[Return to AfAA Archives]

African Art and Anthropology: Representing the Social Self
American Anthropological Association Meetings
November 2006, San José, CA

Organized by Bennetta Jules-Rosette and J.R. Osborn
(Univeristy of California at San Diego

2006 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

On Thursday, 16th November 2006, the AfAA invited session “African Art and Anthropology: Representing the Social Self,” co-organized by Bennetta Jules-Rosette and J.R. Osborn, was presented at the AAA Annual Meetings in San José. Papers by Bennetta Jules-Rosette, J.R. Osborn, and Hudita Mustafa examined Bogumil Jewsiewicki’s concept of collaboratively constructed “transactional identities.” Panelists analyzed how artists and researchers use self-positioning to create an imagined world that recalibrates the past and the present. Applying this approach, Jules-Rosette addressed popular African painting. Osborn analyzed contemporary Sudanese calligraphic art. And, Mustafa looked at fashion in Dakar as a social and artistic construction. Imageries of popular painting, calligraphy, and fashion deploy the self as a vehicle for interrogating larger social issues that transcend the frame of the art. Discussant comments by Bogumil Jewsiewicki (the AfAA Distinguished Lecturer for 2006) and David Coplan noted that the panelists were going beyond the reflexive turn to propose a new genre challenging the limits of shared anthropology and the strategies of negotiation used in the ethnography of art. This session was a prelude to the Distinguished Lecture by Bogumil Jewsiewicki later that evening, in which several of the popular paintings discussed in the panel were reviewed and reinterpreted. All participants agreed that these topics should be further explored in another sessionat the 2007 AAA Meetings.

Session Abstract

Contemporary African art develops imbricated themes that reflect critical social intersections. This panel addresses popular African painting, abstraction, calligraphy, and photography as sources of creativity, social change, and encoded reflections of social interaction. It also explores the reflexive reversal of self-positioning involved in an anthropological examination of African art. Papers analyze how artists use self-positioning to create an imagined world that recalibrates the past and the present. Construction of the “self” through portraiture, photography, fashion, and performance reveal the ways in which multiple cultures are defined and absorbed as codified communications. Popular painting, photography, and performance encourage participation in the present, reworking of history, and reflection on imagined futures. The “self” and the “work” are represented as semiotic signifiers for social relations as art interweaves with the social context of its creation and reproduction. The biographical text is inserted and encoded into artworks, thereby generating an autocriticism of the art and an anthropological commentary on its form, content, and viewers. Likewise, anthropology transforms and represents the social world through the critical self of the anthropologist engaged in research. Placed within a field site, researchers decode social interactions for critically rendering the image of the other culture. By occulting the self, anthropological discourse empowers the ethnographer’s descriptive image and removes it from the realm of artistic commentary and reconfiguration. Conversely, the imagery of popular African painting and photography deploys the self as a vehicle for interrogating larger social issues that transcend the frame of the art. In conclusion, this panel explores the intersection of art and criticism with reference to the representation of social selves as creators and critics. The “dangerous” challenge of this intersection lies in reinserting the self into art and anthropology.


Through a Glass Darkly: Bogumil Jewsiewicki and the Anthropology of African Art
Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Univeristy of California at San Diego

Dialogical interchanges across artists, critics, and their audiences constitute the backstage productions and ideological fabric of contemporary African art. Emphasis is placed on Bogumil Jewsiewicki’s anthropology of art as a staging ground, mirror, and point of reflection for works of contemporary African painting and for the dialogical positioning of an alternative anthropology of art. Through examining the construction of the social self in these dialogues and encounters, this paper explores new perspectives and methodologies for the analysis of artistic production and reception. Painting is an object of exchange, an imaginary signifier, and a discursive medium that links the artist and the anthropologist in an ongoing dialogue about the self in history and social context. Using Congolese painters Tshibumba Kanda Matulu and Chéri Samba as points of departure, this paper examines how artists and critics collaborate in the construction of new aesthetic, social, and discursive codes. This dialogue involves both the mirroring and erasure of the social self across the perspectives of artistic and anthropological genres. It includes a sociosemiotic analysis of art works in relationship to the texts that inscribe them and with respect to the audiences whose perceptions, interests, and demands help to generate new works and fields of art. The paper concludes with a discussion of how images and genres of popular painting are transmogrified and reinterpreted via the interactions and reflexive dialogues of the artist and the anthropologist.

"Writing Cultures" with Arabic Letters: The School of Khartoum And Contemporary Calligraphic Art
J.R. Osborn, Univeristy of California at San Diego

This paper explores the use of Arabic calligraphic motifs in the contemporary art of Sudan, especially the works of Osman Waqialla, Ahmed Shibrain, Ibrahim al-Salahi, Hasan Musa and the loosely affiliated School of Khartoum. The relations of Arabic calligraphy present an abstract aesthetic geometry divorced from figurative representation, which bridge the Islamic calligraphic tradition with the abstract formal concerns of contemporary artists. Through the application and reworking of calligraphic letterforms, artists insert their work in dialogue between historical legacy and imagination of the future. The use of layering and new materials furthers this dialogue as the aesthetic writing becomes graphically situated within a network of visual and cultural markers. This movement, in which the presence of Arabic letters provide a visual marker for identity and tradition, follows what Dr. Wijdan Ali has labeled the calligraphic school of contemporary Arabic art. Thus, Arabic writing reinserts the artistic self within the work, even as the self is visually erased as a figurative representation. Handwritten and hand-painted letters operate as signifiers and signatures of the moral and artistic self who remains unseen upon the canvas. Such abstraction of the self also reconfigures Islamic calligraphic tradition as a reflexive commentary upon the formal and abstract concerns of contemporary art. As the Sudanese artist Ahmed Shibrain suggests, “Arabic calligraphy with its flexible motion and its famous decorative notation comes to be more than calligraphy. It is a body of aesthetical cultural impact intending to elevate the Islamic being to its full contemporary represen-tation in the plastic arts."

Reassemblage of Value and Selves: Fashion Creativity in Dakarois Ateliers
Hudita Mustafa, Harvard University

This paper examines the creative process in Dakar cutur, a globalized field of garment production and fashion whose purpose is the creation of masterful selves. Tailors and clients collaborate to create garments of beauty and value in Dakar’s numerous ateliers. The broader context of crisis and instabilities of value means that creation of style in cutur is shaped by contestations over what counts as beauty, labor and value. Tailoring has been a key site of middle class women’s entrepreneurial activity since the 1980s economic crisis. It relies upon global circuits of cloth, accessories, machines and images. Since women entrepreneurs rely upon male artisanal labor cutur and ateliers are filled with conflict over labor processes, production schedules, wages and money. Amidst everyday conflict, the fundamental principle of creation is the reassemblage of values. Dakarois disaggregate the values of styles, conventions, photographs, borrowed garments, street fashion, ceremonial fashion and imaginative fancies. Creation then reassembles multiple values- financial, aesthetic and moral- of these inspiring elements in order to enable the emergence of the latent potentialities of cloth, client and tailor. As tailoring entrepreneurs, trained artisanal tailors and clients negotiate style, price and self-presentation, each asserts distinct mastery within the field of fashion. Simultaneously public and intimate spaces, cutur’s ateliers enable the emergence of valuing communities that are shaped not by fixed regimes of value but by instability and cultural exchange and so a complex reassemblage and mastery of values and selves in Dakar.


Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Université Laval
David Coplan, University of Witwatersrand

[Return to AfAA Archives]