Art and Anthropology: Different Practices and Common Fields of Intersection

Art and Anthropology: Different Practices and Common Fields of Intersection

Thomas Fillitz

For several decades, practices of artists from all around the world have diversified in media, techniques and ideas. Art institutions have diversified in a similar way in relationship to their organizational format, to their specializations and objectives. Most importantly, past professional specializations and boundaries both of artists and cultural institutions have extended and blurred. Artists often act as curators, curators as researchers beyond art, and art institutions develop programs which expand into social fields. Cross-disciplinary practices are now core activities within art worlds[1]. As Irit Rogoff writes, “We work in an expanded field, in which all definitions of practices, their supports and their institutional frameworks have shifted and blurred.”[2]

Instead of an exclusivist field of art theory, contemporary art practices, activities of exhibiting, and of scholarly investigation nowadays call for the cooperation of the many disciplines dealing in one way or another with the theme. This relates as much to regionally specific art creations, a new world order of antinomies between a plurality of art worlds,[3] or art’s fundamental struggle between autonomy and heteronomy.[4]

Regarding the relationship of art and anthropology, debates focus largely on what anthropology could learn from (occidental) art history and vice versa, or what are fundamental methodological differences between both disciplines.[5] Intensified collaborations between art practices and anthropology developed within the framework of participatory art,[6] insofar as artists are concerned with small, on-site projects which focus on images of everyday life, and claim the collaboration with and participation of some (constructed) local communities. From an art historical perspective, Claire Bishop further elaborates methodological requirements for documentation which are close to anthropological fieldwork, the need to collect on-site data as well as to engage with notions from social sciences – such as community, empowerment, democracy, or agency.[7]

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) was seminal as it brought relational/participatory art to core reflections within art worlds.[8] Superstar curators, such as Bourriaud himself, Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche, Hou Hanru, or Adam Szymczyk are major art world players for promoting this art form.[9] In contrast to documenta 14 (2017), which emphasized its socio-political focus with the title ‘Learning from Athens,’ a review of the Biennale di Venezia of 2017 precisely highlights the missing of such a perspective, and implicitly criticizes the curatorial vision of art’s autonomy. Under the title ‘Venice Biennale Lacks Relevance’ critic Holland Cotter comments:

If the bland, soft-power 2017 Venice Biennale, called “Arte Viva,” had arrived a few years ago, it might have made sense. But coming post-Brexit and post-Trump, it feels out of sync with the political moment, and not strong enough to define a moment of its own.[10]

My introductory remarks so far highlight two aspects, (a) the blurring of former disciplinary boundaries regarding art practices and art institutions, and the concomitant intensification of cross-disciplinary activities, and (b) the importance of curating and writing in the field of contemporary art for promoting specific art forms, and views of world-making.

Considering the importance attributed to writers (critics, theorists), and curators in the field of contemporary art, I intend to discuss the following aspects regarding my anthropological researching and writing in this field. I argue against the divide between working with artists and working on artists. In my work with artists and on mega-exhibitions during my ethnographic research in West Africa, I consider a unity between processes of researching and writing. However, I clearly differentiate between practices of artists, curators, and anthropologists. On these grounds, I further argue against writing as activity of representation, translation, or interpretation. Regarding the interaction with artists and exhibits, I rather assume the production of a common space of reflection as central, out of which emerge the particularities of practices on the contemporary. As Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè once expressed during a conversation: “Our topic is not the ethnographic knowledge of the social phenomenon I am working on. I am exchanging with you regarding my thoughts about it, how I am dealing artistically with it.”

In the following first part I shall discuss two examples of my investigations on art in West Africa. I shall deal with the interaction between Ivoirian artist Mathilde Moro and me as researcher. I thereby intend to elaborate the emergence of a common field of reflection which stretches out beyond the artist’s creations into other cultural themes. My other example deals with curatorial activities regarding the central venue of the Biennale of Dakar, Dak’Art, the Exposition Internationale, and critical debates each edition generates. I shall specifically elaborate on the two most successful events of 2006 and 2016. Yet, the curators’ objectives contrasted and enhanced different discourses on art, for the 2006 edition in relationship to the field of art’s autonomy – considerations on the history of modern and contemporary African art, while the 2016 venue expanded into the field of art’s heteronomy – encouraging the visitors’ imagination for the process of contemporary world-making.

