- Future Thinking:Propositions and Possibilities for African Art History
Fifty years—more or less a generation—is a significant landmark for African Arts. The journal is now an elder, with all of the gravitas that role entails, and yet it is reborn with each new issue. Like all the best elders, African Arts embraces change without adopting the trends of any particular moment. With apologies for the layers of self-referentiality, we note that in his First Word for the first issue in this year's fiftieth anniversary commemoration (vol. 50, no. 1), Tobenna Okwuosa cited Mary Nooter Roberts, who had observed in her own 2005 First Word that African Arts is "synonymous with the study of African art" (Roberts 2005: 1). So it is. Indeed, the trajectory of African art history is manifested in the artistic genres, regions, time periods, and thematic concerns that have populated this journal's pages. For young researchers as for prominent scholars, engaging with African
Arts is a direct route to the current discourse in the field.
The members of the newly established publishing consortium that produces the journal have used this fiftieth birthday to take stock, as Marla Berns noted in her introduction to the first of the year's special issues. Each of the four "nodes" in our consortium takes a distinct approach to this reflection on the field for the year's fiftieth anniversary issue. The UNC editorial team has proposed a rather ambitious theme: African art history's futures. This theme, we reasoned, provides opportunities to look both backward and forward, taking stock of where we have been in order to discern both the paths that extend from past approaches into new directions, as well as the wholly new trajectories being forged by scholars and artists who bring new technologies, methodologies, and objects of research into the field. We have commissioned articles from scholars and artists who are firmly located within the lineage of African art history, as well as from others who have not previously presented their work in this disciplinary context but whose research illuminates Africa's expressive arts. This diversity of approaches might take us in unanticipated and productive directions. Indeed, the results have stimulated us to think through the field in new ways, through new tools and an array of literatures and expressive forms.
Our charge to these contributors was deliberately broad, asking them to consider their research and/or their artistic practice in the context of futures. Their responses might include speculations about directions for future research, mobilizations of new technologies, and artistic imaginings of futures whether utopian or dystopian.
We also encouraged the authors to react to our prompt in a compressed form, rather than in articles of the conventional length for academic journals. With several shorter articles, this issue contains more futures, more possibilities. In commissioning these contributions, we aim to speculate rather than to predict, to point to a broadening vista rather than a single path.
This issue presents analysis facilitated by innovative technologies (Marcel), as well as artistic meditations on the cultural impact of technologies (Tuggar). A consideration of the trope of the space traveler in the work of Afrofuturist artists makes future-thinking explicit (Hamilton), and a close reading of a recent, controversial artistic intervention reveals the jagged edges that separate art worlds from the broader community—a subject of increasing relevance as the global contemporary art market continues to expand in Africa (Jakubowski). An analysis of masquerade, that most classical of African art forms, is perhaps unexpected in this future-oriented context (Fenton). Yet by employing an underutilized frame—the artistic biography—this analysis reveals new insights into the artistry and the economy of contemporary masquerade production.
An exhibition preview article presents a major reinstallation of a public museum's permanent collection of African art (Perrill). This context poses a perennial challenge to practitioners of African art history: how to effectively present the vast diversity and complexity of African art to broad publics while negotiating the constraints of exhibition space, museum-goers' attention spans, and the vagaries of museum collections built over time and through opportunism as much...