African Independence, Cold War and Peace Corps

This strand explores the political contexts in which African art was created, collected, studied and displayed in the 1960s and ’70s, the period directly following the liberation of most of Africa from colonial rule and coinciding with the rise of a Cold War struggle for economic and cultural influence among the continent’s newly independent nations. This was an era during which national identities were forged, processes that enlisted artists who, tapping historic visual practices, created imagery that celebrated local, regional, or pan-African heritages. Some artists were inspired by contemporary visual idioms originating in the Global North as they sought a presence in the international art world. Soviet and American deployment of culture as “soft power” diplomacy significantly affected this post-independence African art environment, with nations’ political positions frequently dictating national attitudes towards art production and display. In many cases, Soviet-aligned African states encouraged work inspired by socialist realist art, while artists in capitalist nations incorporated international modernist influences into their work in ways which signaled their participation in systems of cultural and economic exchange. Among the more significant diplomacy programs to affect the landscape of African art during this period was the U.S. Peace Corps. A remarkable number of Peace Corps volunteers were not only involved with art programs while serving in Africa, but were also compelled by their experiences abroad to become involved in collecting African art and in its study in the United States, decisions that played a key role in the early shaping of the field of African art history as a discipline.


First group of Peace Corps Volunteers bound for Ghana, 1961.

Africana Museum at Cuttington University, Liberia, 1977.

JF Kennedy at University of Michigan, 1960.