Constructing African Art Histories for the Lagoons of Côte d'Ivoire
Soppelsa, Robert T., Journal of Art Historiography
Constructing African Art Histories for the Lagoons of Côte d'Ivoire Review of: Monica Blackmun Visona, Constructing African Art Histories for the Lagoons of Côte d'Ivoire, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010, 216 pp, 41 b/w illustrations (chart, maps, photographs), bibliography, index, $109.95 US hdbk. ISBN 978-1-4094-0440-8.
I have already reviewed Monica Blackmun Visonà's book: Constructing African Art Histories for the Lagoons of Côte d'Ivoire, concentrating on its subject matter.1 However, this book deserves critical mention in this issue of the Journal of Art Historiography for its historiographie content.
In Chapters 1-3 of her book, Dr. Visonà contributes a critical discussion of approaches to the study of African Art History since the origin of the discipline in the last century. She begins Chapter 1 with a discussion of the relevance of Histories of African Art to other Art Histories: can the same rubrics, theories and methodologies that were developed for studies of Western Art since the 15th Century be successfully applied to African Art? Indeed, can these analytical techniques be applied to studies of art at all times, and worldwide? This question will be argued, and arguable, for some time to come. Even the definition of the term 'art' needs careful rethinking in today's academic world. Returning to expressive material culture (or, as she labels it, "humanity's impulse to manipulate materials to create visually compelling images," Visonà concludes that objects and events in different media get different labels in these cultures. However, it seems that for peoples of the Ivoirian Lagoons, 'art' is collectively "the products of talented individuals." Festivals, she contends, should be discussed as performance art, noting that they are often present occasions for the display of visually compelling images (page 4).
Visonà's Chapter 2 begins with a chronological discussion of the various approaches to the study of African Art, beginning with the identification of style regions in European publications of the early 20th Century, and the notions of "tribal styles", followed by two schools of American scholarship: Roy Sieber's students, trained at the African Studies Center of Indiana University, and the students of Paul Wingert and Robert Goldwater, both art historians who specialized in the history of European Art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The latter group tended in early days to use the term "primitive," as it had been used since the early twentieth century by collectors, anthropologists, colonial officers and art dealers. It lumps African Art in with other non-Western arts. This rubric came under severe criticism during the 1960s and subsequently, and has now been dropped from most scholarly publications. However, the tensions between the "primitive art" approach of modernists and the direct studies of African's arts based on fieldwork by scholars since the 1960s continues to animate the study of African Art to this day. She also notes that the recent Francophone equivalent of Primitive Art, Arts Premiers, leads to the same tensions (page 8). A description of her personal research, conducted in the field between 1981 and 1989, and the assumptions that informed it, follows: basically, the assumptions were that all art and performance served a function within traditional lagoon cultures, that each culture had a discreet style that could be identified, and that changes that came with colonialism caused a disruption and deterioration of traditional arts (page 9). Visonà states that these assumptions have all been challenged in recent years. They were based in functionalist and structuralist anthropological theories, both of which came under critical scrutiny with the advent of postmodern thought. Postmodernism, deconstruction and postcolonialism have complicated African Art scholarship in remarkable ways, and the politics and economics of Africa (and the economics of research funding agencies) in recent decades have rendered field studies in Africa much more difficult to realize than they were in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. …