The second part expands the question of anthropological researching/writing in reflecting the empirical examples in the context of concepts. I take up Viktorin’s thesis of the ‘appearance,’[11] against reproduction or translation, as starting point of the interaction between artist and anthropologist. With the concept of ‘appearance’ Viktorin conceives the artwork as a specific way of deconstructing socio-cultural spaces, thus bringing to the surface particular facets of them. Yet, Viktorin’s ‘appearance’ is closely related to Canclini’s concept of art’s ‘imminence.’[12] This latter notion refers to art’s power to challenge accepted social orders without proposing solutions, to turn reflections towards images of desire and dissent. In an overall perspective, I connect both these concepts to Appadurai’s conceptualization of the ‘capacity of aspiration’ (preferences, hopes, choices, etc.)[13] as a major aspect of culture, aspirations constituting a dialogical relationship with “sedimented traditions.”[14] Hence, both the concepts of ‘appearance’ and ‘imminence’ constitute two levels of how artworks orient the work of imagination, and call for a multiplicity of discourses around the possibilities of contemporary art practices and of envisioning opportunities for social life.

Finally, as the examples of the Biennale of Dakar show, and as Papastergiadis[15] points out, engaging with art forms too requires “a critical examination of the active role – not just mediating function – of writers, curators, and technical producers.”[16] These thoughts will be extended to methodological concepts of ‘the curatorial,’ how curators assemble artists and works of arts in order to produce within a common space images of alternative perceptions of the world.[17] Going far beyond the sheer display of a multitude of works of art from various regions of the world, ‘the curatorial’ encompasses a plurality of methods of exhibiting which too can be investigated within the framework of ‘appearance’ and ‘imminence,’ raising debates about the cultural capacity of aspiration – within the field of art, and/or stretching out to other socio-cultural ones.

Two Ethnographic Examples

Interactions with Artist Mathilde Moro

I am sitting in front of Mathilde Moro in her living room in Abidjan. An artist friend had established the contact between us – he was convinced I had to meet her after having seen some of her artworks in a gallery of the city. Of course she had asked me about my research project on artists of the Abidjan art world, and I too had to explain to her why I wanted to interact with her.[18]

The situation is relaxed, we are having tea, and eating peanuts. Surrounded by many artworks – she had no studio at the time – Mathilde quickly engages in talking about herself. When she was a schoolchild, she always had a wistful heart. “I was writing poems at the time with much melancholy, words which could make me cry.” Without looking at me, she starts reciting … After her school years she found painting as a new medium, and entered the school of fine arts of Abidjan. “For long my colors were dark, I mainly used black and dark blue.” In the early times, in the 1980s, she tells me that viewers found the intensity of her works aggressive and depressive: “It was my dedication to art, the expression of what I felt!” Only in the mid-1990s did Mathilde start using light colors as well, white for instance. But for her it was the same, she just understood she could express herself in these colors too. “These colors flow out of myself, it is always the same concern, but with a little distance, I can express myself differently.”

I wanted to know more about this visualization of the artist’s inner images. During one of our discussions we concretely talked about two works, the cycle études de figurines (1997), and pan de mur (1996, wall panel). The former are small paintings of the famous Baule figurines, labelled akw’abain ethnographic museums. In an overall perspective, Mathilde applies pieces of bark-cloth or jute on the canvas, grounds it in yellow, and draws in dark colour the contours and iconic elements of the figurines. The cycle études de figurines is a questioning about the future, Mathilde tells me. “These are not portraits, in each of them is this shade which passes by. I try to catch the mysterious side, and it is always this veiled emotion. I want to instill life into them, create an ambiance.” The act of creating form is like excavating the figurine, “to re-create the figurine is to tell that these forms are not indifferent!”

The wall panel is large in size, the support is produced of heavy wood, thus creating a raw texture. The artwork is non-representational, variations of white largely dominate, and are combined to smaller fields of different brown colors. While driving one day in a region of Abidjan, the artist recounts, she saw ruins of small houses. “Places without beauty …  are the source of my inspiration. There is life in them, people have lived in there, have constructed these walls, even the ruins bear traces of men’s activities.” Mathilde expands her reflection:

In these days we see in TV the inundations in Europe. Inundations are all around the world, today in Europe, another day in Africa, or in Asia … When I see such images, I question about the feelings of the people who are concerned, their grievances, what they may say – the phenomenon itself is uninteresting, the suffering of people, their histories, their losses, these are the emotions I am talking about.

Mathilde’s artistic practice, using various materials (like bark-cloth, jute or things from the environment), and her taking-up of various forms and themes – the well-known akw’aba figurine, the reference to ritual dance, but also everyday traces of people’s life – was quickly connected in Abidjan’s art world to the prominent vohou-vohou movement. As Théodore Koudougnon, the movement’s leading artist, explained to me, vohou’s characteristics consist in reflecting all elements of the contemporary artistic practice in relationship to African (specifically Ivoirian) cultural traditions, be it materials, form-giving, or themes.[19]

Mathilde Moro, Pan de mur (wall wrinkle, 1996). Photograph: Thomas Fillitz.

Moro, however, did not care about such a categorization, considering it too narrow. She does not view her practice as a re-actualization of traditions in Côte d’Ivoire’s contemporaneity. Her aims are the inner emotional images that grow out of experiences of everyday life: the traces of lived histories of people and the longing for justice. In all her artworks, Mathilde strives for harmony, “in the world I am constructing with my pictures, I want harmony, a righteous life which I express with the various elements I am combining.”

