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  • African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity
  • Mary Jo Arnoldi
African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity. By Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2007. xviii + 382 pp. ISBN 978-0-253-21922-0 paper.

Sidney Kasfir has produced a rich comparative study of the impact of colonialism and commodification on warrior culture and its related arts among the Samburu of Kenya and the Idoma of Nigeria with whom she has worked for many decades. The book is divided into four parts: warriors and warriorhood; artistic practices; objects; and commodification. [End Page 246]

Part one, "Warriors," opens with an examination of the differences in colonial attitudes and representations of warriors among the Samburu and Idoma between the 1880s and the 1930s. In telling this story Kasfir weaves together an extensive body of travel literature and colonial records to elucidate the complexity of colonial attitudes and policies towards Samburu and Idoma warriors and their practices. What emerges in the Samburu case is the differences in attitudes towards Samburu warriors between the white settlers and the colonial administrators which were sometimes diametrically opposed. Since there was no settler population in Nigeria, the dominant voice about the Idoma was that of the colonial government and this voice was overwhelmingly negative towards Idoma warriors and their practices and these attitudes were widely shared by missionaries, traders and others.

In part two, "Sculptors and Smiths," Kasfir shifts the focus to examine how colonial policies affected changes in the artistic practices of Samburu blacksmiths and Idoma carvers. Samburu blacksmiths produced the spears that were both weapon and penultimate symbol of warriorhood. Idoma carvers were the creators of masks that replaced actual skulls that men danced as the aesthetic expression of their warrior identity.

In part three, "Masks, Spears and The Body," Kasfir turns her attention to the objects themselves and the ways that objects accrue meanings both internally and outside of the societies that produce them. The objects in this case include not only Idoma masks and Samburu spears but how these objects are related to the body and partake of what Kasfir has called warrior theater. In this section Kasfir takes the objects as texts and examines the ways that they have been looked at and written about in the colonial and post colonial spaces they have come to inhabit.

In part four, "Commodities," Kasfir examines the differences in commodification of Idomo masks and Samburu spears throughout the last century. As she notes, the ultimate commodification among the Samburu was of the warrior himself as the subject and object of photographic and cinematic representation.

I found the book to be well organized, analytically rich, elegantly written and a compelling read. In her sections on the colonial period Kasfir raised important questions about historicity, evidence, and the nature of representations about two different African societies. The complexity of colonial representations clearly shines through here. Her focus on the ways that colonial policies affected changes in artistic practices should inspire Africanist scholars to relook at this period elsewhere on the continent. Finally, her careful analysis of the production of meaning and the commodification of Samburu and Idoma warrior arts and aesthetic practices has important implications for all of our future studies of African arts. [End Page 247]

Mary Jo Arnoldi
Smithsonian Institution


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pp. 246-247
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