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Towards an art history of precontemporary Africa. Preliminary thoughts for a state-of-the-art assessment

Introduction to the issue
En quête d’une histoire des arts d’Afrique précontemporains. Réflexions préliminaires pour un état des lieux
Claire Bosc-Tiessé et Peter Mark
Cet article est une traduction de :
En quête d’une histoire des arts d’Afrique précontemporains. Réflexions préliminaires pour un état des lieux [fr]

Texte intégral

1Interest in African art developed at several moments during the 20th century and it continues to evolve through these early years of the present century. Generally speaking, this interest spread first in Europe and in North America, but subsequently in Africa. In all of these places, traders and collectors, and occasionally museums, took part in redefining the subject. In France, since President Macron’s speech on 28 November 2017 at the University of Ouaga 1 – Joseph Ki-Zerbo in Ouagadougou—where he called for preparing the conditions for returning Africa’s patrimony1—African objects have once again come into the spotlight. A similar phenomenon may be observed in Germany and Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands and Belgium and elsewhere, each country following the particularities of its own colonial and national heritage. This new-found concern focuses on the objects and the meanings attributed to them today, rather than on their more distant history. Interest has also developed for a hitherto ignored subject: the colonial history of objects.2 It is not that the subject was taboo, even if the legal status of objects in Western museums may be problematic, but that until recently, the study of 20th century African art was rarely historically contextualized. More often the 20th century was considered as part of the present, outside of political context. And as commentary in the press and in specialized art journals attests, everyone is now concerned with the question of the return of these objects.

A largely ignored field of study

  • 3 S.L. Kasfir, 2013.
  • 4 This white paper was produced under the auspices of the Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique (GIS) sur (...)
  • 5 For the 2017 meetings, see
  • 6 See S.L. Kasfir, 2013 and the indirect response of S. Forni and D. Malaquais, 2018.
  • 7 On this last point, see for example F. Lamp, 1996; E. Schildkrout, 2000; Z. Strother, 1998; or N. P (...)

2What, we may nevertheless ask, about the history of the arts of Africa? Whether we term it “ancient,” “precolonial,” or “precontemporary,” this early history is the poor cousin of African historical studies. In 2013 Sidney Kasfir initiated a debate in African Arts, focused on the disappearance of studies in “premodern” African art.3 The journal published fourteen responses during 2013–2014. The writers proposed explanations and offered alternative research agendas, but few focused directly on the early history. In France, the ‘livre blanc’ of African Studies, which appeared in 2016, pointed out problems specific to the history of “ancient” Africa.4 But the early history of that art remained a forgotten topic. With a few notable exceptions, the field still barely exists. Evidence of this absence is also seen in the programs of international associations (e.g. the European Conference of African Studies (ECAS) and the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA)).5 Even fewer researchers take pains to historicize the objects they study. Interest in the contemporary, the analysis of cultural borrowings and of their local socio-political significance, as well as a focus on the influence of a rapidly globalizing world; an anthropology of tourism; the “reinvention of tradition”—these and other topics have attracted scholars who might have tended towards earlier periods or who could have focused their research on rural areas, those presumed repositories of older rituals and customs.6 Other scholars, studying practices and customs of the 20th century, tried to trace a longer history, but at the cost of increasing uncertainty as their research moved back in time.7

3In a sense, this special issue, which has been in preparation since 2015 and which we would have preferred to prepare on a larger scale, itself bears witness to the relative paucity of ongoing original research into precontemporary African art. Our intention has been to organize this issue around the historicizing of artistic production and to situate the works in time. The goal was to ask the question: How, today, can we write a history, or histories, of precontemporary African arts? How, in turn, might this historicizing process contribute to the writing of history? But the case studies must necessarily adapt to the realities of field research. The number of scholars is limited, and the research paths are not marked out; each researcher devises their own agenda. So even if this special issue is also noteworthy for what it does not include, those absences show the very rarity of such research. In view of the open nature of our project, ultimately, we have presented a wide diversity of themes, ranging from the historiography of early medieval Nubian Christian art, to the recent redefinition of “Mumuye art” from Nigeria, as imposed by the international art market.

  • 8 One might, for example, refer to the work of S. and R. McIntosh, 1979; B. Gado, 1993; C. Boullier, (...)