Lost traditions, houses in ruins, or catastrophes, they all are catalysts for the artist’s visions regarding local, vernacular contemporaneity, and specifically individuals’ everyday life destinies. The artist articulates with her artworks less cultural memory and tradition, central to the vohou-vohou movement, but rather aspiration for a righteous life. As Appadurai puts it: “culture is a dialogue between aspirations and sedimented traditions,”[20] and thereby highlights aspiration as a cultural capacity. Yet, Moro does not transfer images of everyday life into her artistic expressions, a practice applied for instance in installation art, but largely operates by means of abstract painting. Proceeding in this way, emotions are paramount for her endeavor at connecting and sensitizing collectors and the art interested public to socio-cultural inequalities and losses due to cultural change. If on the one hand Moro’s work needs to be related to local art discourses around the vohou-vohou, it connects to social reality on the other as mediator between the artist’s inner images of indifference and righteous life – both at an individual and cultural level – and their generation of emotions corresponds to the cultural capacity of aspiration.

Ancient Palace of Justice, venue of Exposition Internationale, 12th Biennale de l’art africain contemporain, Dak’Art 2016. Photograph: Thomas Fillitz.

The Curatorial: Dakar’s Biennale of Contemporary African Art, Dak’Art

One idiosyncrasy of the Biennale’s central venue, the Exposition Internationale, is the institutionalization of a selection committee. Between 1996 and 2008 selection committees were large in numbers, up to sixteen, and half of their members were African experts, half of them European and North American ones. From 2010 on, these committees were much smaller in number (three to four), and only African experts would be considered. Exceptions to this model were the 2006 edition, in which an African expert was nominated for the first time as general curator who was free to constitute his curatorial team, and in 2016, the Biennale shifted to a sole artistic director. Another idiosyncrasy concerns selections: first, only artists with citizenship of an African state and/or from Africa’s diaspora are eligible in this venue; second, artists have to apply with a portfolio, and this policy is still in place, and selection committees are required to choose from among applications. Curatorial teams, however, expressed difficulties to structure a venue according to their objectives and ideas on the unique basis of these applications. Hence, this system was expanded for the 2006 edition, insofar as the general curator was accorded the right to invite some internationally renowned artists. This two-tiered strategy – mostly applications complemented by some invitations – became systematic from 2012 on.

These adaptations of the structure of selection committees and their processes of selection were reactions on the part of the Biennale’s secretariat to ongoing critiques from local artists and art-world specialists. For the present purpose, I would like to cite the two following ones. Firstly, these European and North American experts by and large lacked the knowledge of the history of modern and contemporary African art, and therefore adopted criteria of occidental art history (for all editions between 1998 and 2004, and for 2008). The shift to rely exclusively on African experts was a consequence, which also shows a rising confidence both in regional expertise and in the Biennale’s performance. Second, non-Senegalese, internationally renowned African artists were at first largely absent from the events, as they would not surrender to an application procedure. In order to get them in, the Biennale later institutionalized its invitation policy.

Invitation was paramount for the edition of 2006 which was widely agreed to have been exceptionally successful. General curator Yacouba Konaté from Côte d’Ivoire and his team had placed the Exposition Internationale under the main theme of ‘Africa: Agreements, Allusions and Misunderstandings.’ The team opted for a historical perspective, combining artworks from the times of independence up to the contemporary. For instance, on display were works by Souleymane Keïta, an outstanding representative of the so-called École de Dakar which was devoted to Senghor’s ideology of Négritude in the arts (bright colors, rhythm, traditional symbols) and by Bruce Onobrakpeya, who started his career as a member of the Zaria Art Society. Founded in 1958, and lasting until 1961-2, it united a group of Nigerian art students who positioned their art practices first against colonial power, and second in the context of a rising national culture. In these times, Onobrakpeya’s guiding principle was ‘unity in diversity’[21] – that is, the mixing of traditional cultural symbols of Nigerian ethnic groups in the artwork. From the early 1960s I would further mention Valente Malangatana Ngwenya, a self-taught artist from Mozambique whose artistic practice was influenced by the violence of colonial power.

The exhibit, however, also included artists and works which were and are subject to debate within the complex of modern and contemporary African art, like the ones of Marcel Goten or Chéri Chérin. Goten’s practice grew out of the Poto-Poto workshop school (Brazzaville) which had been founded by Pierre Lods.[22] Workshop schools, a phenomenon between the late 1940s to the early 1960s, were critically viewed insofar as they were founded by colonial Europeans with idealized (European) visions of Africa – the beauty of nature, the richness of myths, and the mysterious powers of magic and witchcraft. They picked up local youth, largely unaffected from European education, and furthered their practices by rejecting European art influence (techniques, concepts, and art history), while aiming to construct a direct connection to pre-colonial cultural traditions. Brilliant colors, the filling of the canvas, and the absence of perspective were common characteristics of all these paintings.

