October 1, 2001 - African Art: Burkina Faso RPCV Christopher D. Roy discusses African Art

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burkina Faso: Peace Corps Burkina Faso : The Peace Corps in Burkina Faso: October 1, 2001 - African Art: Burkina Faso RPCV Christopher D. Roy discusses African Art

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Burkina Faso RPCV Christopher D. Roy discusses African Art

Burkina Faso RPCV Christopher D. Roy discusses African Art

The more things change...

Oct 1, 2001 - African Arts

Author(s): Roy, Christopher D

I really don't think things have changed as much as we might fear. Africanists have always been more interested in exploring new and undiscovered intellectual terrain than have scholars and students in other disciplines or areas of art history. When Roy Sieber wrote his dissertation here at Iowa in 1957, the chair of the department, Lester Longman, agreed to read it on the grounds that while he might not know much about African art, he could recognize a good dissertation. Roy Sieber knew far less than I did about the Mossi of Burkina Faso when I defended my dissertation in 1979. Barbara Thompson knows much more about art and healing among the Shambaa of Tanzania than I do, yet I had no hesitation about directing her dissertation.

Students must spend the first year or two of their graduate study learning the basics of African art. They must be able to tell the Baule from the Luba, even if they intend to study contemporary women's art in urban Mozambique. They must understand the importance of art in social context and the themes and issues we all cover in our classes. They had better be prepared to prove they know about Kongo minkisi and Yoruba gelede when they take their comprehensive exams, or they won't get to do Ph.D. research. They must learn these ideas because they will need to teach them, and because some of them may work as museum curators and will have to deal with objects and make real judgments about identification and quality.

(Manuel Jordan commented to me that his training in "connoisseurship" at Iowa proved to be essential to his work as curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art.) Having demonstrated at the M.A. level that they understand the most important and fundamental issues, they can then go on to the Ph.D. level and explore new territory.

It is quite clear that students are less interested in following in their teachers' footsteps than they are in discovering a new and important problem that no one has studied before. This is natural. In twenty-two years only three of my students have done research in Burkina Faso, my own area of specialization, while seven have worked in Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Cuba. I learn a lot from the work my students do in the field, and that makes me a better teacher and scholar. I try to keep ahead of them as long as I can by reading what they read (Sidney Kasfir's recent book, Contemporary African Art, has been very helpful in this regard), but eventually they pass me.

This too is natural. I may not know much about the Lozi, but I know a good dissertation when I see it. I would not want to produce a string of clones of myself. I do admit that I sometimes mourn the lack of interest of many students in objects that are visually powerful and beautiful and have an affective presence, but I get over it quickly and carry on.

Biennales and art cooperatives are not that foreign to me. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, my first job in Africa, in 1970-72, was as director of the National Art Center in Ouagadougou. We (five PCVs) taught our students how to make beautiful batiks-and how pleased I was a few years ago when a group of African students at Iowa organized an exhibition of "traditional" art from their home countries, and the students from Burkina Faso displayed batiks!

Last, we now have Sarah Adams teaching at Iowa, whose interest is in uli body art among the Igbo and in contemporary African art, so if students get bored with my masks from Burkina Faso or objects from East Africa that were my focus in Kilengi (1998), they can study with Sarah. I see no problem.

Christopher D. Roy

School of Art and Art History

The University of Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa

Copyright African Studies Center Autumn 2001

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Story Source: African Art

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Burkina Faso; Art



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