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40 years African Arts

Herbert M. Cole looks at four decades of "African Arts" at UCLA and what the future may have in store for the journal and the field of African art.

Celebrate African Arts, now entering into its fortieth year! Launched ambitiously in 1967, pledging a bilingual survey of all the traditional and contemporary arts

Forty Years of 'African Arts'
First issue of vol. 40

Forty Years of 'African Arts'

found at 1/10/2007

Without UCLA there would simply be no "African Arts."

 — sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry and other literature, theater, and dance—it made good on the French/English promise for only three years, yet continued its broad arts coverage into the 1970s. The coverage of nonvisual arts became sporadic between 1975 and 1978, with only occasional articles on them thereafter. Since the late 1970s, though, this journal has covered a plethora of African and Africa-related subjects within the broad purview of visual, performance, and ritual culture: archaeological, early, modern, and contemporary. In fact, it has served to chronicle, in substantial detail and often with fine color illustrations, the progress as well as the state of the African arts field since the late 1960s. Thirty-nine volumes comprising 156 issues stretch to nearly four feet of shelf space as I write. Other statistics tell more:

19,565 photographs (including objects in advertisements)
1,092 articles
624 books reviewed
468 exhibitions reviewed
16 private US collections highlighted
54 museum collections showcased
35 special issues on a single topic, 7 more as tributes

We owe such accomplishments to the support of ucla over the years (along with some foundation help). Yet mainly we owe African Arts to the dedication of three fine editors for the bulk of its run: the late, silver-tongued, witty John Povey, Doran Ross, and Donald Cosentino.1 In the year 2000, Ross and Cosentino were joined by Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts and Allen Roberts, and a few years later by Marla Berns and, briefly, Steven Nelson. This team of ucla Africanists has literally carried the publication for nearly forty years: stemming the tide of financial shortfalls, sweating deadlines, cajoling colleagues for papers and better illustrations, and filling many pages with their own illuminating, entertaining First Word editorials and occasional diatribes, comments on conferences, state-of-the-art reports, superb photographs, and much more. We who read and sometimes write for African Arts are grateful for their tenacity and skill in bringing the magazine/journal miraculously to light four times a year, with the indispensable help of a too-small in-house staff in a too-small office. Especially valuable have been executive editors Amy Futa (who retired in 2004) and, since then, Leslie Jones, as well as the late Alice McGaughey and Greg Cherry, art directors, and Eva Howard and Sylvia Kennedy, operations managers. These folks may be largely unsung, but they have done a stupendous and often thankless job. A revolving roster of consulting editors—only a half dozen or so for the first twenty-two years, expanded over time to twenty-nine today—plus Book Review, Dialogue, Photo Essay, and Exhibition Review editors have been more or less active; many have worked hard and contributed a great deal.

Nearly everyone who can be considered a serious player on the practice-fields of African arts has written for these pages and had pictures published. Many have contributed several studies, some in series. Most use African Arts articles regularly in teaching or in museum work. It is my impression, though, that for some years the editors rarely have the luxury of enough really stellar and varied articles to choose among to provide the quality and balance they strive for, so those out there who have a stimulating piece almost finished on the hard drive or still gestating should get going, finish it up, and send it in.

Where has African Arts been, what have been its trajectories and trends over these thirty-nine years? What are its accomplishments, its problems, or shortcomings? What are the major changes and continuities? What will the future hold? These are not easy questions, but as the consulting editor with the longest tenure (1970–2001), and having published my first three articles here in 1969, I’ve been asked to give them a shot.

African Arts was founded by Paul Proehl after the seed was planted in discussion with the artist El Salahi on an airplane in 1965 or ‘66. Both Proehl and John Povey, the first editor, felt all arts and especially modern/contemporary ones deserved real play in their new venture, so from the first issue until 1975, more than fifty recent artists were featured, if often in fairly short articles. Over the next twenty years, however, such coverage of modernism fell off, with only a smattering of recent arts shown. The stress fell instead on sculpture, architecture, jewelry, textiles, and festivals. These middle years were the period—probably the last period—when a few dozen scholars, most of them Americans, were able to conduct fieldwork, mostly in villages, on what are usually called traditional arts (although for me as for many this is an inadequate term). It is African Arts that brought much of that field research into public view.

