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Modern African Art : A Basic Reading List

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Albertazzi, Liliana. "The magicians convene in Paris." Photographs by Charles Dolfi-Michele. Contemporanea (New York) 2 (5): 54-61, July/August 1989. illus. (color). N6480.C762 AFA.

The organizers of the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, May-August 1989 -- André Magnin, Aline Luque and Mark Francis -- clarify and defend their intent and purpose in bringing together artists from around the world. They address the issues of cultural hegemony, audience perceptions, and artists' relationships with one another. African artists featured in the exhibition and illustrated here include: Cyprien Tokudagba of Bénin, Esther Mahlangu of South Africa, Kane Kwei of Ghana, Sunday Jak Akpan of Nigeria, Bodys Isek Kingslez of Congo (Democratic Republic), and Efiaimbelo of Madagascar. See also another interview with Guideri and Albertazzi on "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition.

Araeen, Rasheed. "Our Bauhaus, others' mudhouse," Third text; Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture (London) 6: 3-14, spring 1989. illus. NX1.T445 AFA.

The "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition in Paris in 1989 stirred much debate and controversy both in its stated aims and how its organizers went about realizing them. Araeen's main concern is the refusal of the West, and in particular those who write about "the other," to recognize that "the other" has long since "entered into the citadel of Modernism and has challenged it on its own ground" (page 3). Modernism (and now Post-modernism) in the production of art is claimed as an exclusive preserve of the West and seen as somehow detrimental to so-called traditional cultures. Moreover, it excludes any "high art" produced in these non-Western cultures.

The apparent equality with which artists from all over the world are presented in the "Magiciens" exhibition masks biases of the way in which the organizers of the exhibition went about selecting artists -- searching for the "authentic," bypassing anything truly modern in Third World cultures, while assuming that only modern urban art would be considered in selecting Western artists.

Third World artists living in the West were and continue to be invisible; they do not fit into the Western scheme of things unless perhaps their work displays their cultural roots. Are Western artists expected to relate to their cultural roots? Or is their concern with other cultures -- one of the criteria by which Western artists were chosen for the "Magiciens" show -- enough?

To argue against "Western contamination" of traditional cultures is to reinforce the assumptions by which Third World countries continue to be marginalized and to deny the struggle for Modernism that is going on in these societies.

Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. and Jean-Hubert Martin. "Interview" [on the conception of the `Magiciens de la Terre' exhibition]. Third text; Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture (London) 6: 19-27, spring 1989. (Special issue on "Magiciens de la Terre" translated from Les cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne). NX1.T445 AFA.

In an interview with Jean-Hubert Martin, one of the organizers of the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition in Paris in 1989, Buchloh probes and questions many of the cultural presuppositions underlying the exhibition explicitly or implicitly: cultural decentralization, the ethnocentric and hegemonic criteria for selecting artists, the exclusiveness of Modernism with its concentration only on "objects of high culture," the display of decontextualized objects, questions of purity or contamination in cultural practices and objects from "other" cultures, artistic anonymity, and the slipperiness of "quality" as a criterion for acceptance or rejection of a work. This interview took place before the selection of artists was made.

Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. and Jean-Hubert Martin. "The whole earth show," Art in America (New York) 77 (5): 150-159, 211-213, May 1989. illus. (pt. color). N1.A78 AFA.

This is another published version of Buchloh's conversations with Jean-Hubert Martin (based on interviews in July 1986 and again in October 1988) about the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition. Although Buchloh is sympathetic to the need to break out of the monocentric/eurocentric mode of contemporary art, he critically questions Martin's premises about "center" and "margin" and about determining cultural authenticity.

Guideri, Remo and Liliana Albertazzi. "An anthropologist discusses the cultural ramifications of `Magiciens de la Terre,'" Contemporanea (New York) 2 (5): 62-63, July/August 1989. illus. (color). N6480.C762 AFA.

Guideri, who served as adviser on the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, May-August 1989, expresses reservations about the fundamental conception of the exhibition. He feels that a "globalization" of art masks the cultural roots of art by emphasizing, as it does, only the aesthetic and ignoring the political and social context; the result is a sort of "unchecked heterogeneity" which gets us nowhere. An exhibition organized around the theme of the meeting of cultures would have been more appropriate. See also Albertazzi's interview with the organizers of the exhibition.

Heartney, Eleanor. "The whole earth show, part II," Art in America (New York) 77 (7): 90-97, July 1989. illus. (pt. color). N1.A78 AFA.

In her postmortem on the 1989 "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition in Paris, Heartney doubts whether there is any "politically correct" way to exhibit art from other cultures that does not smack of cultural exploitation. Is this fascination with "the other" not just another twentieth-century Western myth? What is a Western viewing audience really to make of these unfamiliar works? In the absence of label information to provide any context, Heartney fears that the viewer will inevitably apply his own aesthetic standards which may be inappropriate. The most successful works in the exhibition were those where an interplay of the traditional and Western cultures was apparent. She cites Chéri Samba in this regard.

