Art history in the South–it’s time to step out of the quotation marks

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

A moment of solidarity between Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (Mexico), José Llano Loyola and Paulina Varas Alarcón (Chile) and Mwape J. Mumbe (Zambia)

The symposium Mobility, Circulation, Transnationalism: Art History and the Global South concerned the question of art history as it is practiced in the Global South. It was organised by SAVAH (South African Visual Arts Historians) under the aegis of CIHA (Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art) as an opportunity for the Western-oriented discipline to embrace the experience of those in the South. It sought particularly to acknowledge the discrepancy of resources and in doing so fulfil the key aim ‘to bring to the centre that which, throughout history and across nations, has been traditionally ignored, marginalised, displaced and appropriated.’

It was a bold and ambitious move from SAVAH, which attracted academics from across the world, particularly the Americas, Australasia, Europe and other countries of Africa.

The conference began with the CIHA board giving papers about the importance of South in the discipline of art history. This was followed by papers that reflected various corners of the South. Through an analysis of Rorke’s Drift, Elizabeth Rankin identified social critique as a key element in South African modernism. Robyn Sloggett spoke about the Leonard Adam collection in Melbourne and argued that his category of ‘primitive art’ was liberating at the time. Jonathan Mane Wheoki constructed at Whakapapa (genealogy) of Maori modernism which offered an alternative methodology for art history (hopefully one day applied to art outside New Zealand as well).

After this initial positive statement of southness, the panel sessions that followed were dominated by a critique of northern dominance. The main argument was that the major centres of collecting and criticism in the North take a superficial view of the South, which reflects more their own interests than the real experience of artists and audiences from the periphery. This resentment never really had the opportunity to engage with the CIHA position, which served to only confirm its perceived marginality.

While cathartic, this resentment distracted attention away from the key question: How might the methodologies of art history in the South might evolve parallel to those in the North? In South Africa and other countries of the South, the subjects of non-Western influence are not tribes or villages in distant lands, but peoples who co-exist with academics inside robust democratic cultures. From this perspective, the Northern practice of art history can seem rather forensic. It scrutinises the object for signs of lost meaning – precise, but sterile. By contrast, in the South there is the opportunity to engage with artists in a broader conversation that shares the origins of their work.

The contributions to the panel that I organised, ‘Where to put the baskets in an art gallery?’ demonstrated this broader engagement. The panel was prompted by the experience of visiting to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and finding a sharp division between the craft of black rural women in the shop and the works from urban, mostly white, artists in the gallery. How is this still possible in the ‘new’ South Africa?

Though publications like the Journal of Modern Craft are building up a substantial body of scholarship, craft is still perceived as a quite minor element in art history. Yet as an ‘excluded’ art form practiced by communities across the South, it offered the opportunity to make a critical contribution.

Rather than focussing on the objects as such, the papers reflected on the process of craft production. John Steel presented a story of the Eastern Cape potter Alice Gqa Nongebeza, who wood-fires her pots adapting traditional methods to her own distinct personal style. ‘Mastooana Sekokotoana from Lesotho spoke about the Marija museum and associated arts and crafts festival, concluding the need for a ‘living treasure’ program to recognise masters of traditional skills. Though not specifically about craft, Pam Zeplin’s analysis of the South Project pointed to the engaging way its southern events brought together artists and craftspersons through workshops and performances.[1] This was art not as the history of dead objects, but as a living entity with whom one must engage.

In present circumstances, it seems that the southern perspective on art history offers something quite important to the global discipline of art history. There is a sense of declining interest in art history in universities. For good or for ill, the specialist appreciation of art is at odds with the kinds of democratic energies which seek to open up closed fields of knowledge. We see this most dramatically with the breaching of the diplomatic core by Wikileaks. But parallel challenges have appeared in a wide variety of media, including bloggers who challenge the profession of journalism and YouTube performers becoming celebrities. How can art history respond to this energy without losing the invaluable legacy of specialist knowledge, techniques and taste that it has developed over centuries?

One possibility is to engage in a process of consultation with the broader field of art practice. This would involve conversations with the subjects of art history about their own interest in what the field produces. Boaventura de Sousa Santos talks about an ‘ecology of knowledge’ as constitutive of a southern epistemology. There are developments in anthropology such as the Fijian Vanua Framework for Research discussed by Unaisi Nabobo-Baba that identifies protocols for gaining traditional knowledge. Such knowledge is seen as more than a mirror to the world, but a practice with real world implications. The importance of this locally is reflected in the criticism by black South African curator Khwezi Gule of the work by Bitterkomix for the way it confirms the racial fears of white Afrikaners. (Despite the best intentions of organisers, the symposium lacked voices of local black academics. Why would they decline the invitation?) In the colloquium, this spirit was reflected in the inspiring presentation by Zambian Mwape J. Mumbi, which ended with a call to ‘humanise museums’.

No doubt there would be resistance to the idea of protocols for art history. For academics suffering audit-fatigue, it may represent yet another hurdle after ethics committees. For those who have a territorial attachment to their subject, the consultation process may represent an external threat.

But for the discipline as a whole, the development of protocols offers an alternative to both the forensic style of methodology and the impotent sense of resentment from those in the margins. Particularly, in giving a voice to the subject of art history, it offers the chance for the democratic powers that are gathering around us to be a strength growing within the discipline rather than a threat from without.

The day after the colloquium, in Desmond Tutu’s Soweto church, a young woman orator delivered the sermon of the day. She talked about the need to leave behind the ‘comfort zone’ of historical pain and face a new future. To great applause, she urged the congregation to ‘Stop being “black”!’ “Black” was gestured in large quotation marks. Voices like hers are necessary to find a way out of those quotation marks.

Note: Kevin Murray’s travel to the colloquium was supported by the Australian High Commission


[1] Ursula Helg from Vienna was the exception. Due to the tyranny of distance, she was forced to read into objects for meaning, rather than engage with her subject directly. Still, her comparison of beaded works from South African and European contexts offered a promising new formal method of analysis.

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