Many public and private collections were also highlighted during those years (although the current policy is to feature only public ones) as the editors wanted to appeal to collectors and dealers who urged, on surveys, that African Arts showcase more Great Art, by which most meant “traditional” sculpture. Yet the editors felt the need to tread the fine line between getting significant, sometime esoteric (or non-object-oriented) research into print and creating something for the coffee-table, a tension and dialogue between journal and magazine, between popular and scholarly, that still exists. As Doran Ross wrote in his First Word initiating the twenty-fifth year of publication, African Arts is a little of each. In recent years we have lost financial ground in advertising revenue from dealers and lost subscriptions from them and collectors to the glossy Tribal Art,2 which gives traditional Africa pride of place but also runs articles on other areas. Tribal Art does not feature contemporary African art. Objections to recent trends in African Arts by collectors raise the same issue as earlier: not enough emphasis on traditional art, with greater stress, since about 1995, on modern and contemporary Africa as well as the diaspora. In the last six issues, for example, half of the thirty-four major papers have dealt with contemporary art, with another eight, in a special issue devoted to emerging scholarship by younger people, falling in a limbo straddling theory and varied historical foci and rarely addressing art forms favored by collectors. Two of those last six issues were entirely given to modern/contemporary, one on “perspectives on African modernism,” the other on “trauma and representation in Africa,” (mostly in South Africa.)

In the seven earliest years, with all the arts included, African Arts awarded prizes to African artists in visual and literary categories; these were discontinued after 1974, around the time when contributions on non-visual arts diminished. The tendency, in those early years, was a more superficial treatment of most subjects in fairly short pieces, as signaled by the average number of articles in each issue—twelve to sixteen (with as many as twenty-two)—in contrast to an average over the past ten years of about five to six major articles (and in nine issues only four articles) per issue. Obviously subjects can be treated more deeply in the latter instance. Today there continue to be articles on traditional arts, but the fact is that there are simply a lot fewer of them available (yes, both the arts and articles on them) than there were, say, twenty years ago, which bothers some collectors (and probably dealers).

Another trend, begun in the middle years (c. 1976–1995) is the extensive treatment of a single subject or theme. The first of such “special issues” (9/3, Autumn 1976), devoted to fakes and authenticity, was so popular that it rapidly went out of print. The forty-two special issues since then have covered a plethora of topics: eroticism, photography, Mali, Benin, Vodun, textiles, patronage, dress, gender issues, invention, and many others. Three special issues have been devoted to South Africa since the end of apartheid. Other special issues have commemorated lions in the field who have joined the company of ancestors: Roy Sieber, William Fagg, and Arnold Rubin. Our colleagues continue to propose special issues with such frequency that the editors are reluctant to approve ideas until they see that all the papers are up to high standards of quality—a sensible policy, as is sending out all submitted articles for peer review, positive reviews being necessary for an article to be published. The overall quality of articles has improved since peer review was formalized in the early 1990s (though it began in the 1980s). Janet Catherine Berlo, in analytically reviewing comparable journals in Inuit Arts Quarterly, calls African Arts “the gold standard for a publication devoted to ethnographic arts” for its high standards of research and scholarship.

The same editors have written many captivating First Word columns themselves, not a few reviewing Triennial symposia, the field as a whole, and African Arts within it. A recent dense and thoughtful First Word (38/4, Winter 2005) by Polly Nooter Roberts played this publication’s present and future against that of the field as both shift toward increasing focus on modern, contemporary, urban, and diaspora works of expressive culture, that is, the arts broadly construed. Among many other things, she speaks of the increasing number of courses now being taught in American colleges and universities on these subjects that use articles from African Arts in readers, as courses on earlier arts have done for many years. This First Word stands in contrast to Fred Lamp’s earlier one (32/1, Spring 1999) lamenting the small amount of work being done in the field, and in African Arts, on earlier “traditional” or “classical” arts—a First Word that stimulated some heated responses, much as the Dialogue department tries to do. All this is to say that the editors, by lending this editorial platform out to others both in the academy and in museums, continue to broaden the discourse. First Word remains a stimulating feature in part because many voices and new subjects are now represented. It can be a lively site for new, controversial, or difficult topics, expressing the opinions of the writer alone rather than issuing a “party line” from the editors of the journal. The most recent case in point is the last First Word available to me (39/2, Summer 2006) on the exhibition and publication of a substantial number of “problematic pieces”—read fakes—by a museum in Heidelberg that ought to know better, implying that something must be done to stem the tide, in both books and exhibitions, of legitimizing recent and fraudulent copies of earlier forms. That was a courageous and much needed First Word. (This is a topic of great personal interest; I am disturbed by the number of fakes that appear in African Arts ads, even though the journal has no control over what its advertisers choose to feature.)

