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  • Toward Data-driven Art StudiesA Social Network Analysis of Contemporary African Art
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A self-fulfilling network. Poster of the exhibition "Lumieres d'Afriques," organized in Paris and Abidjan (2016) Photo:

In 2008, Peterson Kamwathi, a Nairobi-based Kenyan artist, was awarded a grant to visit the Dakar Biennale, in Senegal: a game changer, according to his peers. The director of the Kenyan art center that hosted his studio claimed the visit "radically changed his perspective, the way he sees things, his work, everything."1 How did it happen, and what does such a connection entail? Looking at this event through the conceptual lens of mobility leads to explanatory models such as agency, spatial imaginary, or institutional apparatus. These are valid research domains (see Marcel 2012). However, even using comparative or multisited approaches, these methods produce analyses of single individuals, cities, or regions that do not allow us to understand more global configurations, hierarchies, and flows. A broader network is often hypothesized, seldom assessed and measured quantitatively. To what extent can social network analysis explain the geography of singular careers?

There are several reasons the network of contemporary African art is a serious subject of inquiry in the studies of art and globalization.2 Firstly, there is an overwhelmingly spatial dimension in the discourses within the field. Not only is the curatorial category of contemporary African art actually a toponym, but the spatial reference is also reiterated in exhibition titles, descriptions, etc.

Figure 1 is a remarkable example of an exhibition poster visually enacting a network across the continent, using graph aesthetics to suggest Africa is interacting with itself. This same idea of a pan-African network can be easily found in the discourses and policies of the development agencies that fund contemporary art activities in Africa. The image may not be as accurate as the discourse has made it out to be. Network analysis may help to tease out more realistic models for the distribution of African art and artists.

Secondly, there is an empirical and theoretical incentive to look deeper into what is often uncritically called the "international" or "global" scale of events or actors: convenient labels for avoiding the intricate or maybe confined geography of globalizing cities. [End Page 6]

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Exhibition catalogue checklists as network generators

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Art events as nodes

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Artists as nodes, linked by appearances at the same exhibitions, displayed by national identity.

* The "usual suspects" in the titles of Figures 4-5 are 226 contemporary African artists who frequently show their work together.

If different parts of the African continent are indeed interacting with each other, the very existence of such a South-South network would go against what some art sociologists have called the deceptive nature of art globalization, still dominated by the "West." Hence, accounting for this network could prove to be a decisive task to verify one of the major claims of postcolonial theory: that Europe and North America have recently gone through a process of "provincialization" (Chakrabarty 2000).

This article stems from Artl@s, a project dedicated to creating a geo-referenced database of transnational art circulations using the information contained in a written document such as an exhibition catalogue or a curriculum vitae (Joyeaux-Prunel and Marcel 2015). Using this source, I will demonstrate how the same data can be geographically disrupted in ways that create entirely different impressions about the network of African art and participating artists. To probe the contemporary African art network, I first looked at catalogues of widely recognized, field-defining events ranging from 1990 to today.3 By art event, I mean exhibitions and biennales that generate the kinds of lists (such as catalogues) that allow quantitative analysis. In such an approach, these lists serve as the evidence of connections, encounters, and mobilities.

Ethnographers may find this model difficult to swallow. For instance, anyone who has attended a biennale generally observes people ignoring each other rather than interacting, a lot like...


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pp. 6-11
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