The premise of the exhibition to focus on artists from cultures in transition was laudable, but the subtle emphasis on ritualistic works and the general absence of politically charged work contributed to the false sense that the interactions of First and Third Worlds has been untraumatic and that the dominance of one over the other has been in any way mitigated.

L'art naïf africain; [exhibition, Musée d'Art Naïf Max Fourny, Paris, September 11-November 1987; organized in cooperation with Le Centre Culturel Français d'Abidjan]. Paris: Musée d'Art Naïf Max Fourny, 1987. 28pp. illus. (color). ND1080.A78 1987 AFA. OCLC 30373964.

Naive art is found in all parts of Africa, arising from many different cultural milieux. The artists, however, seem to share a common outlook and sensibility. Keen observers with an eye for detail and color and a penchant for realism, these "popular masters of reality" provide a remarkable window on contemporary Africa. In this exhibition of naive art, around 150 works were featured, mainly paintings. Only ten paintings are illustrated in the catalog.

Magiciens de la terre: [exhibition, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989]. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989. 271pp. illus. (pt. color), bibl. refs. fN72.S6M192 1989 AFA. OCLC 20301356.

"Magiciens de la Terre" was a panoramic, ambitious 1989 exhibition in Paris that sparked praise and controversy in equal measure. (See Rasheed Araeen and Eleanor Heartney below for critical commentary on this exhibition). The organizers attempted to span cultures by selecting contemporary artists from around the world, not as artists representative of their countries, but rather as artists "born of a culture." Preliminary essays in the catalog discuss concepts of the Other and changing European perceptions and responses to the Other.

From Africa there were: Sunday Jack Akpan; Mike Chukwukelu; Twins Seven-Seven; Chief Mark Unya and Nathan Emedem; Jean-Michel Alberola; Dossou Amidou; Cyprien Tokoudagba; Gabriel Bien-Aimé; Georges Liautaud; Wesner Philidor; Patrick Vilaire; Frédéric Bruly-Bouabré; Seni Camara; Efiaimbelo; John Fundi; Kane Kwei; Bodys Isek Kingelez; Chéri Samba; Agbagli Kossi; Boujemaâ Lakhdan; Esther Mahlangu; Henry Munyaradzi.

Exhibition reviewed by Francesco Pellizzi, "Mésaventures de l'art: premières impressions des `Magiciens de la terre'," Res (Cambridge) nos. 17-18: 198-207, 1989; by Marie-Hélène de Toffol, "Arts africains contemporains," Afrique contemporain (Paris) no. 157: 63-69, 1er trimestre 1991. Jean-Hubert Martin, who curated the exhibition was interviewed at length by Benjamin Buchloh in the months before it opened. See Buchloh and Martin. For additional commentary on "Magiciens de la Terre," see Albertazzi; Guideri and Albertazzi; and Michaud.

Other commentary generated by the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition include: Neville Dubow, "Magicians of the earth," ADA: art, design, architecture (Cape Town) 8 (1st & 2nd quarters): 6-7, 1990; and Cesare Poppi, "From the suburbs of the global village: afterthoughts on "Magiciens de la Terre," Third text: Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture (London) 14: 85-96, spring 1991; Irene de Graaff, "Magiciens de la terre," [text in Dutch]. Kunstlicht (Amsterdam) 13 (3-4): 26-29, 1992.

McEvilley, Thomas. "The global issue," pp. 153-158. In: Art & otherness: crisis in cultural identity. Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson, 1992. BH39.M4344 1992X AFA. OCLC 40296897.

McEvilley was invited to contribute the keynote essay in the catalog Magiciens de la terre after he had established his credentials by writing a critical piece on the much despised "Primitivism" show. In the present essay, "The global issue," he compares those two wave-making exhibitions and their reception by a Post-Modernist art world. McEvilley is somewhat sympathetic to the premises and intentions of the "Magiciens" exhibition, though he acknowledges the curatorial shortcomings and blind spots in its implementation. The volume Art & otherness collects and/or republishes in modified form other essays by McEvilley on themes of globalization of art, multiculturalism, and Post-Modernism.

Michaud, Yves. "Doctor explorer chief curator," Third text; Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture (London) 6: 83-88, spring 1989. notes. (Special issue on "Magiciens de la Terre" translated from Les cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne). NX1.T445 AFA.

Michaud advocates dismantling all distinctions in art -- kitsch from avant-garde, fine arts from decorative arts, high art from popular art -- and recognizing that center-periphery boundaries are already becoming fuzzy if not actually obliterated. The "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition may achieve a "surrealist moment of incongruity" (page 84), which Michaud thinks is okay, but he has reservations about the aesthetic discourse that the organizers of the exhibition claim to promote. He criticizes the falseness of the criteria used to select artists -- works which are inventive or original in their cultural context -- which he avers, are no criteria at all. The result is a collection of objects which are representative of the state of creativity as viewed by the curators -- no more, no less.