Chéri Chérin works in what is known as popular painting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its beginnings too are the early 1960s, during the development of a postcolonial urban lifestyle, and at the time these works were nearly exclusively produced and sold in street stalls for local buyers. Centers were first Lubumbashi, and later Kinshasa. According to Fabian, popular art in Congo was an art of memory that activates reflection and debate.[23] Themes of popular art in the Democratic Republic of Congo moved between traditional village life, urban society, Zaïre’s history, or the icons Colonie Belge and Mami Wata. The latter, a most prominent theme, depicts a siren and mixes aspects of magic beliefs with socio-economic success, and Christianity – cultural elements which are central for living vernacular modernity. Again, while acknowledging popular art’s quality as art, its inclusion within discourses of modern African art are highly debated among artists and art specialists in other African art worlds, who question whether this is not another European perception of Africa.

However, the exhibit largely focused on contemporary works of African artists and artists of Africa’s diaspora without any preferential art medium – in contrast to previous venues which favored installation arts. It included, amongst others, works of El Loko, who had been trained by Joseph Beuys, prominent Senegalese sculpture Ndary Lo, internationally renowned El Anatsui, textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté, video and installation artist Mounir Fatmi, and artists of the younger generation whose works were then not as validated.

The Biennale’s exhibit may be understood as a reflection on the history of modern and contemporary African art, and on how artworks by artists from diverse art worlds may be related to each other. This is indeed a central concern for Konaté, as he observed during discussion platforms at later editions: there still is no satisfactory written history of modern and contemporary African art. For the 2006 exhibit, the general curator emphasized that his team sought to configure “a formal dialogue between the artworks.”[24] In other words, their objective was to visualize “the complexity of the notion of African-ness”[25] against related (idealized, distorted) imaginaries, largely produced by European and North American curators and art experts.

In 2016, renowned international curator Simon Njami was artistic director of the Biennale’s twelfth edition. He titled the main venue “Re-enchantments. The City in the Blue Daylight,” thereby referring to ideas expressed by Senegal’s President-poet Léopold Sédar Senghor in the poem Camp 1940. Au Guélowâr (1984), envisions freedom from the chains of oppression, and the building of a new and better socio-cultural order: “Your voice tells us the Republic, that we shall build the Community in the blue day in the equality of the fraternal peoples. And we, we respond: ‘Present, ô Guélowâr!’”[26]

Njami clearly stresses contemporary art’s mission as “a place of experimentation and discovery, thus necessarily free of the certitudes that dominate reason and reasoning.”[27] Experimentation, freedom of creation, re-enchanting the world, and desire are key notions the artistic director shared with the artists in creating the exhibition – to put the human being back as a central agenda of contemporary world-making.

Youssef Limoud, Maqam 2016 (detail). Photograph: Thomas Fillitz. Courtesy: La Biennale de l’art africain contemporain, Dak’Art.

Njami’s making of the exhibit connects various thematic trajectories. Among those I discussed with the artists and art world professionals I befriended, I would like to mention the following ones. It stretches out between the installations of Youssef Limoud’s Maqam (2016) and Billy Bidjoka’s Ceci n’est pas mon corps, vous ne pouvez pas le consommer (2016).[28] Limoud’s work is a construction of assembled materials from a neighbourhood in Dakar, thus referring to the power of imagination and of social interaction as place-making. Bidjoka’s installation is a rebellion against the present-day appropriation of one’s work, thus the annihilation of the individual. Another strain is more personal and relates to the figure of the woman. Dalila Dalleas Bouzar’s series Princesses (2015), an assemblage of portrait photographs from colonial times of unveiled Algerian women with golden ornaments, pays homage to the women of her country and thereby reasserts their dignity, while Fatima Mazmouz’s Super Oum (2009), are photographs of fictional female figures that first contest worldwide male domination, and, second, reject the image of Mother-Africa as a powerful social divide of groups and individuals, and rather claims for envisioning a Mother-Patria of inclusiveness for all forms of socio-cultural diversity. Finally, Nabil Boutros’ A Dream (2016), a cloud hanging in space which is traversing a circle of barbed wire, is intended as the process of becoming (not belonging) which requires the freeing from assumed, indisputable socio-cultural structures and constraints, while Ndoye Douts’ Encyclopedia (2011-15), consisting of innumerable small square paintings, each with a theme of socio-political ugliness/scandal on a sky-blue primer coat, encourages to experience and imagine social life beyond ongoing everyday horrors.

Ndoye Douts, Encyclopedia, 2011-15 (detail). Photograph: Thomas Fillitz. Courtesy: La Biennale de l’art africain contemporain, Dak’Art.

