The Clark/Mellon Workshop on Contemporary African Art: History, Theory and Practice at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, October 26-27 is significant in many ways. First, that the world-renowned Clark Institute, a bastion of research and scholarship in western art, has realized the need to engage meaningfully with contemporary African art, says something about how far the field has come within the discipline of art history. Second, the collaboration between the American institution and a university based in the African continent provides a model for the kind of fruitful relationships so badly needed especially in Africa, where access to international debates and scholarship is limited. Third, it reflects a more progressive perspective on Africa intellectual (and socio-political) landscape by recognizing and including scholars working west, east, north and south, inside and outside, "settler and native" (to use Mahmood Mamdani's phrase) of the continent, although, it is still more or less concentrated on the Anglophone African world. Which reminds us once again of one another irksome legacy of colonialism: that the more indelible, forbidding boundaries established by the Europeans in Africa was with their languages (never mind that they also made it possible for me (an Igbo) to be able to sit on the same panel, without the aid of translators, as the South African artist Gabi Ngcobo! I guess it is more fun to find one more fault with colonialism). I deviate. The Clark/Mellon is one of the rarer opportunities to engage in intense debate/discussion on crucial issues in art history /theory scholarship outside of the usual occasions provided by starchy professional conferences or big exhibitions, and so for the field of contemporary African art, this is a wonderful opportunity for some of its important artists, critics, curators, historians to keep tab with developments in recent scholarship. The program indicates that the participants will include: Manthia Diawara, Salah Hassan, Michael Ann Holly, Meskerem Assegued, Frank Ugiomoh, Amal Kenawy, David Koloane, Anitra Nettleton, Sunanda Sanyal, Colin Richards, Mary Evans, Elizabeth Harney, Abdellah Karroum, and others.
One anxiety though, and this is that I doubt that universities elsewhere on the continent (because of lack of resources and/or visionary leadership) will get the chance to host such events anytime soon. Yet, because it is home to quite a few significant scholars/artists/critics, I cannot imagine a more deserving location for this workshop than the Wits. Congrats to Anitra and her colleagues at the WSOA for making this happen.