- African Art and Agency in the Workshop ed. by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, Till Forster
African Art and Agency in the Workshop, coedited by Emory University art history professor emerita Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and University of Basel social anthropology professor Till Forster, is made up of essays presented in April 2007 at the triennial Symposium in African Art, held at the University of Florida. Most of the panelists were the coeditors’ graduate students and former students, whose essays are augmented with data from fieldwork done by the editors in Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. To make the volume as formidable as it stands, chapters have been added by the coeditors’ intellectual colleagues who have conducted fieldwork in the above-named countries, as well as in Uganda, Mozambique, Zambia, and South Africa. The book is published in the African Expressive Cultures Series, organized by Indiana University Press. Publication has benefited from funds from the University of Basel and Emory University for the production of color plates, as have the coeditors’ scholarly travels in several countries.
In an eloquent introduction, Kasfir and Forster provide the rationale for the workshops, which, they say, as “any group of artisans, large or small, who not only share a workspace but, in most cases, also draw on it as a stable framework of communication and learning[,] governed by the acknowledged expertise of one or more senior members of the group—are one of the most basic institutions of production of African art and material culture” (p. 1). These workshops, as a social and economic institution, have “been an issue in a variety of disciplines” (p. 2). Furthermore, readers are informed that they have “obtained a high degree of attention in economic history as well as in the social sciences” (p. 6). Also, the coeditors point out that, apart from being places of learning and interaction, workshops are social settings (p. 12). Above all, readers are made aware, in the introduction, that among the laudable happenings at a workshop is that “members, and in particular younger members, project themselves into the experienced work of others [senior ones]” (p. 15).
Thirteen scholars have contributed to the volume. In the section titled “The Contributions to This Book” (pp. 24–36), Kasfir and Forster provide useful summaries of each writer’s contribution. For example, they discuss the longitudinal study of a famous Yoruba family workshop in Abeokuta by Norma Wolff, of Iowa State University: it was the Adugbologe family business, which Wolff traces “from its efflorescence in the early 1970s to its radical shrinkage by 1999” (p. 24).
The book is divided into four parts, with part four specifically dealing with comparative aspects. Included in the study are equally illuminating studies, including Smithsonian Institution curator Karen E. Milbourne’s chapter, described by the coeditors as being an impressive study. In the context of the political formation of workshops, Alexander Bortolot of Minneapolis Institute of Arts shows how the ideology of the socialist liberation [End Page 142] movement known as FRELIMO required a collective mode of production, fostering the emergence of a distinct socialist style and iconography (p. 32). Mozambique-based FRELIMO leaders, as readers are told, made sure that cooperatives operated through a somewhat different structure, whereby artists were fully integrated. Above all, the liberation movement, whose leaders became rulers in independent Mozambique, “sought to return creative agency to the masses and reorient artistic creation along communal lines” (p. 58). Apart from specialists, readers who might especially benefit from this volume are scholars of African studies with interdisciplinary backgrounds, including advanced graduate or postgraduate students.