Simon Njami’s conceptualization of the Exposition Internationale clearly was driven by a thematic consideration. The artistic director sought artworks and artists who would sensitize and encourage beholders to imagine social relations beyond what is presently given, dissented, or assumed as un-contestable. The contemporary thereby is not positioned as a universal of human life, based clearly on experiences of quotidian life in various African places. Limoud, who was awarded the grand prize of the jury, worked with local materials for his installation. Dalila Dallea Bouzar honors women in re-appropriating their photographs from the times of the Algerian war, for which they had been forced to unveil. Yet they stretch out to more global visions – a perspective which is most clearly expressed in Bidjocka’s installation. Furthermore, none of the works in the exhibit proposed any utopia, or solution. As El Anatsui stated in a conversation with Olu Oguibe: “He [the artist] could be more sensitive, could be a visionary, but he is, unlike a messiah, essentially a member of his community who suffers the same fate as any other.”[29] In this context, the paintings of Mbaye Babacar Diouf, exhibited at Dak’Art 2016, are a revealing example. In Action (2015) references the importance of social relations against capitalism’s neoliberal individualization, while Khaatim Africa (1 and 2, 2015)[30] picks out the talisman as cultural object of aspiration and hope.

Different Practices and the Production of a Common Field of Interaction

In my first example, I selected on purpose the interaction with Mathilde Moro, because her artistic practice has no direct visible connection to everyday life, and she rather emphasizes the materialization of inner emotional images. Such a making visible is also the major aspect for Mattias Viktorin[31] regarding the intersection between artists’ and anthropologists’ works. In his reflections about other anthropological genres of writing, he argues against reproduction, and instead highlights the respective notions of ‘emergence’ and ‘appearance.’[32] In researching contemporaneity, both art and anthropology are focusing “on the problem of innovative form-giving.”[33] Relying on examples from literature and visual arts, Viktorin suggests that “‘appearance’ does not necessarily imply a construction that veils or conceals reality, but rather an actualization that brings distinct facets of the real into view.”[34] Interestingly, Viktorin uses the examples of the Impressionists and German Expressionists, two stylistic art forms located well within art’s autonomy. The former left the studio to paint in the environment and to create pictures of reality in different shapes and colors, whereas the latter’s objective was to radically picture individual emotional states. Expressionism “abandoned the idea of mimesis and focused instead on what appeared in the process of creating art” – the result being “new ways of seeing.”[35] Viktorin concludes from these comparisons that “what arguably makes anthropological concepts analytically productive, then, is precisely the way in which they make things appear.”[36]

Viktorin’s emphasis on emergence/appearance, against reproduction and/or translation, is a primary aspect for my research and writing in the field of art. For my purpose, appearance, too, does not have much to do with interpreting artworks. The notion fundamentally relates to the discursive creation of a common field of reflection with an artist. In my interaction with Moro, this was her readiness to engage with me regarding her emotions and the production of pictures. This related to several contexts: the art media in all their aspects; art forms she reflects upon; and the search for unravelling individual histories that are inscribed in our environment– be they more historically oriented with the series Études defigurines, or more present-day focused with Pan de mur – houses in ruins or other traces of human intervention in the urban landscape of Abidjan; and internal images created by the global media flow of images.

Dealing with both imaginaries and places in his writing about art, Nikos Papastergiadis developed what he calls a topographical method.[37] “The aim of topography is not to recount stories of previous adventures; it is more concerned with the tracks and traces that are still visible and portable.”[38] He too argues for a “new cross-disciplinary mode of analysis”[39] for contemporary art, one that does no more restrict itself to representation or translation:

My methodology is not based on an art historical survey of new tendencies in contemporary art, nor am I upholding a definitive sociological perspective that reveals geopolitical characteristics of art. It requires that the writer does not simply describe and analyze the composition of the artwork … It does not narrate the genesis of the work according to the fixed coordinates that are either stated in the artist’s intentions or defined by prior sociological debates on the context of art … my goal is instead to articulate the way artistic practice is creating new levels of engagement with the available spaces of contemporary art and is expressing ideas that are part of everyday life.[40]

Of course Papastergiadis’ ‘topography’ is by and large concerned with participatory art. Although I would not call my researching and writing of contemporary art in Abidjan or Dakar topographic, my interactions with artists always draw on multiple topics, but are in no way focusing on producing a local or regional survey. As briefly shown in my discussions with Mathilde Moro, her inclusion or not within the vohou-vohou movement was random. More prominent was the detachment from occidental art history’s modernism, and the valuing of the artistic creation from within the particular Abidjan art world. Yet, the flow of images of the contemporary occupied another central space of reflection. It was, however, revealing how the artist made such images an issue of her own. Not as global phenomena, but she situates them from the vantage of the anonymously conceived local social actor, how s/he might have influenced her/his everyday life. In this framework, Mathilde’s thoughts and emotions are articulated in connection to (historical, colonial) loss, to catastrophes, to present-day traces of human activities in the urban landscape, to social inequalities.