4The absence of a distinctly historical orientation can be traced back to the early 20th century, at the moment when African art first appeared on the European artistic scene, with a few works gaining recognition as “art.” From this early period on, African art has usually been studied from an interdisciplinary perspective. Nevertheless, a specifically historical approach was most frequently ignored, in favor of studying the works in their perceived social context, often emphasizing their role in religious rituals. While this approach is appropriate for objects with a primarily or exclusively ritual function, it had the unfortunate effect of feeding the already prevalent notion of Africa as a place of mystery. At the same time, a stylistic approach to these unfamiliar forms was also emphasized. While this approach led to an appreciation of the objects for their formal qualities, it also had the long-term effect of encouraging the identification of African art by “style” and of associating the purported styles with specific ethnic groups. For the study of periods before the 18th century, archeology has sometimes replaced an historian’s approach to the objects, but that discipline too has been questioned, even if, in the past thirty years, archeological study has greatly added to our knowledge of the so-called Nok culture, as well as of the early cultures of the Inland Delta of the Niger River, and the region referred to as Komaland in Ghana.8 Ironically, advances in archeological methods have served to focus attention on gaps in our historical knowledge; these questions that lie beyond the scope of both historians and archeologists need to be addressed directly or at least recognized by the humanities.

  • 9 J. Laude, 1959; R. Bravmann, 1973, 1981; J. Polet, 2001; and P. Mark, 1992, 1998; to cite but a few

5From time to time, a call has been issued to anchor the study of African artworks in their historical context.Auteur0000-00-00T00:00:00A9 While these calls do bring attention to the danger of a timeless or atemporal approach to the objects, very few scholars have responded to the call. In fairness, it is not always clear how to even attempt to historicize a given object. Each work or group of artworks may require the scholar to adapt their methodology to take into consideration the available forms of documentation, whether written or oral, or other forms of evidence. What were the conditions under which the object was produced? What is the state of conservation? Does the scholar even have access to the work itself? All of these questions have direct bearing upon how one goes about establishing their history.

  • 10 J. Vansina, 1984. For a more modest study, see C. Bosc-Tiessé, 2015, 2018.

6To write the history of an object requires that one focus specifically on the cultural area in question, in order to cross-check the different disciplinary approaches to that culture. By then following, as it were, a sequence of concentric circles, one may investigate the context of the work’s creation, as well as the transformations of meaning and of use across time. The interconnection with research conducted in related disciplines, such as in anthropology, history, archeology, political science, and linguistics, is particularly strong. Furthermore, the research needs to follow a flexible and innovative approach to the methodology, as Jan Vansina observed more than thirty years ago. By showing what scholars had achieved in diverse case studies, he paved the way towards establishing a method for situating works of art in their historical context.10 Vansina did not propose a set method to be used in every case. He was not proposing a vade mecum to be applied literally, as each society represents a different situation. This, however, does not prevent each from sharing certain research conditions with others. His resulting methodological synthesis might be called a pragmatic theory, with the ultimate aim of establishing a true history of African art. The present special issue, following the path first traced by Vansina, proposes that the field “Africa” and the problems specific to it demand that specialists pay closer attention to historiography, methodology, and epistemology, in order to establish the basis for an interdisciplinary, historically based study of African art.

Questioning periodization

  • 11 B. Hirsch, 2010.

7It is difficult to define the chronological period. In the introduction to the inaugural issue of Afriques. Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoire, in 2010, devoted to Africa before the 19th, and then to the 20th century, Bertrand Hirsch turned to the question of periodization. He argued for a long historical perspective in studies of “ancient Africa” (in French Afrique ancienne) to replace a Eurocentric periodization (Antiquity, Medieval, Modern).11Afrique ancienne” defines the early period differently, whereas the terms “precolonial/ precontemporary” mainly tell what they are not. “Precolonial,” for example, does not apply to all of Africa; furthermore, the term immediately defines African history in terms of foreign intrusion. The historian should, rather, reason in terms of internal African dynamics. “Precontemporary” poses another question: when would such a concept begin and end? There would also be the problem that diverse artistic idioms co-exist, ranging from the so-called modern to the highly problematic, ahistorical concept of “traditional.” Clearly, terminology is a constant thorn in the researcher’s side.

  • 12 Emblematic of the ahistorical context in which much African art is studied, one need only consult t (...)

