The African art journal Nka celebrated its adoption by Duke University Press by engaging 15 scholars and critics in a debate in print (issue 26) and online over “contemporary African art history and the state of the scholarship.” Editor Salah M. Hassan expresses a certain pessimism of his own about “the political and economic crises in postcolonial Africa” and its “serious intellectual decline,” but holds out hope that the “remarkable energy and richness of work” in contemporary African art “could shed light on or even ameliorate such crises.” Those potentials “remain to be critically analyzed or properly explicated,” owing in part to a “serious lack of publications on the visual arts of the continent,” but there are now at least “a number of uneven initiatives, among them … African Arts, Black Renaissance/Renaissance noire, Nka, the new Art South Africa, and the Internet-based ArtThrob.”
In her contribution to the debate, Elizabeth Harney questions
Whether a “field” of contemporary African art history exists. What, indeed, is the rush to name this field? Above and beyond the professional questions of who we build our careers … [there’s] wariness about closing down the capacious and extremely diverse set of conversations … [That said] canonization is inevitable [and] perhaps it has already come to pass.
Okwui Enwezor hints at an intriguing development to come:
[W]hat I believe in passionately, as far as contemporary African art goes, is institution and capacity building … Without these the field will not grow. Stay tuned for the launch of a new institute dedicated to this very idea … [C]oming from Nigeria, I will not subscribe willy-nilly to messy, chaotic, unruly, and other qualifiers as attractive ways to theorize this difficult problem. We have seen what all of those qualifiers connote when applied to Africa.
And then later elaborates:
[A]t the invitation of a foundation here in the United States we are developing a model of a mobile summer art academy, in collaboration with African institutions … We are working on a five-year pilot program and have designated five African countries among which the project will rotate. Concurrently, we are developing an online academy … Our attention is to bridge the gap, not to create false dichotomies of “African-based” curators … and non-African-based scholars … In our project, we see knowledge transfer as part of a new politics of countering NGOism, as a specific critique of the development models that have deracinated institutional capacities and created a culture of dependency and sympathy in Africa. But this venture in itself is not a solution, only a strategy to create a robust global African public sphere of knowledge production.
Sidney Kasfir chimes in near the end of the exchange:
Initial impression: what a lot of verbiage! Quite a few of us in the roundtable seem to equate intellectual integrity with using as many words as possible … [My PhD advisor] advised me to avoid too much clarity and conciseness … I’d also like to say a bit about the terminologies that we use to talk about African art. I steer clear of the traditional-contemporary frmework because it creates a nice distinction that does not exist in reality. The older genres, like masquerades, continue to thrive and are in a real sense also contemporary … The last of these conceptual frameworks is postcoloniality, which for me is steadily losing its explanatory power. Whether construed as “after” or “against” the colonial … [the concept] began to flatten out in the 1990s and now is simply taken as an all-purpose descriptor … [T]he keywords are uncertainty, ambivalence, and contingency [but] they are very, very capacious and could also be used to describe the experience of being a colonized subject … [T]he postcolonial has pretty much been edged out by globalism-related discourse on diaspora and migration.