Collaborative research between art and anthropology – as common fields and different practices – are further related to the curatorial practices such as the ones of Dak’Art. Very generically, curating is “a gamut of professional activities that had to do with setting up exhibitions and other modes of display.”[41] The biennial format, however, is specific insofar as it does not have to rely on a historically grown (museum) collection, and as it generally brings within a common space works of art from different art worlds– that is, from diverse regional art histories and discourses. The positioning of Dak’Art as the Biennale of contemporary African art and its selection regulations indeed imply clear overall constraints to the curatorial work. Insofar as exclusively African artists and artists of its diaspora may be on display in the Exposition Internationale, it could end up in a sheer display of multitude, that is choosing artists from as many African art worlds as possible. General themes, introduced in 2006, should re-focus decision-making, but selection procedures are setting some boundaries to the curators’ visions. Some members of curatorial teams actually argued that it was but a framework at large for them, and could not be applied strictly since they were confined to the body of applications.

The two examples I presented above were most successful in respect to the intentions of the curators. Yacouba Konaté’s objective was to re-think and re-adjust the history of modern and contemporary art of Africa from the vantage point of African expertise, whereas Simon Njami opted to highlight the creative and visionary powers of African and African diaspora artistic practices as a means to re-enchant contemporary world-making.

Both curatorial approaches are connected to Viktorin’s concept of ‘appearance.’ In the case of general curator Yacouba Konaté, it reflects the possibility of narrating the history of modern and contemporary African art freed from the criteria of occidental art history and other strange visions of Africa. Furthermore, I view Simon Njami’s practice in the context of two other concepts: first Canclini’s conceptualization of art as the place of imminence,[42] and second the recent differentiation between ‘curating’ and ‘the curatorial.’[43] For Canclini, art “gains its attraction in part from the fact that it proclaims something that could happen, promising meaning or modifying meaning through insinuation.”[44] Canclini actually defines art as ‘postautonomous’ insofar as participatory/relational art is defined as the dominant art practice, and as art has shifted into various socio-cultural fields beyond classic art institutions such as museums or galleries. Above all, with art’s ‘imminence’ Canclini emphasizes the reflexive space of artworks as “pathways and enigmas for knowledge,”[45] instead of being solely viewed as materializations of artists’ inner images.

Njami’s curatorial work emphasizes ‘imminence’ from the beginning with Senghor’s poem and the related central notion of artistic ‘re-enchantment.’ The objective is not the expression of utopias. The exhibit develops strains of contemporary issues, documentations of social life in different African places, and ‘re-enchants’ in as far as it operates as catalyst for imagining alternative possibilities of social life. With this curatorial approach, Appadurai’s concept of the capacity of aspiration as cultural fact reappears. It incites beholders to articulate desires, preferences, choices, to reflect cultural norms – to experience the exhibition as “a place of experimentation and discovery, thus necessarily free of the certitudes that dominate reason and reasoning.”[46]

In this dimension, the 2016 edition connects to the present methodology of the ‘curatorial,’ that takes the artwork as a starting point in order to question various contexts – art practices, ideas regarding social, cultural, or political issues. It is an invitation for new ways of seeing, for the imagination of the realm of the possible. According to Martinon ‘the curatorial,’ however, encompasses a huge variety of meanings:

The curatorial is a jailbreak from pre-existing frames, a gift enabling one to see the world differently, a strategy for inventing new points of departure, …  a way of caring for humanity, …  a political tool outside of politics, … an invitation for reflexivity, …  a way of fighting against corporate culture, etc.[47]

Among the many methods presented in Martinon, I would like to mention as objectives the questioning of hegemonic power structures and the focus on other, more marginalized art forms (Milevska), the conceptualization of social encounters (Graziano), or ‘curating context’ (Szyłak).[48] In particular ‘curating context’ intends to use artworks for engaging with particular contexts and their meanings, with various knowledge discourses that are brought into relationship.[49] Whichever frame the curatorial is conceived within, art’s imminence re-appears in each of them in the form of exhibition making. All these approaches take up present-day cross-disciplinary strategies of artistic practices, deal with topics of the multitude of contemporary art in the world, or engage with challenges raised in present-day postcolonial constellations.

Hence, these conceptualizations of the curatorial extend intersections between art and anthropology. From the vantage point of the latter, art’s qualities of appearance and imminence become clearer when understood in relation to the capacity for aspiration. It is not a matter of learning from artists or curators, these concepts constitute the field to engage with in anthropological research on art and writing. Both the singular work of art as well as exhibition-making may be viewed as archives of experiences of socio-cultural life, and the investigation of how appearance or imminence are derived from them unravel trajectories of reflection, of how the orientation of imagination is created. The contextual trajectories are multiple: be it art media; the production of transcultural art connections; specific art world discourses; or issues of localized contemporary quotidian life.