8If the editors of this issue aim for the equivalent of “medieval” to “modern,” the history of African art calls for flexibility when it comes to periodization. The age of many objects that were collected in the 19th or 20th century was never established. Most often, these objects were contemporary, or at most no more than two generations old, when they were collected. If it is assumed that they are older, the proof of that assumption needs to be demonstrated. Furthermore, these pieces were the product of a dynamic process. While this may seem a truism, the widespread perception was, and remains, that the art issues from a nearly timeless “traditional” society.12 When it comes to studying the objects themselves, the question appears from another angle: the objects do not simply represent a given, static culture. On the contrary, when they are transmitted from one generation to another, the specific social context itself changes. In a different context, the meaning and function of an object may change. The objects therefore reflect different historical strata, but these may be virtually impossible to perceive from our contemporary perspective. Be this as it may, the limited state of our knowledge usually requires that we begin with the present moment and then attempt to move backwards in time. This challenge is addressed by Richard Fardon in his essay on so-called Mumuye sculpture.

A critical reassessment of method: What is at stake?

9Historical methodology has rarely been the preferred approach of Africanist art historians. A critical reading of historical sources, with their inherent biases—not to mention a critical approach to the historiography—has too frequently been lacking. The study of artistic creation in African societies takes into account socio-political factors, and this in turn may engage preexisting stereotypes about those societies. This is why a critical historiographical reflection, enabling us to better understand and take into consideration the biases inherent in previous studies, is so important. The legacies are not the same whether one is working on Christian painting in medieval Nubia or in 20th-century Nigeria Nevertheless, certain questions do resonate across the range of studies in this issue, notably the ongoing question: what precisely is, or might be, this “Africa”? In another vein, it is crucial that we question those categories used to classify the objects according to each field, such as those concerning the designation of styles and players, the national affiliations (referring back to colonial boundaries), and the history of the designations and the issues at stake.

10Similarly, the researcher should question the nature of the corpus of works studied. One’s research is in part determined by the content of available museum collections; these collections are in turn the product of the colonial situation, or intercontinental commercial networks, or large-scale research expeditions. In each of these situations, political history created the tracks along which art historical research tends to run. These are the questions that the authors ask here, in order better to understand the determinant categories that guide museums, universities, and the art market.

11Contemporary historical methods and practices make it possible—which has not always been the case—to produce texts that at the same time both reflect diachronically on analytical practices used to study the artworks and study in detail those documents used as sources, as well as the manner in which the objects have been analyzed, to present this, our intellectual heritage. At times we need to separate ourselves from this heritage and try to put into perspective the socio-cultural, economic, and political context that gave rise to the research. In short, we need to find ways to better take into account the implicit aspects of our research. However, this is a difficult and sometimes even delicate exercise.

12Another aim of this special issue is to return to one of the fundamental objectives of art history as it relates to African art. What does it mean to date, contextualize, or attribute these works, and how exactly does one go about doing these things? Under what circumstances can the iconography, or the study of forms, provide a key both to locating the objects’ creation in time and space and to determining their initial purpose or function? The challenge is to inscribe the objects and their usage in history. But before one can undertake a study of the role and meanings of the objects, it is first necessary to situate them in their specific moment and place. In many cases, the total absence of historical sources rules out any detailed interpretation of their iconography.

13The authors in this issue of Afriques. Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoire articulate the process whereby the objects were removed from the society of their creation and, ultimately, redefined as “African art.” It has been said—not without reason—that it was their arrival in Western collections that transformed these objects into works of art; nevertheless, in this context one must emphasize that this refers to a rather narrow definition of art, one already questioned by medievalists and that needs now to be questioned for the art of other places and other times. The massive entry of African, Oceanic, and Native American objects onto the 20th-century artistic scene led some thinkers to adapt the manner in which they conceptualized the definition of art.

14“Art” is so protean that different definitions, whether esthetic, religious, or other, fail to completely encompass it. Of course, no single object can fill all of these definitions, regardless of whether it was initially created with these parameters in view or whether it has been reclassified by observers at some subsequent phase in its existence. Despite (or because of) all this, the category of art never becomes outmoded; rather, it presents an enduring space for questioning the status and the meaning of objects in the societies that have created or used them. Before we can advance in our reflections on the categories related to art in the societies we are concerned with, we need better to understand the societies themselves. While we may consider the object in its varied manifestations across time, might we not first investigate the process of cultural appropriation (expropriation) by the art market and the world of Western collectors, most notably with the vogue for “arts premiers” in the decades since 1990?

