P161 – Made for Market. The Circulation of African Art in the 20th and 21st Centuries
9 July, 16:00-17:30

Forni Silvia / Royal Ontario Museum
Steiner Christpher B. / Connecticut College


This panel looks at the system of collection and display by exploring the social networks and economic structures that regulate the production and circulation of works of African art in the global markets. Although important works in this direction have been published since the late 1970s, often the literature on the commercial dimensions of the African art market has assumed a kind of reprimanding tone. Our wish is to move beyond criticism and build a legitimate framework within which to collect and interpret African art of recent production intended for an external market. Our aim is to provide an ethnographic and historical context within which to understand and interpret African art assembled during the latter part of the 20th century by collectors purchasing in Africa. We are not suggesting that trade pieces be elevated to the category of high art, but the need to situate such works within their appropriate ethnohistorical context.
Papers address issues of market trends; transformation in taste and aesthetics in relation to changing historical conditions; the significance of 20th-century artistic production as locally relevant material culture and/or commodity; the role of African and Western traders and dealers in determining the value, appreciation and understanding of African art.

Faits pour le marché. La circulation de l’art africain aux 20e et 21e siècles

Ce panel propose d’analyser le système de collection et d’exposition en suivant de près les réseaux sociaux et les structures économiques qui influencent la production et la circulation des œuvres d’art africain sur les marchés mondiaux. Alors que des travaux importants ont été publiés depuis la fin des années 1970, la littérature sur les perspectives commerciales du marché de l’art africain a souvent émis des réserves. Notre souhait est de dépasser cette critique, et de construire un cadre cohérent afin d’analyser et interpréter l’art africain récent, à destination du marché étranger. Il s’agira de resituer à travers un contexte ethnographique et historique afin de comprendre et interpréter l’art africain recueilli tout au long de la dernière partie du 20e siècle par des collectionneurs qui se fournissaient en Afrique. L’enjeu n’est pas d’évaluer ces pièces commerciales selon les critères de chef d’œuvre, mais plutôt de restituer le contexte ethnographique et historique de leur appropriation.
Les communications aborderont les questions de l’évolution du marché; la transformation du goût et l’esthétique par rapport aux changements historiques; l’importance de la production artistique au 20ème siècle tant du point de vue culturel que commercial ; le rôle des marchands et galeristes africains et occidentaux dans l’évaluation des objets, leur appréciation, et la prise en compte de l’art africain.


Paper 1

Visona Monica Blackmun / University of Kentucky

The Hidden African Histories of Artworks from Colonial Côte d’Ivoire

Provenance for an African art work is usually constructed after it has arrived in a European collection. Of course, for a few notable exceptions (such as the royal treasures seized by French soldiers after their conquest of Dahomey) their status as spoils of war has added to the aura of the objects themselves, and in other cases (such as the monuments carved by esteemed Yoruba artists, or pieces collected by Brazza or Frobenius) histories of objects have been connected to the achievements of specific individuals. But typically the early lives of sculptures and masks in colonial Africa, beginning with their creation and their acquisition by their first owners, are completely unknown; they can only be generically reconstructed by fieldwork conducted in their home region at a later period of time. This paper examines gaps in the recorded lives of selected artworks taken from Côte d’Ivoire in the first few decades of the twentieth century, all of which have accumulated distinguished provenances since their arrival in Europe, and several of which are currently on display in an exhibition at the Musée de Quai Branly. The fractured biographies of these objects challenge two (competing) assumptions: the belief that an expert can determine the approximate history of an artwork by evaluating its physical qualities alone; and the notion that close examination can yield no valuable information about missing episodes in the life of a statue. Throughout the paper, I argue that lacunae in such provenances (whether real or imagined) continue to shape the ways African art is perceived and marketed today.

Paper 2

Steiner Christopher / Connecticut College

Missionary Entrepreneur: Dr. George W. Harley and the Marketing of Liberian Masks

Dr. George W. Harley is perhaps best known for his collection of Liberian masks and artifacts sold to the Peabody Museum at Harvard from the late 1930s to early 1950s. Works documented to have been collected by Harley also command increasingly high prices on the international art market. Less known, however, is the role Harley played in commodifying African art, and commissioning replicas for the art trade.

This paper will explore how the missionary-collector interacted with a burgeoning private African art market during the mid 20th century. And how Harley reproduced, refinished, and refashioned Liberian art and artifacts to satisfy what he perceived to be Western art collector tastes and desires.

Paper 3

Gagliardi Susan / Emory University

An Iconoclastic Movement, the Catholic Church, and a Market for Senufo Art in the 1950s

In 1953, French Catholic missionary Gabriel Clamens published a photograph of a group of sculptures in a grove in northern Côte d’Ivoire. His colleague Michel Convers subsequently identified the site of the photo as a grove in the Senufo-speaking town of Lataha. Scholars and other admirers of African art have since viewed the photo as proof of the sculptures’ origins or abandonment in Lataha. They also claim that Clamens, Convers, and other Europeans, including Swiss art dealer Emil Storrer, saved the sculptures and hundreds of other works from destruction caused by a widespread iconoclastic movement known as Massa. Yet, extant documents, some previously unexamined, suggest that the missionaries may have had other motives for collecting and selling the objects. Funds generated from sale of the art facilitated completion of a Catholic church building in the northern Ivoirian town of Ferkessédougou nearly two decades after the construction initiative began. In this paper, I examine how disparate individuals and interests may have coincided with Massa to fuel a lucrative trade in art from the region, including sculptures photographed at Lataha. Thus, I shift emphasis away from a narrative of Europeans’ rescue of arts slated for ruin and posit that local and international markets for the sculptures may have flourished as individuals of diverse backgrounds variously sought personal and collective gain.

Paper 4

Silverman Raymond / University of Michigan

Sacred/Profane: Ethiopian Orthodox Church Painting and the Market

For the last 1500 years the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been the primary site for the circulation of devotional imagery in the form murals, icons and manuscript illuminations. During the 20th century this practice, which continues to thrive within the Church, has found its way to global markets. For at least the last 50 years, artists who receive commissions for and from churches have been producing paintings for sale to tourists and merchants; this has spawned a remarkable creative tension between spiritual and economic motivations for art production. The dynamics of contemporary art production in Aksum—the site of the research upon which this paper is based—are complicated. Some of the finest artists in Aksum have acquired their skills working for merchants who train young artists by having them copy historic models who are told not to copy but to produce variations of specific icons or manuscript illuminations. Some of these artists are also producing work for the Church. In
tense competition among artists and shop owners has fueled innovations in the kinds of objects that are being produced for the market; some of these have found their way into the Church. Imagery from other parts of the world has made its way to Aksum via mechanically reproduced media where it has influenced artists painting for both Church and shop. This paper attempts to unpack and interpret this vibrant discursive tradition within broader contexts of global image making and consumption.

Paper 5

Forni Silvia / Royal Ontario Museum

Of Patterns and Markets: the Making and Unmaking of Asafo flags

Though relatively late discoveries in the world of African art, Asafo flags have been sold and purchased as art works for over 3 decades, and particularly after the publication of Peter Adler’s 1992 book Asafo! This paper analyzes how Adler’s publication has been key in the creation of a specific artistic canon for Asafo flags that privileges specific techniques, formats and compositions among the rather nuanced and varied production that can be documented in situ. Adler’s canon creation however does not only influence the reception of Asafo flags in Western art collections, but also local production and reproduction of flag patterns and motifs . In particular I focus on the production of one particular workshop in the central region responsible for the production of a large number of high qualities replicas of famous patterns, alterations and “repairs” older flags, as well as new innovative creations for the local and international markets.

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