Digging in . . . our first semester (Fall 2018)

Since the start of our project in September 2018, our group has been exploring the interplay of various historical events in the 1960s that influenced the transformation of the canon of African art and the establishment of African art history as an academic discipline. Conceptualized across three main strands of inquiry, our research has considered the largely unrecognized impact of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on the study of African art in the US; the presence of the Peace Corps and other US-backed organizations on the African continent; and the importance of cultural activities taking place across Africa following independence. Our research has identified twenty-six HBCU collections of African art, and has provided a more nuanced understanding concerning the Peace Corps and other diplomatic strategies associated with the Cold War in newly-independent African nations. During the fall semester, we placed particular emphasis on artistic developments across the African continent, investigating the importance of Pan-African festivals, and the founding of national museums and art schools in a number of African countries. We hosted three scholars of African art history, Professor Chris Steiner (Connecticut College), Professor Sylvester Ogbechie (University of California-Santa Barbara) and Curator Paul Davis (The Menil Collection), who helped us contextualize the ways in which art was deployed in the forging of national identities. A special topics course, jointly offered by the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies and History of Art, titled, “Inventing African Art: A Continent on Display,” was developed to offer students an opportunity to pursue a number of lines of inquiry associated with the project, alongside members of the team.

As our project progresses, we continue to discover synergies among the various research strands. For instance, at the same time that HBCUs were building an important knowledge base for African art, African-American artists traveled to exhibit their work in Africa. Research focused on the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) in 1966 has revealed some of the political motivations for American and European involvement in the cultural affairs of Africa. In examining the geopolitical factors associated with the creation and early years of the Peace Corps, we have learned more about precursor organizations such as the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) and Operations Crossroads Africa (OCA).

As we discover more narratives and trajectories to explore, we continue to navigate the exciting challenge of synthesizing our discoveries and thinking about how they might be represented in a publication and exhibition. To further enhance the collaborative nature of our project, we have developed several questionnaires and a project website to communicate any updates and to encourage requests from interested scholars and institutions.

We look forward to collection visits and archival research, as well as meetings with colleagues, during a February site visit to the museums at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College. Also in February, we plan to consult the archives dealing with the First World Festival of Negro Art (FESMAN) at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We anticipate future conversations with scholars connected to HBCUs and the Peace Corps over the course of the winter semester. Our team also plans to conduct research visits to consult with individuals and institutions in a number of African countries during the summer of 2019.

The Making African Art Team. From left to right: Traci Lombre (Graduate student, American Culture); Evan Binkley (Undergraduate student, History of Art and Museum Studies); Laura De Becker (Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator, UM Museum of Art); Raymond Silverman (Professor, History of Art, African Studies and Museum Studies); Kelly Askew (Professor, Anthropology and African Studies); and Sandra Nwogu (Graduate Student, Statistics). Not pictured: Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo (Professor, Art and Design).

Evan Binkley
Undergraduate Researcher