The future of African Arts? Who can say? There are surely times over these four decades when the magazine was close to shutting down, but it is my sense that at least scholars in the field are pleased with all the journal has done for them and the field. It has in fact chronicled those forty years quite thoroughly and well, and with increasing scholarly rigor. Its often extensive book and exhibition reviews alone form an exceptional corpus. No one in her right mind would attempt to write an historiography of the field without reading all the back issues she could get—a task simplified by fact that the journal is now archived online on jstor. If there is a weakness in its coverage over the years, it is that it may not have stayed abreast of the active European collecting communities, especially in Paris and Brussels, and it has never dealt with auctions here or abroad. But surveying private collections and auction prices may not be wholly ethical for a publication of this nature, so these are insignificant quibbles.  Like many, I have often regretted the absence of a carefully constructed, comprehensive index to all issues of African Arts. Its lack must stem from lack of money for such an endeavor. Wouldn’t it be great if an angel stepped up with the $15,000 probably needed for such an index? Tribal Arts may continue to lure dealers and collectors away, and while this is in some measure too bad, it may enable African Arts to become more a journal and less a magazine, which has been its trajectory anyway in the last decade. But color illustrations have been one of the signal strengths of this publication from the first issue to the last, breathing life into objects and recalling with some fidelity their African contexts. Whatever form African Arts may take in future, color should remain.

Some will also say that African Arts is ucla-centric, and I would agree, and suggest that it could hardly be otherwise, and that this is a good thing. Its editors are ucla teachers, museum people, and exhibition organizers; all of them are exceptional scholars. Naturally they are going to get their work out there for others to see. Also, it is produced in and under the aegis of the African Studies Center on the ucla campus. Without ucla there would simply be no African Arts.

Back in the 1960s we heard William Fagg say that African art was dead, but clearly it was alive then, as it is alive and well today, however changed it may be, however many new expressive forms and theories have entered the arena. African Arts was born in those same 1960s. Its pages are now surveying and analyzing those very changes and new arts in all their diversity, as I write and you read, the sorts of changes that, in the mid-1960s, no one could easily foretell: electronic formats that will be able to include video and audio material to illustrate and analyze performance and performance art, fully searchable archives on jstor that can not only call up every single reference to an art form or artist that has appeared in our pages, but also connect that information to studies in other journals and other fields—and connect our work to them. African Arts was born in the days of the unlamented “ethnographic present” and widespread (and erroneous) beliefs that, as African art was in 1960, so was it forty or sixty years earlier, and so would it probably be forty years hence. In the years since this publication first appeared in 1967 we have learned that change in African arts, plus invention and creativity, are all endemic and vital, and that they always have been. It is up to the readers of African Arts to ensure that it will survive to chronicle what is now and continues to be happening, and changing, in the arts of the vast African continent (and its diasporas), as well as to examine critically earlier art forms and the writing on them.

Herbert Cole is emeritus professor of art history at UC Santa Barbara. His major publications include Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa, 1989; Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, 1984 (with C.C. Aniakor) and The Arts of Ghana (with Doran H. Ross), 1977.

1    Povey retired in 1991, co-editing for a few years with Ross and Cosentino, who signed on in 1988. In late 2004 Don Cosentino retired after sixteen years co-editing with Ross, who soldiers on today with the expanded team.
2        The 39/1, Spring 2006 issue of African Arts lists twenty advertisers, whereas the Summer 2006 of Tribal Art lists well over seventy-six, at least fifty being African art dealers.

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