PRINT September 1991


ORWELL GOT IT WRONG—it’s not 1984 but 1992 that will give us a Europe reunited on a scale last seen in the time of the Roman Empire. Those worrying over the possibility of act II in a play of world imperialism may be heartened to remember that when the Romans built their roads, they had no idea that those very avenues of commerce and command would accelerate the spread of Christianity, a revolutionary force within their midst. Similarly, could the vaporizing of Europe’s borders next year usher in an age of transnational popular art and music, undermining claimed cultural superiorities? Pouring Kongo, Dahomey, and Yorubaland into Portuguese America, for example, brought into being the subversive pleasures called Brazilian popular culture, especially forró and samba.1 What happens when the more than 1½ million Africans and black Antilleans in Paris, the hundreds of thousands of black Caribbeans in London, the thousands of blacks, respectively from Central Africa and Suriname, in Lisbon and Amsterdam, and so on, are free to wander where they will across the old centers of colonial domination?

However, at the dawn of what we hope will be a culturally democratic world, we are called, out of our name, post-Modern. Can an oxymoron really serve as a slogan for potential richness and redemption? Can anything really be post-now? To me, the word “post-Modern” suggests another of those patricidal, patriarchal Western wars of intellect, the junking of one age in favor of another. This is particularly dangerous when we’ve not fully tabulated the wonders created during the Modern age among women and men of color beyond the West, to say nothing of within it. No wonder black intellectuals like bell hooks and Cornel West have questioned this movement.2 My fear is that post-Modernists don’t really mean it. They may want to honor “the Other,” to cancel colonialist “self,” to honor the important cultures beyond the West, but for the time being, at any rate, their call for liberation comes mostly in purely European phrasings and agendas. Zen, or Yoruba Ifá divination, or Australian dreamtime should surely have as much place in their argument as Kant or Hegel or Foucault. Perhaps most troubling is the pious intonation of concern about “the Other,” an implicitly polarizing coinage that enshrines the marginality of persons of color across the globe. A retelling of Modernism to show how it predicts the triumph of the current sequences would reveal that “the Other” is your neighbor—that black and Modernist cultures were inseparable long ago. Why use the word “post-Modern” when it may also mean “postblack”?

Avoid the mine field. Why not simply speak of early Modernism, duly exposing its colonialism but not overlooking, this time around, its positive Africanizing, and then move on to full Modernism, creole time, the Modernism of today. Toulouse-Lautrec painting “Chocolat” in the Kongo pose, Picasso’s notorious uses of African line and color, were but tips of icebergs. Early Modernism includes jazz, early women’s blues, Katherine Dunham’s choreography, Broadway Boogie Woogie, and the hand of Paul Klee. It means the continuous opening up of world consciousness by black Africans and black Americans performing life as art. And it proceeds quite logically into full Modernism, when unleashed democratic forces inherent in all this mixing really get going. Borrow, if you wish, the dates of post-Modernism for full Modernism, but without the exclusions implicit in some of the former’s philosophy and phrasing-power.

The impact of creative blackness on early Modernism really remains to be written. We’re talking roughly seven decades, not just the years around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, first published in 1938, is one of the starting points of existentialism. Yet what do we find at the very end of that book? “Jazz enables the central character to escape momentarily from the...overpowering feeling of nausea that engulfs him.”3 Jazz to Sartre is “beautiful and hard as steel [making] people ashamed of their existence.”4 Jorge Luis Borges, similarly, was taught cultural toughness by the world of the Afro-Argentinian tango, and he knew that tango, like all great genuine things, embodies mystery.5 John Cage’s infamous “prepared piano,” Judith Wilson relates, emerged when “the legendary African-American dancer/choreographer Syvilla Fort’s request for music for one of her dances led Cage to attempt to compose an African-sounding score. . . [by attaching] screws or bolts” to the piano strings.6 (’Course black musicians in New Orleans had long modified their horns with hats and “prepared” their drums with tied-on gongs and cymbals. But couch, as Daniel Dawson puts it, your Africanizing transformation in pretension and it comes out art.7)