Historiographies, common questions

15The authors of this issue confront all of these questions, though each writer takes their own distinctive approach. Magdalena Wozniak proposes a historiography of the research carried out since 1963 on medieval Nubian mural painting. This was the moment when research burgeoned, stimulated by the flooding of part of the region and the resultant development of large-scale salvage archeology by Polish scholars, after an international convention with Poland. Those monuments that were not flooded by Lake Nasser were themselves reclaimed from the sand dunes; today, they are once again covered by sand—except for those works that, following the Sudanese–Polish accord, are now exhibited in the national museum in Khartoum or in museums in Poland. With mural painting, Wozniak has chosen an artistic idiom centrally important to Nubian Christian culture, which flourished from the 6th century onward, until it completely disappeared in the 15th century. These murals are a crucial source, given the fragmentary state of written texts from the Nubian kingdom; furthermore, the walls of churches are often covered with several layers of paintings, such as those in the cathedral of Faras, and offer a rare stratigraphy. These murals feature numerous historical figures: bishops, queens, and kings, as well as various dignitaries, whose interpretation, though complicated, may be facilitated by the accompanying inscriptions. In her essay, Wozniak reinterprets the manner in which, over sixty years, the research has been constructed to reflect, on the one hand, new discoveries, and on the other hand, the disciplines in which the researchers were trained. Wozniak reviews the various stylistic classifications and iconographic typologies used until now, to establish a chronology and to demonstrate the use and the limits of the methods. She emphasizes the questions that challenge this field of study, especially the question of influences, and of the relationship between those elements derived from Byzantine art and those aspects that may be seen as being of African origin. The challenge here was also to be able to view Nubian art on its own terms, rather than first, or even solely, as a province of Byzantine art. Studies of Nubian art simply cannot escape the same questioning developed for other art forms—in other parts of Africa in the second half of the 20th century—as to what might constitute the essence of African art. These questions, part of a tired old debate, will necessarily have to be reformulated.

16In neighboring Ethiopia, which was Christianized before Nubia, even if it lies further south, Christian society has developed forms of artistic expression in a continuous manner (notwithstanding the fact that the conservation of these monuments has been discontinuous), from its origins to the present day. But this very continuity can mask significant historical evolution. In a socio-political situation that might appear to share common points, the historian may be forced to proceed in a different manner, as a function of available documentation but also as a result of the kinds of approach with their specific biases. Claire Bosc-Tiessé’s article foregrounds the socio-political stakes of a school of thought, admittedly marginal in Ethiopian studies but with broad potential resonance. This movement assigned Christian arts of Ethiopia an ethnic category in accord with descriptive categories established by anthropologists who collected for museums. In this and similar cases, the initial research, carried out by French ethnologists using interpretive parameters developed during the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, has gradually become widely accepted in museum presentations beyond the French borders. Bosc-Tiessé shows the conditions under which ethnic labels are employed for certain Ethiopian objects in particular locations, even when those labels go against the grain of history. In following the language of the museum labels and circuit, one can observe the transmission of a particular vision of socio-political organization and its stakes.

17To date and to contextualize the 16th-century Luso-African ivories from West Africa poses a totally different challenge. In this case—the subject of articles by Thiago Mota and Peter Mark—the requisite documentation to locate specific objects in time is almost entirely lacking, and the geographical (or cultural) provenance is only broadly identified in contemporary written sources. Establishing the cultural setting of their creation thus constitutes an especially difficult challenge, and yet this is an essential first step, setting the foundations for the contextualized analysis and interpretation of the ivories. Mark returns to the question of what exactly we can know about the geographical provenance and the creation of these objects for the coastal region between Senegal and Sierra Leone (“Guiné de Cabo Verde”), as well as what we know about the populations that inhabited this extended region during the 16th and early 17th century, and he then puts to the test the ethnic labels now assigned to the artists and, by extension, to the ivories themselves. This enables him to propose limited and focused comparisons, across the centuries, with recent or current populations, in order to provide a new iconographic interpretation of some of the saltcellars. He also shows how mistaken notions about the identity of early Portuguese merchants or settlers in Guiné de Cabo Verde have inflected the earlier art historical interpretation of Portuguese, Africans, and Luso-Africans who are depicted on these ivories. Referring as well to his own earlier research into the initiation masks of southern Senegambia, he insists that to impose contemporary ethnic labels on historical objects is, by definition, anachronistic. Thus, by combining historical methodology with a more classical art historical approach, one is better situated to interpret the iconography or the symbolism of the objects in question.

