Tribe and Art History

By Okoye, Ikem Stanley | The Art Bulletin, December 1996 | Go to article overview
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Tribe and Art History


Okoye, Ikem Stanley, The Art Bulletin


The "Post-Ethnic" ... is the moment or the topos that dramatizes, I could almost say, allegorizes its own doubleness.-R. Radhakrishnan1

The Minority terrain, alone, tends to be seen as marked by ethnicity. How, then, might one characterize the art historian's response to the following claim: "The idea of modern sculpture as such was as likely invented in Africa (southeastern Nigeria) as in Western Europe (France)"? Such a claim is likely to meet with disbelief, especially if the statement is not meant to invoke the readings inscribed on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West African ancestral figures and masks by such early modern European artists and theorists as Pablo Picasso, Roger Fry, and Henri Luquet. If, rather, I mean to claim that a radical, politicized, formal and aesthetic attitude toward African traditional practices (traditions that Europeans nevertheless saw as revolutionary) is identifiable within at least one West African practice, and if it becomes clear that I want to claim that it was only in the 1960s, with the work of an artist like Andy Warhol, that modern art of the United States and of Western Europe reached a comparable practice, then it is likely that the claim would not be taken seriously, and that the art historian would be utterly incredulous.

By the end of this essay, the claim will nevertheless have been substantiated, but not at all merely for its own sake. Rather the assertion will be argued in order, through what I assume would have been the friendly disbelief of most Art Bulletin readers to the initial statement, to interrogate the intersection of ethnicity and aesthetics in art historiography. The underlying issue will be, constantly, the extent to which despite its self-image, the culture shared by art historians and the "truth" negotiated by art-historical knowledge are themselves pervaded by its practitioners' untheorized assertion of a notion of ethnicity and of an institutionally unspoken but nevertheless disfiguring insertion of an ethnic space from which one operates.2 I will ponder, moreover, the extent to which art history's disciplinary culture might be redirected toward a postethnicity closer to the discipline's progressive self-image, and will in the process map the implications of the juncture ethnicity/aesthetics for arthistorical practice located in the United States (and perhaps also in the European Community).

Art history as a contemporary discipline-more so than, say, architecture history- seems more inclusive of the study of art culture beyond the West's own practices than was the case only fifteen years ago.3 It is uncertain, however, that the inescapable implications of the transformation are being faced. A well-intended opening of art history's boundaries to admit the study of the objects and aesthetics of other cultures, whose own loci of what I might call an aesthetic investment might be drawn according to unfamiliar rules (rules which might also question what art history's object is), gives rise to difficulty. This is to say that our present facility already strains under the weight of sustaining the egalitarian admission and accumulation of what is yet merely a limited group of newcomers from the possible infinity of art traditions that represent the world's cultures. The archaic edifice that we inhabit demands a restructuring. In the process we might comprehend the inherent deficiencies of its original form and coax from it (and from its enclosing site) an outcome other than either mere collapse or a riot in the queues still expecting to be let in.

Other reasons besides the fear of appearing anachronistic impose art history's need to engage the difficulty mentioned above. The social knowledge that we create in our present practices does not yet sufficiently constitute the structure and process of our disciplinary operation. By this I mean the following: leaving aside our historical focus on aestheticsrelated issues, we are increasingly also engaged with the art object's continual implication of power, of gender and race or ethnicity, and of identity; and our interpretations are typically more interesting when, in exposing the operation of such social "media," they imply a contemporary politics of new dispersals that are not only less authoritarian, but that are also organized by less oppressive formations.

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