Just a couple more examples: some of Martha Graham’s basic ideas for costuming, and stance, and gravity-indulgence, apparently came from observing Sea Island women in a shout. She never hid her sources, either, but talked gratefully to some of her students about black dance as a universe of being, an imperative for modern dance.8 And when we read Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude we find that one of the cultural engines that set his mind in motion was none other than the zoot suit of chicano (pachuco) Los Angeles, the black-invented zoot suit with the reat pleat. This the pachuco wore, Paz said, in wonder, to flaunt “his differences.”9

The zoot suit—cubism as apparel, the wearing of satiric dozens as dress—was an early example of Africa staring back, of Africa remaking Europe and America. This is why it is so peculiar to talk about the “Other”: “the Others,” women and men virtually next door, are deeply and creatively embedded in our contemporary culture. All of which leads straightaway to Susan Vogel’s new exhibition and particularly its superb catalogue on 20th-century African art, “Africa Explores.” With contributions by six distinguished scholars, Walter E. A. van Beek, Donald John Cosentino, Ima Ebong, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Thomas McEvilley, and V. Y. Mudimbe, the book is a landmark volume. And the show, a rare effort—rare in Africa as well as here—to display the broad sweep of contemporary visual creativity in that continent, from the villages to the town and city streets to the art schools, lets us in on aspects of different people’s and peoples’ responses to the 20th century’s modernity that we should examine before we toss the whole age in the trash.

Start with the title: “Africa Explores.” Later for you, Columbus. This time around they are discovering us, “while my back had been turned studying traditional African art,” as Vogel notes.10 The exhibition is an attempt to descry an African perspective wherein “Western things and ideas are particles in a matrix of preexisting African styles and philosophies.” Vogel identifies five main stylistic trends running through this century: “traditional” art, often sculpture, emphasizing connection to the past, made by artists working for their own ethnic groups; “new functional” art, transethnic, generally village or small-town based, the artists largely self-taught innovators; “urban” or popular art, mainly produced by city sign-painters who also make “art to look at,” extroverted, immediate, and amusing; “international” art, executed by studio-trained city artists who often represent their governments in international gatherings; and “extinct” art, the continent’s great visual heritage or visual memory, art that is no longer made as such but that is reproduced on postage stamps, flags, and other emblems to shape national consciousness “as a popular symbol divorced from its original associations.”11

The study of these trends as equal forces points toward a more democratic world, where academically trained artists share recognition with the self-trained and the visionary. Actually, this is what one of America’s most revolutionary artists, David Hammons, has been arguing, with his mind and body, all along. Hammons challenges “art,” “art materials,” “artists,” and “art galleries” with derisory, materially coded “snapping”: you want to show the world you’re trained, I want to know what is it that you have to say.12

Contemporary African art, from studio to compound and back again, has a hell of a lot to say. There is a triumphant emphasis on content in this work, as Vogel reports: “the general consensus is that [contemporary African art] must honor, instruct, uplift, clarify, or even scold, expose, and ridicule to push people to be what they must be.”13 In this respect today’s postcolonial art is continuous with traditional African literary and plastic forms. In doing honor it extends oríki and izibongo, praise poems. Admonitional paintings recall the frequent recourse to proverbs in ordinary speech. Paintings of moral derision, making the pompous and the profane face the visual music, are a direct extension of the famed sub-Saharan songs and dances and sculptures of social allusion, the roots of African-American blues, plena, calypso, guaguancó, and reggae.14

Contributions by the other scholars in Africa Explores expand our understanding of important issues. McEvilley in particular illuminates precisely what is meant by Africa, not Europe, exploring: the gaze, he says, once went all one way. Now the gaze is mutual, as recent diasporas bring hardy migrants to the former capitals of hegemonic Westernism, with their values and their questions all intact, enriching democratic discourse. Hence an explicit message of “Africa Explores”: “insofar as art is an expression of cultural identity,” McEvilley writes, “this [contemporary African] work critiques our identity through the conflation of elements of us with elements of them.”15 In other words, African artists today can show us what is right with Western ways, as well as wrong—and vice-versa. You have only to drop arrogance and listen.