I started my argument with the clear distinction between artistic practices, curatorial methods, and anthropological investigation/writing in the field of art. This assertion is paramount when considering from an anthropological vantage point the global multitude of contemporary artistic practices, of curating, and the heterogeneity of art institutions. Instead of giving preference to a particular art medium – for example, installation art or participatory art because they are territorialized within specific social fields – these diversities of art, this ‘epistemological disorientation,’[50] or Canclini’s ‘postautonomous’ status of art are at stake. However one designates these present-day developments of art, they all refer to various, dissenting ways of experiencing social life, and call for entangled discourses about these art-related phenomena.

Hence, the central task for investigation is the production of a common field of reflection with artistic and curatorial practices, including the debates they generate within the art world. The singular work of art and the exhibit per se constitute archives – of the experiences of quotidian life of the artist, of the concerns of contemporary issues of the curator/curatorial team. Both, however, are the grounds upon which aspirations get enacted, what Simon Njami nicely expressed with art’s re-enchanting powers for Dak’Art 2016, and Mathilde Moro with her striving for harmony and righteous social lives.

Within this dialogical framework of picture and vision (cultural memory and aspiration) I position the two other concepts, Viktorin’s emphasis of emergence/appearance and Canclini’s imminence of art. While the former’s objective, ‘innovative form-giving’[52] may well be conceived within art’s autonomous discourses, as exemplified with Konaté’s exhibition-making of Dak’Art 2006, the latter views the art phenomenon as stretching out into other socio-cultural fields with the scope to imagine and/or to activate dissent. It is worth noting that both these concepts divert the anthropological research/writing on art away from the work’s reproduction and/or translation, to engage with different knowledges and their tensions.

The role of curators and their exhibition making indeed is ambiguous, insofar as internationally praised ones – for contemporary African art (amongst others), Simon Njami, Okwui Enwezor, or André Magnin – are also favoring specific art media and views of this art, and thus contribute in one way or another to power discourses in the field of art. In this contribution, however, I have focused on curators’ works in the context of art’s capacity to aspiration. Methods of ‘the curatorial,’ although far from having a singular meaning, circumscribe exhibition making and suggest transgressing the field of art. Practices of curating are of interest for anthropological reflections on art, insofar as these new methods would “insist on a new set of relations between those knowledges”[53] which are visualized with the selection of artists and their artworks.

My consideration of the intersection between art and anthropology is grounded on these concepts. The production of a common field of discursive interaction acknowledges different practices, and reaches beyond the artwork as materialization of the artist’s inner images, or the exhibition as representation of the curator’s contemporary concerns. Viktorin’s ‘appearance’ and Canclini’s ‘imminence’ open up many possibilities for reflecting on a specific art world and its transcultural connections regarding contemporary art and/or contemporary visions for world-making.

Thomas Fillitz is a professor at the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna. His research, teaching and publications in visual anthropology focus on Biennial arts festivals, Global and local art and art markets, and Postcolonial theories.


[1] In this article I consider art world as the artistic achievements that are locally negotiated as contemporary art between artists, art theorists/historians/critics, and curators.

[2] Irit Rogoff, “The Expanding Field,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial. A Philosophy of Curating (London et al.: Bloomsbury, [2013] 2015), p. 41.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (eds), Antinomies in Art and Culture. Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 207–34; Hans Belting, “The Plurality of Art Worlds and the New Museum,” in Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel (eds), The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds (Cambridge, MA and Karlsruhe: The MIT Press and ZKM/Center for Art and Media, 2013), pp. 246–54.

[4] Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2004).

[5] Ruth B. Phillips, “The Value of Disciplinary Difference: Reflections on Art History and Anthropology at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century,” in Mariet Westermann (ed.), Anthropologies of Art, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute (Williamstown, MA., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 242–59.

[6] Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (eds), Between Art and Anthropology. Contemporary Ethnographic Practice (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2010); Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (eds), Anthropology and Art Practice(London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[7] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship(London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 7.

[8] ibid., p. 2.

[9] Cf. Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 9.

[10] Holland Cotter, “Venice Biennale Lacks Relevance,” The New York Times International Weekly, (Der Standard, 6 June, 2017), p. 4.

|11] Mattias Viktorin, “On Timely Appearances. Literature, Art, Anthropology,” in Helena Wulff (ed.), The Anthropologist as Writer. Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century(New York and London: Berghahn, 2016), pp. 230–42.

[12] Néstor García Canclini, Art Beyond Itself: Anthropology for Society without a Storyline (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014).

