an element of dense photographic composition in Cameroon studio photography. However, the use of the Doric column as vital to Ancient and Renaissance theory and practice in Roman architecture makes up extant literature. In Cameroon, grey literatures in museums and archives such as the Cameroon Press Photo Archives (CPPA), the Presbyterian Basel mission and the West Cameroon Archives have groundsheets which portray missionary and colonialist uses of Doric columns in buildings, decorations and photo backdrops. Publications in books and newspapers also portray the uses of Doric columns in varying forms. A recent study focusing on the statistics of commercial photographers in Cameroon shows the use of Doric columns in one of the early photographs taken in the coastal town of Douala, Cameroon by William Mudisa Bell. The use of interviews and elicitations qualitatively form a base of three questions: how could the source of Doric columns be traced in Cameroon with three colonial masters? To what extent have Doric columns entangled architecture and decorations in colonies and former occupying states? What is the fate of Doric columns as photographic backdrop in the post-colonial state? These are the major concerns this paper looks to address.

Defiant Devices: Querying African aesthetics, hybrid identities and photographic expression across Africa

Clare Patrick and Stephani Müller (University of Cape Town)

The cycle of photographic representation, aesthetic documentation and performed identities is deeply entangled with understandings of popular culture across Africa. In conversation with different cultural contexts across the continent, the question of ‘popular culture’ and its manifestations is central. In traditions of studio photography on the continent, using textiles, props and Western stylistic tropes, a hybridisation occurs, blurring origins and raising questions of authenticity, mimesis and invention. Many influences of contemporary photographic practices and performances of identity can be directly traced back to these traditions.

We will investigate the influence of aesthetic histories in photography across Africa through various contemporary visual disruptions. As a case study, we begin with the imported festival Afropunk, and its distinct aesthetic prescriptions of ‘afro-aesthetics’ conceptualised outside of the continent. We will then consider the recontextualising of African aesthetics at the festival on the continent. This will be extended to an examination of the work of Mous Lamrabat, Haneem Christian and Lakin Ogunbanwo whose modes of documentation reflect similar practices of reclamation and intervention through photography. Focusing on defiant devices of expression, we will consider the entanglement of imported visual codes, disruptive aesthetics and self-actualised representation across the African continent. Autonomous presentation and self-directed imagery is increasingly aestheticised through the confrontation of imported influences and the celebration of local traditions.

On the Mimetic Qualities of Bowls, Coins and Mosques on the Medieval Swahili Coast

Jeffrey Fleisher (Rice University)

For decades, researchers of the pre-colonial Swahili have been intrigued with material culture that was imported into, and used in, coastal towns (such as Islamic and Chinese ceramics) as well as material forms that seem to represent copies of foreign models (mosques, houses, political forms, clothing styles). In this paper, I want to examine the relationship between ‘foreign goods’ and local ‘copies’, and ultimately challenge the perceived relationship between them. I examine locally produced objects that are putatively copies of other, ‘original’ forms: locally made, earthenware ceramic bowls that ‘copied’ a shape and decorative style from Islamic monochrome vessels, a system of copper coinage that is often seen as copying an ‘Islamic’ system of coinage, and early second millennium mosques that are thought to be derived from forms in the Persian Gulf.

These mimetic objects, ‘copies’ of foreign forms, may seem to be attempts by the Swahili to link themselves into the identity forms and politics of the Indian Ocean and Islamic worlds, but this paper will argue that this interpretation misunderstands the context within which these objects were produced and used. Mimesis, in these cases, was not just a form of simulation or attempt to challenge or counter dominant paradigms. It was, as Walker  (2005) has argued, a form of structuration, a praxis that emerged within the local, regional politics of the coast, each with a particular history. Although the Swahili were surely cognisant that these objects were linked to ‘foreign’ forms, this was not their most important or useful quality.

Interwoven Entanglements: How Dyula weavers are finding creative roots in the past, aesthetic adaptations in the present, for design responses in the future

Emma Wingfield (Goldsmiths University)

The confluence of textile design and development throughout the African continent is as diverse as it is an illuminating history of global transculturation. From the influence of religion, to the destructive forces of colonialism/post-colonialism, and the advent of global trade, patterns and methods, the appropriations of cloth are interwoven into the fabric of the African continent’s history. The rural village of Waraniéné in northern Côte d’Ivoire has produced handwoven cloth for hundreds of years. Emerging as travelling craftspeople for hire, they now exist as a member cooperative made up of more than 150 weavers, dyers and tailors. Their cloth history is one which has gone through generations of transcultural entanglements, seeking inspiration from neighbouring textile traditions and imported (both physically and digitally) design trends. Today, the craftspeople continue to find their creative grounding in their past, while incorporating aesthetic adaptations from the present, in order to design creativity for the future. Using the region’s rich history for cloth production across cultural boundaries and their weaving foundations rooted in replication, this paper explores globalisation’s impact on Dyula textile traditions. From NGO developmental initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s that pushed craftsmanship to conform to the global North’s notions of ‘African’ cloth, to how the craftspeople themselves transformed the textile design process, one can trace how Waraniéné actively challenged the meanings of ‘influence’ of imported methods and tastes. Using the craftspeople of Waraninéné as a case study, this discussion illuminates the methodological and conceptual field of West African handwoven textiles within a global context.

Dynamics from the West: Elements of Western street carnival in the celebration of Oranyan Festival

Emmanuel Bola Akinpelu (Federal College of Education, Oyo, Nigeria)

Traditional Yoruba festivals are special events in honour of a deity or ancestor. They usually take place annually with a lot of festivity in the town or village square. A typical Yoruba festival in Oyo, a Yoruba town in Nigeria, is the Oranyan Festival, a festival in honour of Oranyan, the great itinerant warrior and prince of Ile-Ife and the founder of the Old-Oyo Empire. The festival is a recent development but in its ceremonial features is different from typical traditional festivals in Yorubaland. The festival combines traditional rituals with elements of Western street carnival. This research will identify the features of the Oranyan Festival, compare them with typical traditional festivals and identify the ‘modernities’ embedded in the festival. Furthermore, events and situations that warrant a ‘mix-breed’ festival such as this will equally be identified. The research intends to investigate how Western cultural carnivals have influenced local traditional ceremonies in Yorubaland.

Aesthetic Influences of Cultural Nationalism and Decolonisation in Nigerian Contemporary Art

Jonathan Adeyemi (Queen’s University Belfast)

Historical encounters among humans either through trade or colonialism have engendered cultural diffusion and hybridity. In art, they resulted in transnational influences in styles, techniques and materials. The colonial encounter with Britain and the subsequent struggle for decolonisation have had an enormous impact on the evolution of modern artistic practices in Nigeria. This has raised arguments about the authenticity of the art of formally trained contemporary artists in Nigeria, exploring a fusion of Western techniques with African traditional forms. In view of this authenticity reproach, these artists have been marginalised from museum exhibitions, quality critical engagement, international visibility and validation, which has retarded the valuation of their works in international markets. This study draws on Bourdieu’s theory of field and in addressing the question about the aesthetic elements of contemporary art from Nigeria, the historical analysis approach was adopted. It confirms that the originality in modern art from Africa (Nigeria) is established upon its synthesis of inspirations from Negritude, Pan-Africanism and European modernism. In affirming the aesthetic equivalence of African and Western modernisms, I therefore argue that it is prejudicial to positively assess African and other influences on European modernism and respond negatively to Western inspirations for modernist approaches in Africa.




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