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  • Gifts from Our Elders:African Arts and Visionary Art History
  • Monica Blackmun Visonà (bio)

Sometime in 1975, I walked into the office of Arnold Rubin (1937-1988), an associate professor in the department of art at the University of California, Los Angeles, inquiring about graduate study in Africanist art history. Students of African art, he assured me, would be at the forefront of mighty changes in the academic world. He promised that we would blow the dust off the hidebound field of art history. Rather shaken by his passionate rhetoric, I left thinking I might be too conventional for such an avant-garde enterprise. So after a much more pragmatic conversation with Herbert M. ("Skip") Cole about the shrinking number of teaching positions in art history, I headed to the University of California, Santa Barbara, for my graduate work. There I was plunged into a program of instruction and research that was full of its own unexpected adventures and rewards. While I have always been immensely grateful that Skip Cole agreed to be my advisor and guide, I have never forgotten Rubin's vision, his assertion that Africanist art historians would overturn entrenched paradigms and revolutionize the study of art.

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St. Michael's and All Angels, CCAP church constructed by the congregation of the Church of Scotland, 1888–1891, Blantyre Malawi.

all photos by M.B. Visonà, 2016, except where otherwise noted

This issue of African Arts celebrates a generation of scholars—the elders of our discipline—whose contributions shaped the journal when it was launched as african arts/arts d'afrique some fifty years ago. Arnold Rubin was one of these, as he had been appointed editor of "graphic and plastic arts" when the second issue of the fledgling magazine appeared in 1968. As a member of his students' generation, the cohort charged with bringing the study of African art into the twenty-first century, I would like to revisit my initial encounter with this influential scholar and teacher through the lens of African Arts. Has his vision indeed become a reality? Have Africanists reshaped the narrative of art history over the last fifty years and brought novel, interdisciplinary, Africa-centered approaches to a staid Eurocentric discipline?

Clearly, I encountered Arnold Rubin during a time when his own views had been shaped by the theoretical and methodological debates swirling around the art department at UCLA, and by his awareness of the new and rather tenuous position of Africanists within the discipline of art history. After all, in the United States the first dissertation on an African topic presented for a PhD in art history (rather than anthropology or Egyptology) had been written less than twenty years earlier, in 1957, by Roy Sieber (1923–2001). While art historians such as Douglas Fraser (1930–1982) may have taught courses on African art as "Primitive Art" during the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that Africanist scholars such as Sieber and Frank Willett (1925–2006) could draw on their own fieldwork when they offered classes in American art history departments. Rubin presented his thoughts on the development of the field at a conference on "African Art Studies in the 1980s" held at UCLA in 1979 and reviewed for African Arts by Marla Berns:1

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Mandala House, constructed for the African Lakes Corporation in 1882 (thatch roof replaced by corrugated metal in the colonial era) now the home of La Caverna art gallery, Blantyre, Malawi.

all photos by M.B. Visonà, 2016, except where otherwise noted

In Rubin's opinion, African art studies have not yet adequately fulfilled their self-appointed mission of integrating the humanities with the social sciences to show how art works in [End Page 1] society. Attainment of this objective would have important ramifications for the broader discipline of art history . . . His solution to parochialism is "to bring home these tools and techniques [developed by Africanists] and test them in the larger arena" of art historical scholarship

(Berns 1979:18–19).

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Professor Willie Nampeya and an American visitor in the sculpture garden set within...


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