[13] Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” in Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton (eds), Culture and Public Action(Stanford:Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 59–84. Available online: (accessed November 23, 2017).

[14] ibid., p. 84.

[15] Nikos Papastergiadis, “Spatial Aesthetics: Rethinking Contemporary Art,” in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (eds), Antinomies in Art and Culture. Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 363–81.

[16] ibid., p. 376.

[17] Jean-Paul Martinon, “Introduction,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial, pp. 1–13.

[18] See Thomas Fillitz, Zeitgenösssische Kunst aus Afrika. Vierzehn Künstler aus Côte d’Ivoire und Bénin (Vienna: Böhlau, 2002), pp. 108–19. Although the research was in 1997 on contemporary art of Africa, it was not an overall local survey. I instead focused on particular artists who were locally acknowledged as contemporary ones.

[19] ibid., pp. 46–8. Vohou-vohou was the most acknowledged avant-garde art movement in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s, then also labelled as École d’Abidjan [Thomas Fillitz, Zeitgenösssische Kunst aus Afrika; Yacouba Konaté, “Art and Social Dynamics in Côte d’Ivoire: The Position of Vohou-Vohou,” in Gitti Salami and Monica Blackmun Visonà (eds), A Companion to Modern African Art (Malden, MA. and Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), pp. 371–88].

[20] Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” p. 84.

[21] Kojo Fosu, 20th Century Art of Africa (Accra: Artists Alliance, [1986] 1993), pp. 64–70; Chika Okeke, “The Quest for a Nigerian Art: Or a Story of Art from Zaria to Nuskka,” in Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor (eds.), Reading the Contemporary. African Art from Theory to the Marketplace (London: inIVA, 1999), p. 150.

[22] Pierre Lods founded the Poto-Poto school in 1951. Senghor appointed him in 1961 as teacher at the school of fine arts of Dakar.

[23] Johannes Fabian, Moments of Freedom. Anthropology and Popular Culture (Charlottesville and London: The University of Virginia Press, 1998), p. 51.

[24] Yacouba Konaté, “7 Past 12,” in Secrétariat général (ed.), Dak’Art 2006, catalogue (Bresson, France: Les Deux-Ponts, 2006), p. 32.

[25] ibid.

[26]“Ta voix nous dit la République, que nous

Dresserons la Cité dans le jour bleu

Dans l’égalité des peuples fraternels. Et nous

nous répondons : « Présents, ô Guélowâr ! ».”

(a part of the poem’s citation at the entrance to the exhibition, trans. by the author). The poem was first published in the collection Hosties Noires (1948). Historically, Guélowâr was a noble dynasty at the top of the social hierarchy of the Serer society.

[27] Simon Njami, “La puissance voyante / The Seeing Power,” in Simon Njami (ed.), Réenchantements. La Cité dans le jour bleu / Reenchantments. The City in the Blue Daylight, Dak’Art 12, catalogue (Bielefeld and New York: Kerber Verlag, 2016), p. 38.

[28] Maqam: settlement, the shrine of a holy place, or the different Middle Eastern musical elements that are combined; Bidjocka’s title: ‘this is not my body, you cannot consume it.’

[29] El Anatsui, “Sankofa: Go Back an’ Pick’: Three Studio Notes and a Conversation,“Third Text, 23 (7), 1993, p. 44.

[30] Khaatim (Wolof): talisman.

[31] Mattias Viktorin, “On Timely Appearances. Literature, Art, Anthropology.”

[32] ibid., p. 231.

[33] ibid.

[34] ibid., pp. 231–2, italics by the author.

[35] ibid., p. 237.

[36] ibid., p. 239.

[37]Nikos Papastergiadis, “Spatial Aesthetics: Rethinking Contemporary Art.”

[38] ibid., p. 373.

[39] ibid., p. 375.

[40] ibid.

[41] Jean-Paul Martinon and Irit Rogoff, “Preface,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial, p. ix.

[42] Néstor García Canclini, Art Beyond Itself.

[43] Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial.

[44] Néstor García Canclini, Art Beyond Itself, p. xiii.

[45] ibid., p. 28.

[46] Simon Njami, “La puissance voyante / The Seeing Power,” p. 38.

[47] Jean-Paul Martinon, “Introduction,” p. 4.

[48] Suzana Milevska, “Becoming-Curator,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial, pp. 65–71; Valeria Graziano, “The Politics of Residual Fun,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial, pp. 151–60; Aneta Szyłak, “Curating Context,” in Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial, pp. 215–23.

[49] Irit Rogoff, “The Expanding Field,” p. 44.

[50] ibid.

[51] See Nikos Papastergiadis, “Spatial Aesthetics: Rethinking Contemporary Art.”

[52] Mattias Viktorin, “On Timely Appearances. Literature, Art, Anthropology,” p. 231.

[53] Irit Rogoff, “The Expanding Field,” p. 45.