From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

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Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

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Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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The Elephant in the Museum

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Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

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A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

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The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »

Notes on Jamaica’s Art Histories # 2: African-Derived Sculpture from the Colonial Period

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Cowrie Shell Skull Cap, late 17th century?, found in Port Royal, Collection: National Museum Jamaica (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Jamaica)

My previous post in this series, which can be read here, was aimed at rekindling the critical discussion on Jamaica’s art histories. As I argued then, the problematic of Jamaica’s main art historical narrative cannot be addressed by merely identifying and correcting the obvious gaps and oversights, or simply updating it to the present day by adding recent developments. More fundamental rethinking is necessary to address the disciplinary biases and ideological interests that have informed it and to develop productive alternatives. It is nonetheless useful to take a closer look at some of the obvious omissions from what has been the dominant narrative, since those shed revealing light on the logic of this narrative, and since this also helps to set the agenda for further research and scholarship development.

This second post begins to examine whether any African-derived visual art was practiced during the Plantation era and its immediate aftermath and what, if anything, has survived to the present day, which is inevitably an ideologically charged and contentious question. The focus of this post is on sculptural traditions related to spiritual practices, for the reasons I outline below. This post is, again, adapted from sections from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011 – Chapter 5), updated with more recent research that is still in progress. So please regard this post as “work in progress” rather than as any definitive statement.

(I wish to thank National Museum Jamaica for assistance with images and information regarding objects in its collection.)

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Louisa Jones “Ma Lou” – yabba, c1985, private collection

Introduction

As we have seen in the previous post in this series, David Boxer, in his Jamaican Art 1922-1982 essay, which was first published in 1982 and remains as the standard text on Jamaican art history, controversially claimed that:

It is one of the tragedies of slavery that so drastic was the deculturation of Africans, so harsh the prohibitions against the manufacture of ritual objects, that with the exception of undecorated ceramic vessels not one object exists as evidence of the African artistic traditions in Jamaica. (1998, 13)

There are several ways in which this statement can be read. One is that such visual art forms did not exist in Jamaica during the Plantation era, which is quite easily disproved, and it is this reading to which most of Boxer’s critics have objected. Another, more charitable way to read the statement is that no such historical objects have survived to the present, although that too is debatable. In the 1998 edition of this essay, which included some slight revisions, Boxer moderated his position somewhat, no doubt in response to the criticisms, and recognized that there is in fact some historical evidence, but he did so only in a footnote. He obviously did not feel that this evidence was significant enough to be mentioned in the body of the text or to challenge his overall narrative (1998, 27, fn 9).

To understand Boxer’s position, we need to understand that it is fundamentally related to how he defined “art,” focusing on the conventional “art object.” More specifically, it stems from his conceptions about what is of value and warrants consecration as “art” in Africa’s traditional material culture. It is of note that he prefaced his statement by arguing that the Africans who were brought to Jamaica as slaves came from societies that had well-established sculptural traditions [my emphasis], most of them related to magico-religious practices, and that it could be assumed that the enslaved brought some of these art forms with them (1998, 13).

Boxer’s assumption that any African-derived art forms worth including in his narrative necessarily had to consist of sculpture significantly narrows the scope of discussion and is biased by the Western consecration of magico-religious figural sculpture as the pinnacle of African artistic achievement—the sort of narrow, selective and decontextualized interpretation of the African visual arts that influenced modernist European artists such as Picasso and the German Expressionists and initially informed its inclusion in art museums and private art collections. African art in other forms and media has, conventionally, not received the same level of Western recognition, although this has changed recently, and there is in any case not much room in mainstream European art history for utilitarian art forms of any kind or origin, unless the utilitarian function is “transcended” by what are considered to be outstanding decorative or design qualities—Boxer’s summary dismissal of Jamaica’s African-derived ceramics, even though there is a substantial and fairly well-documented tradition in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean), is consistent with that bias.

If we are looking in Jamaica for sculptural traditions that are consistent with these biases, then it may indeed seem, certainly at first glance, that little or nothing has survived from the Plantation era and its aftermath. As Boxer himself later acknowledged, however, there is some historical evidence, and there are several surviving or otherwise documented sculptural objects that may also challenge this claim. None of this evidence is well-known, or well-studied, and none of it has yet been recognized as representative of key moments in Jamaica’s artistic or material culture history.

The question arises why Boxer ignored this evidence in his initial art-historical narrative or failed to integrate it in any significant way in its subsequent revisions, if it is that he had somehow overlooked it initially. As I argued in my previous blog post on this subject, the answer may be that this was instrumental to the way Boxer sought to establish the significance of the Nationalist school, especially Edna Manley, and of the self-taught artists he canonized as Intuitives. Simply put, he argued that these artists undid the cultural injustices of colonialism to create new art that was fundamentally Jamaican, even though rooted in Jamaica’s cultural origins, and that this artistic re-awakening emerged in tandem with the political awakening of Jamaica as a postcolonial nation. The omission thus goes to the heart of how his argument was strategized.

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