Take Cheri Samba, as always a star of the exhibition. With a painting of a couple luridly making out in the subway, oblivious to all stares, Samba scores points about the sloppiness of what passes for love or sexual revolution in the West. And he is just as severe with Africans on this issue, as witness a strong painting showing careless fornicators tossing condoms out a window, which are then picked up for play by children thinking they are balloons. Samba’s famous The March against AIDS, 1988 (not in the exhibition), is full of all kinds of admonitions, driving the point home in French, Lingala, and Ki-Kongo: Bokeba nzoto, protect your body, he says in Lingala. Lukeba nitu, protect your body, he says again in Ki-Kongo. Then he zeroes in on a doctor in hospital whites and has him warn in Lingala, “AIDS doesn’t have a garden” (or, literally, "AIDS lacks vegetables—SIDA ezali na ndunda tè). AIDS needs no garden, no field, it doesn’t work as honest people do. It is a parasite. Its garden is you.16 Paintings like this, and those addressing malaria and other dangers, show that African contemporary artists are unafraid to confront the most serious issues of our time.17

But, adding balance with humor and affection, they show what’s right or valid, too. The Baoulé of Ivory Coast made miniature hats and shoes, covered with gold leaf, for display at funerals. Building on this tradition, Koffi Kouakou carves elegantly compacted wooden versions of Western formal shoes, clothes—and a laptop computer. Well aware that survival in what’s left of this century depends on computer literacy, he manages to say so with charm and wit by association of the instrument with formal dress.

Miniaturizing a Mercedes-Benz to make a high-status coffin (complete with an antenna for tuning in to the rap or reggae of the other world), like Kane Kwei, or brilliantly combining motifs from Oceania and Africa in the manner of Ouattara, or exorcising once and for all the Belgian colony days by making that period a horrifically detailed genre subject among the popular painters of Zaire, African contemporary artists win back the scope and potential of a multicultural world. Extremely liberating is their suggestion that you don’t have to give up who you are—as in the veiled masochism of the supposedly enlightened Westerner’s wish of surrender of “self” to “Other”—in order to live in harmony with others. You give, you listen, you treat others (not “the Other”) with full respect, but remain yourself and get on with it.

All of which does involve, however, admitting that African, Oceanic, and Amerindian traditional intellectuals are just as powerfully caparisoned as Western modern ones. Witness, for example, the philosophic treasures of African divination, which, as Philip M. Peek writes, involves “an intense need to know the true reasons for events, a highly skeptical and pragmatic attitude toward all types of information, and a persistent concern with adjusting to change.”18 Such “scientific” attitudes are hardly the monopoly of the occidental intelligentsia. (In traditional African divination, which I believe can be as profitably explored as Marx or Hegel, women and men often take multiple sessions, and seek out foreign diviners, intentionally to ensure objectivity. 19) Maybe in the end this is the joy and the affirmation of African contemporary artists—that like African diviners, operating in a world where past is now and there is here, they work to dramatize difference, to mark it for special consciousness, and then to transcend it by affirmation, complementarity, and synthesis, the computer with social continuity, the subway heedlessness with a better sense of self, moving openhandedly, but with tough minds, through the right kinds of gardens.

Robert Farris Thompson is a professor of the history of African-American art at Yale University. He is working on a book about African-American New York.