18Mota’s article also demonstrates the advantages of this approach. By means of a detailed reading of 16th-century Portuguese sources for Guiné de Cabo Verde, he proposes a completely new interpretation of one of the so-called Sapi saltcellars. His historical research demonstrates the presence of Muslim marabouts across the region at this early date. Among the motifs on this saltcellar (in the ethnographic museum in Berlin), he perceives the representation of wooden tablets used by marabouts to write Koranic prayers and to teach Arabic to their students. He then hypothesizes that Islam arrived in Sapi country far earlier than historians have hitherto imagined. This in turn leads him to argue that the saltcellars were not the result simply of cultural interaction between African artists and Europeans. He adds a third party, Islam, to the equation.

19The question of provenances arises differently depending on whether one seeks to trace the history of objects exported from Africa hundreds of years ago, as with the ivories, or, much more recently, during the colonial period. Investigating museum and gallery archives, as Fardon does, is far more common for studies of European art. This is especially true of works created for a market or that were removed from their original religious context centuries ago. For African sculpture, the objects were removed from their context more recently, either through violence or through colonial domination. This makes their presence in collections rather problematic in the first place, and it means that information which would have been associated with them had they not been so acquired is lost. Be that as it may, Fardon’s article demonstrates that one is well-advised to consider all of the objects taken at a given moment from the specific African society, in order to establish a history (or history of art) that encompasses not only sculpture, but also weapons and other objects. It makes sense in order to understand not really a society but at least the way it has been approached. The lances taken in battle from the Mumuye by the same British officer graphically demonstrate, along with his diary notes, the violence, but also the whole context that accompanied the acquisition of these objects, and allow to better understand what objects are still preserved today.

20Sometimes, between Africa and Europe, an object acquires a new identity which associates it with a presumed style and gives it a label: the so-called ethnic style. Decades of art history students learned to recognize these “styles” and the affiliated “ethnic groups.” Often, however, the presumed ethnicity of the object does not coincide with the identity of the artist who made it, nor with the culture in which the object actually originated. Fardon directly confronts this problem in his essay. Using gallery and museum archives and the diary of the soldier who collected the first objects, Fardon shows how the label “Mumuye” came to be attributed to a number of sculptures from the Benue River valley in Nigeria. But what is the actual relationship between the label that identifies an object as being “Mumuye style” and the ethnic group called “Mumuye”? His detailed study of the history of the collecting and attribution of these objects shows the total disconnect between the stylistic label “Mumuye” and the people who bear that name. Ultimately, Fardon warns us against the circular logic that prevails when one decides to identify an object by stylistic characteristics that are broadly considered as typically Mumuye. In other words, “This piece resembles sculptures that we call ‘Mumuye’ but that may have nothing to do with the people who are called Mumuye.”

  • 13 S. Kasfir, 1984.
  • 14 J.-L. Amselle and E. M’Bokolo, 1985; J.-P. Chrétien and G. Prunier, 1989.
  • 15 P. Ravenhill, 1996.
  • 16 C. Steiner, 1994.
  • 17 This exhibition was co-organized by the Rietberg Museum (Zurich) and the Berlinische Galerie of Ber (...)
  • 18 This issue was the subject of a day-long workshop at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in P (...)

21This question of ethnic category—still widely used to signify or to identify the creators, the context of creation, or the presumed style of African objects in museums and publications—lies at the heart of the present dossier. During the 20th century, material culture became, along with language, one of the defining characteristics of ethnic groups; and studies of African arts participated in the resulting reification of these ethnic groups, in attributing to one or another objects that were presumed to be typical. This in turn tended to freeze identity at a given moment, while also essentializing the presumed ethnic identity. An ethnic group would accordingly be represented by a distinctive and uniform style, often conceived as atemporal, or static. One is close to returning to the paradigm “One style, one ethnic group” so eloquently decried by Sidney Kasfir forty years ago in her paradigmatic article,13 where she demonstrated the host of problems that derive from the identification of style by “ethnic group.” Since that time, anthropologists and historians have demonstrated the historical construction of ethnicity, and they have questioned the use of this category.14 However, their studies have not had much direct impact on African art historical writing or on museum practices. The question of using ethnic labels to categorize style is thus an old one. When the IFAN Museum was being established in Dakar, along with annexes elsewhere in West Africa, it repeated and disseminated the implicit assumptions of French colonial anthropology with a focus on ethnicity.15 Ethnicity has also become a criterion in the art market, with some scholars talking about a political economy of ethnicity.16 Some identity claims, whether by referring to material culture or not, make use of this same approach. And within Africa, some art collectors have reappropriated the stylistic–ethnic categories that were originally formulated in the 20th century. Contrary to the ideas that appeared to prevail in the 1980s, ethnic style seems to have attained a new popularity, as exemplified by the exhibition “Dada Africa. Sources et influences extra-occidentales” at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in 2017–2018.17 The ethnic names were simply transformed into the qualitative adjective for a style: a sculpture baoulé thereby became style baoulé, despite all that recent scholarship has demonstrated.18

