Thursday, March 6, 2008

Contemporary African and Black Art in Harvard and Williams College

Harvard Professors Suzanne Blier and Benjamin Buchloh at the New Geographies in Contemporary African Art Symposium, Feb 29-March1, 2008 (Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

This past weekend witnessed two very significant symposia in the State of Massachusetts: New Geographies in Contemporary African Art organized by Suzanne Blier at Harvard University, and Artistic Crossings of the Black Atlantic: The Migratory Aesthetic in Contemporary Art jointly convened by the Williams College Museum of Art and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. For some like me, it was most frustrating sitting in what turned out to be, as expected, one of the most impressive symposia till date on the subject of contemporary African art, yet thinking about the missed chance to participate in the events in Williamstown. Just imagine a symposium featuring Isaac Julien, Fred Wilson, Magdalena Campos-Pons, Willie Cole and Hank Willis Thomas providing, through discussion of their work, an opportunity to examine and extend Paul Gilroy's notion of Black Atlantic to visual practices. From all indications the Black Atlantic symposium was a smash hit, which made me sulky when my friends Lisa Corrin (director of WCMA) and Peter Erickson (professor at Williams) who spearheaded the program told me how much I missed.

But of course, the Harvard symposium was very memorable. To begin with, among the participants are many scholars and artists I really admire, including Betsy Harney (Univ. of Toronto), Steven Nelson (UCLA), Dominique Malaquais (Centre National de la Recherche, Paris), Paul Stopforth, Ute Meta Bauer (MIT), Magdalena Campos-Pons (yes, the same Magdalena also in the Black Atlantic program at Williamstown!), Abiola Irele (Harvard), Gary van Wyk (Axis Gallery, NY), and Allan de Souza (San Francisco Art Institute). And yes, Okwui Enwezor deservedly gave the keynote. The two people I missed the most from the symposium though were Salah Hassan and Sidney Kasfir who have played leading roles in entrenching contemporary African art scholarship in the American academy.

One of the more hilarious passages in the proceedings was when Allan de Souza had to read a paper on his work prepared by Moi Tsien (Berlin) who could not attend. Allan severally alerted the audience to what he saw as misreadings of his work. And because he was reading directly from Tsien's paper, he referred to himself in the third person! It was pure drama, that had serious implications in the sense that Allan's disclaimers brought to the fore the question of the place of intentionality (the so-called intentional fallacy), and the ever present dangers of scholarly mediation of knowledge of and about artists.

But something else happened. After Okwui's keynote, an audience member commented that he was speaking to the converted, with the exception of Benjamin Buchloh (the esteemed Harvard art historian associated with the journal October) who actually introduced the keynote speaker. When he had the chance, Professor Buchloh rose to correct the commentator, because he too is, as he put it, a convert! That, I think, was a important statement that underscores the significance of not only Enwezor's work, but also shows how far contemporary African art scholarship has come.

I look forward to the edited volume Professor Blier plans to publish from the symposium presentations and roundtable discussion.

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