1. See Robert Stam, Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
2. See bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Boston: South End Press, 1990, pp. 23–31; and Cornel West, “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” in Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, eds., Remaking History, Seattle: Bay Press, 1989, pp. 87–96.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Essays in Existentialism, ed. Wade Baskin, New York: The Citadel Press, 1970, p. 420.
4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander, New York: New Directions, 1959, p. 178. From the same text (p. 175): “if I were to get up and rip this [jazz] record from the table. . . break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond—always beyond something, a voice. . . . It is. And I, too, wanted to be.”
5. Jorge Luis Borges, “A History of the Tango,” in Evaristo Carriego: A Book about Old-time Buenos Aires, trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984, p. 147: “The tango can be argued about, and we do argue about it, but like all that is genuine it contains a secret.” Part of that secret is the extent to which tango, as a style of metrics and of choreography emergent in the black barrios of Montevideo, linked to earlier Kongo-Uruguayan rituals, opened up Western popular consciousness at the birth of this century. Western critics have been slow, to phrase things mildly, to admit the extent to which black tango complexly excited Borges’ imagination, and fed his courage and creole sensibility.
6. Judith Wilson, from a letter to the author, 18 May 1989.
7. Daniel Dawson, from a conversation with the author, early June 1991.
8. According to Professor John Szwed, generously sharing his research with me recently, the folklorist Lydia Parrish has written to Melville J. Herskovits, pioneer scholar of African-American cultures, of Martha Graham viewing a film of a Sea Island shout before 1942. And Dawson has told me of a conversation with dance critic William Moore, who stated that Graham openly voiced her black sources and was proud of them.
9. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961, trans. Lysander Kemp, New York: Grove Press, 1985, pp. 14-15. The pachuco’s “deliberately aesthetic clothing,” Paz continues, “carries fashion to its ultimate consequences and turns it into something aesthetic.” Later, in a footnote on p. 18, Paz notes, “when I arrived in France in 1945, I was amazed to find that the young men and women of certain quarters. . . wore clothing reminiscent of that of the pachucos in southern California.” Of course they did. The Harlem zoot suit, accompanying, logically, the world triumph of black swing and bop, had by that time infiltrated the key centers of the Western world. Paz himself was apparently unaware of this dress style’s Harlem connections, its myriad black mediations, but a ’40s editorial attributed by Larry Neal to Ralph Ellison especially sets the record straight: “Much in Negro life remains a mystery; perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning.” Note how the writer respects, as Borges did in the tango, the profound mystery illuminating black-inspired areas of Modernist life and thought. See Neal, “Ellison’s Zoot Suit,” in Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Hersey, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 67.
10. Susan Vogel, “Foreword,” in Vogel, ed., Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art, New York: The Center for African Art, and Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991, p.8.
11. Ibid., pp. 9–10.
12. I spoke with David Hammons and Daniel Dawson at Hammons’ studio in Harlem, summer 1991.
13. Vogel, p. 16.
14. See, for example, Alan P. Merriam, “African Music,” in William R. Bascom and Melville J. Herskovits, Continuity and Change in African Cultures, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1959, pp. 49–86.
15. Thomas McEvilley, “The Selfhood of the Other: Reflections of a Westerner on the Occasion of an Exhibition of Contemporary Art from Africa,” in Africa Explores, p. 271.
16. I am grateful to Professor Fu-Kiau Bunseki for glossing, in the fall of 1989, the intricate Ki-Kongo and Lingala slogans embodied in Cheri Samba’s visual warnings.
17. When I interviewed Samba at his Paris studio in late May 1991, one of his recent works had to do, in terms of the most aggressive visual songs of allusion imaginable, with war in the Middle East.
18. Philip M. Peek, ed., African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 194.
19. Ibid., p. 195.

“Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art” has been divided into two parts: the first continues at the Center for African Art, New York, through December, and the second, having closed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, can be seen at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, from 2 October to 29 December. Subsequently the whole exhibition will run at the Dallas Museum of Art, 9 February to 5 April 1992; the Saint Louis Art Museum, 15 May to 5 July 1992; the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, N. C., 8 August to 11 October 1992; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pa., 7 November 1992 to 10 January 1993; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 6 February to 4 April 1993.