22This conversation about ethnie or ethnic groups is not limited to studies of African arts, as Bosc-Tiessé reminds us in her article. But is the question raised differently, depending on the region, the type of object, or the period under study? From an art historical perspective, medieval Africa is seen as dominated by kingdoms, whereas late-19th- and 20th-century Africa is viewed as characterized by ethnic groups. How then, in the present moment, and beginning with the objects, does one achieve a reflective analysis, one that questions our presuppositions, while we at the same time describe the objects? And how does one convey this through publications, database or museum labels?

23In their articles, Fardon, Mark, Mota, and Bosc-Tiessé also consider another factor, historical in nature, and too often neglected in art historical studies: identity, far from constituting a fixed quality, is in essence a dynamic process. Identities change over time; and the names that are associated with a group, by themselves or by outsiders, also change. Thus, ethnicity is doubly dynamic. To attribute an ethnic label to an historical object (all the more so when one does not know the age of the object) flirts with anachronism. To identify an ancient object by its ethnic style implies a degree of precision that is totally misleading, but whose political and commercial implications are quite significant. Art historical practices, beginning with the fundamental and classical approach—stylistic classification, and the primarily stylistic method used to attribute these labels and to date the objects—are thus quite correctly interrogated, not so much to call into question the validity of the practices, as to articulate the workings of the methods. This enables us better to take into account the contemporary social and political implications of the analysis and interpretation of objects from the African past.

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1, accessed 18 December 2017.

2 In France, one could cite colloquia such as the “Musée et l’Institut Colonial de Marseille: contenus matériels et mémoires collectives – utilisations passées et actuelles”, organized 13 September 2019 at the University of Aix-Marseille.

3 S.L. Kasfir, 2013.

4 This white paper was produced under the auspices of the Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique (GIS) sur les études africaines en France, which brings together researchers in social sciences and in the humanities. See, p. 30–35, and especially p. 33.

5 For the 2017 meetings, see

6 See S.L. Kasfir, 2013 and the indirect response of S. Forni and D. Malaquais, 2018.

7 On this last point, see for example F. Lamp, 1996; E. Schildkrout, 2000; Z. Strother, 1998; or N. Poissonnier, 2009; their efforts met with varying degrees of success but are all worthy of our attention.

8 One might, for example, refer to the work of S. and R. McIntosh, 1979; B. Gado, 1993; C. Boullier, 2001; P. Breunig and his team, 2014; J. Aquandah, 1998; G. Chouin, 2018.

9 J. Laude, 1959; R. Bravmann, 1973, 1981; J. Polet, 2001; and P. Mark, 1992, 1998; to cite but a few.

10 J. Vansina, 1984. For a more modest study, see C. Bosc-Tiessé, 2015, 2018.

11 B. Hirsch, 2010.

12 Emblematic of the ahistorical context in which much African art is studied, one need only consult the bibliography compiled by P. McNaughton and D. Pelrine, 2012, which, despite its manifest strengths, fails to mention the era covered by the works that are listed.

13 S. Kasfir, 1984.

14 J.-L. Amselle and E. M’Bokolo, 1985; J.-P. Chrétien and G. Prunier, 1989.

15 P. Ravenhill, 1996.

16 C. Steiner, 1994.

17 This exhibition was co-organized by the Rietberg Museum (Zurich) and the Berlinische Galerie of Berlin, jointly with the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie.

18 This issue was the subject of a day-long workshop at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, 19 April 2019, entitled “Style/Ethnie.”  Organized by Claire Bosc-Tiessé and Peter Mark, it brought together researchers and curators. Speakers included the organizers, as well as Richard Fardon, Jonathan Fine, Susan Gagliardi, Dominique Malaquais, and Hélène Joubert. Since that time, S. Gagliardi and Y. Biro, 2019 have called for an on-going discussion of this and related issues, in their column “First Word,” in African Arts.

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Claire Bosc-Tiessé et Peter Mark, « Towards an art history of precontemporary Africa. Preliminary thoughts for a state-of-the-art assessment »Afriques [En ligne], 10 | 2019, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2019, consulté le 20 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Bosc-Tiessé

Chercheuse au CNRS, conseillère scientifique à l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art

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Peter Mark

Professeur émérite à la Wesleyan University, chercheur invité à l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art

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