The Anthropological Gaze: Contemporary Art in Africa and Anthropology


  • Thomas Fillitz University of Vienna


On the occasion of "An/Sichten. Malerei aus dem Kongo 1990-2000", an exhibition at Vienna's museum of ethnography in the spring of 2001, the debate of an anthropological gaze upon contemporary art in Africa was once again launched by a representative of a local NGO, who declared in an open letter that such a perception is inadmissible and that museums of ethnography are inappropriate venues for exhibiting such art.

In that exhibition, the two curators, Bogumil Jewsiewicki - who has been working on popular painting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for several decades now - and Barbara Plankensteiner, curator at the museum in Vienna, had spotlighted two frames of this art-form. Firstly, they emphasize the function of these paintings in the salon of the local purchasers. In such an environment they serve as means for reflecting and debating about aspects of social relationships, such as traditional life in a village, aspects of history (colonialism, early independence) etc. Johannes Fabian had defined this kind of art as art of memory (Fabian 1998: 13). Secondly, because of this narrow connection to local social relations, the curators had arranged the exhibits according to the major centres where these artworks had been created: Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Bunia. What had been labelled as the anthropological gaze actually concerned these two fundamental ways of binding this popular art in one case to specific social localities, in the other to its function in the salon. Consequently it seems as if this art-form could not be perceived outside these contexts.

The question raised is not a new one. This has to do, on the one hand, with the treatment of art by anthropology and, on the other, with disputes in the fields of art history and art criticism - with the advocates of the visual qualities of individual works of art, battling against cultural and societal contextualization, which over the last two decades has been championed above all by postmodern authors. At the exhibition level those disputes are echoed in as far as contextual showings are preferably assigned to ethnographic museums, while shows in white cubes take place in museums and galleries of fine art. As the French art critic Joelle Busca puts it, ethnographic museums tend towards exhaustive and didactic explanation, while the art museum valorises the artefact as product of individual creativity (Busca 2000: 189). It should be remembered, however, that a German art historian and director of a museum of fine arts, Alexander Dorner, proposed the principle of atmospheric space for

the new art museum already in the 1940s. Starting from the assumption that, in the history of mankind, individual works of art and their styles represent only a part of a very narrowly defined reality and that the important thing is the relation of art to industrial life, Dorner maintained that art styles are to be understood only in their historical context and/or in rela­ tion to the changes in man 's visions and ideas (Dorner 1949).

Be that as it may, the question of the anthropological gaze should be discussed anew among anthropologists if only because such accusations tend to crop up wherever contemporary art is being discussed. In the late 1990s e.g. this sort of criticism flared up over the new museum on Quai Branly in Paris; it has not yet come to an end (Busca 2000). What has been understood as the anthropological gaze so far may be characterised as a process of sensemaking of the artwork by envisioning it as being originally connected to a given. culture, and to specific social relations. Working with contemporary artists in Ivory Coast and Benin I, too, was confronted with this subject matter more than once.

In the first part, some examples of the anthropological gaze will be discussed - as directed upon the personality of the artist, upon the work of art, and upon exhibiting and collecting. In the second partl shall deal with context as a problem, which has to be critically scrutinized. Furthermore, I suggest that the pejorative notion of the anthropological gaze is partly due to an old Malinowski an tradition of contextualizing artworks. It nevertheless has first of all to be considered as a reproach to some discourses of the European-American art world. In the third part, context will be viewed as a structuring element that unfailingly affects specific discourses on art. In the conclusion, a differentiating approach will be argued for and a critical discourse between art criticism, the history of art, and anthropology advocated - a discourse about how multifarious artworks may be seen, considering that the European-American art world monopolizes the power to decide on exhibitions and thereby on names in the world of art.