Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
African Art and the Colonial Encounter: Inventing a Global Commodity. Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007. 381 pp.
This study is a complex comparative history of how colonialism affected warriorhood and its aesthetic practices among the Nigerian Idoma and the Kenyan Samburu communities in the early to middle British colonial period from the 1880s to the 1930s.
In the first part, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir argues that colonial literatures created a discursive field around the institutions and practices of warriorhood in what became the British colonies of Nigeria and Kenya. The inscriptions differed in the two locales and resulted in radically different governing policies. And because these policies, according to the author, had a direct effect on artisanal practice related to warriorhood, they set the conditions for artistic and technical innovation. In the second part, Littlefield Kasfir turned to a close scrutiny of the power and limitations of the Idoma sculptor and the Samburu smith within a larger cultural script of Africa practice.
Among the key art-historical issues the book addresses are the ways artisanal knowledge (that of Samburu blacksmiths and Idoma sculptors), embedded in particular cosmologies and cultural scripts was related to systems of objects such as weapons and masks; and how these undergirded cultural practices. It discusses the classificatory problems generated by the fact that western museums and collectors began to subsume these objects into their own systems of classification. It also introduces the idea of warrior theatre, using the metaphor of the script to describe the construction of masculinity through body arts, masquerades, dance and behaviour.
In this book, Littlefield Kasfir explores an unexpected source, colonial authority, and traces the ways widely different late-nineteenth-and-early twentieth-century Europeans impressions of Nigeria and Kenya and the subsequent British colonizing policies toward their improperly understood subject peoples intervened in and altered the objects and practices of the Samburu and Idoma African artists.
This book is, of course, about real people, the warriors, the artists and the blacksmiths and how they designed strategies and made choices to circumvent the authority of colonial rule and to create new forms. It is also partly an attempt to comprehend these two cases’ shared experience of colonial power and their construction of masculinity within its confines in these widely different situations.
This work on cross-cultural encounters versus the implementation of colonial policy is based on a rich and diverse set of sources. For the nineteenth century colonial period, the author used missionaries, travelers and settlers’ accounts, novels, colonial government reports and the popular press. She also relied on Hollywood safari firm genre for the 1950s. More importantly is Littlefield Kasfir’s use of objects as sources. The assertion that objects are constituted as texts has gained some level of acceptance in art-historical, archaeological and ethnographic research. Objects or artifacts are increasingly considered as valuable forms of historical evidence. But differently from other sources, objects, like masks, spears, pots, textiles and photographs, are stable, difficult to falsify, and exist in ways that are easily separable from the interpretations attached to them. In addition, objects have a non-discursive quality as inert things with geographies and histories, which make them sites for contestation and ongoing revision. They are, therefore, interesting sources and adequate analytical tools.
Drawing on Robert Farris Thompson’s principle that icon defines itself as act: both Idoma and Samburu assemblages of form and performance are kinds of masks. She also draws on Herbert Cole’s notion of African art as processual in order to understand the ways blacksmiths and sculptors were able to create new forms in the face of repressive colonial regulations. Through doing so, Littlefield Kasfir structured her study, which spans the early colonial to the postcolonial time periods and two cultures, in four parts which discuss warriors and warriorhood, the artists and artistic processes involved in representing them, the objects themselves and the commodification and subsequent globalization of objects and of warriorhood itself.
At a more thorough level, this story can be read as a story of innovative aesthetic practice in the face of a radically transformed patronage system. The core thread running through both the historical and aesthetic narratives concerns representations: first, the widely divergent British official representations of warriorhood in the two places; second, the changing representation of warriorhood’s objects as art or ethnographic specimen and finally as commodity; and in the end, the image of the warrior himself, on movie screens, on postcards and seen from a Land Rover in safari. The earliest are written inscriptions such as travel accounts, memoirs and colonial reports. The more recent ones are produced in the camera’s eye. All of them, however, speak to iconic power and the use of representations as a rhetorical medium in both colonial and postcolonial spaces.
British popular and literary representations of Kenya and Nigeria acted as filters in the enforcement of colonial policies, but uncovering the aesthetic account that lies beneath the historical one means recuperating not only artisanal knowledge but also the practices that embodied that knowledge.
With the imposition of the Pax Britannica came the inevitable aestheticisation of warfare and warriorhood in which the former enemy cranium became a carved mask and the warrior himself a performer of masked dance or masquerade that represents but no longer actually is the successful outcome of fighting an enemy. But in neither Samburu nor Idoma culture has the pre-colonial order been overturned or cast off decisively. Colonialism seems to have created a larger overlay on the indigenous center-periphery model, in which all African centers were now also peripheries to the European metropole from which power and policy derived.
This intriguing history of how colonial influence forever altered artistic practice, objects, and their meaning, questions mainstream ideas about artistic production and impression.
Adel Manai Institut Supérieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis, Université Tunis El Manar