Volltext: Anthropos, 92.1997,1/3

Anthropos 92.1997: 3-20 
Promoting African Art 
The Catalogue to the Exhibit of African Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, 
T. O. Beidelman 
Abstract. - The large exhibition of African art shown re 
cently in London, Berlin, and New York provides rich data 
for reassessing current values and aims in presenting African 
artefacts to the public. Issues of regional and ethnic bias, 
questions of authenticity, hostility to modernism, definition of 
what is art, contestation over ownership of cultural properties, 
and commercial opportunism all figure in many such public 
exhibitions. This essay examines some of these problems using 
this prominent exhibit to illustrate these points. [African art, 
regional bias, authenticity, aesthetics.] 
T. O. Beidelman, D. Phil. (University of Oxford), Prof, of 
anthropology at New York University. - Research in east 
African ethnography (Kaguru, Ngulu, Baraguyu, Nuer); study 
of colonialism in Africa, religion, social organization, history 
of social anthropology. His publications include: The Kaguru 
(New York 1971), W. Robertson Smith and the Sociologi 
cal Study of Religion (Chicago 1974), Colonial Evangelism 
(Bloomington 1982), Moral Imagination in Kaguru Modes of 
Thought (Bloomington 1986), The Cool Knife (in press), and 
over one hundred scholarly articles. 
As part of the Africa 95 Festival, the Royal Acade 
my in London exhibited an immense accumulation 
of art from Africa, over eight hundred pieces. 
This was shown from 4 October 1995 until 21 
January 1996. It then moved to Berlin where it was 
shown from 1 March until 1 May 1996 through the 
Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft at the Martin Gropius Bau. 
As I began this essay it was scheduled for the 
Guggenheim Museum in New York City from June 
7 until September 29, 1996. I have since seen the 
exhibit (three times) which I found impressive in 
terms of its range and the quality of many pieces 
but ill-displayed, poorly labelled, and uneven in 
quality and actual coverage. 
The exhibit’s composition varies at each site, 
but the catalogue 1 (sold at all three exhibition 
galleries) remains constant, reflecting what the 
exhibit would have been like had political and 
other factors not intervened. This volume, lavishly 
illustrated with over eight hundred excellent colour 
photographs, maps, and copious annotations, is so 
vast and varied that I can here only indicate its 
form and scope and comment briefly. I do this 
in the opening of this essay. In the remainder I 
consider the ideology behind this catalogue. The 
show prompting the catalogue is at a world famous 
exhibition site. The vast range of artefacts illus 
trated and the scholars providing the commentary 
in the catalogue make this a likely milestone in 
assessing the place which the visual arts of Africa 
hold for the international community of art. Fur 
thermore, exhibition catalogues have increasingly 
grown in size and scholarly apparatus so today 
catalogues such as this have a permanent impact 
and circulation which make them in many ways as 
important as the exhibitions they illustrate (Sieber 
1996: 68). 
The key word in the title of my essay is “pro 
moting.” I selected this term because of its multi 
ple and somewhat ambivalent meanings. “Promot 
ing” can mean the act of popularizing or selling a 
product or idea to a wider public. It can also mean 
the advancing of some idea, product, or person 
to a higher level of appreciation or value. The 
word combines an ambiguous, ambivalent sense 
involving both moral and material rewards. As 
with all major exhibits of art, the aesthetic, moral, 
intellectual, and scholarly are often combined with 
the political, propagandistic, and commercial. It is 
with some of these broader factors that much of 
my essay is concerned. 
I begin with a description of the way the cat 
alogue has been organized. It is repeatedly stated 
in the catalogue’s text that in large part, the cata 
logue’s arrangement reflects how the London ex 
hibit itself was arranged for viewing. While this es 
say is a review of the catalogue, very brief mention 
of its relation to the actual exhibits consequently 
seems necessary. Museum size and structure relate 
to any exhibit. The conventional structure and 
large size of the Royal Academy present space 
radically different from the Guggenheim Museum 
1 Phillips, Tom (ed.): Africa. The Art of a Continent. Munich: 
Prestel, 1995. 613 pp. ISBN 3-7913-1603-6. Price: $ 85.00. 
A German translation, “Afrika, die Kunst eines Kontinents” 
(1996), is published by the same press.


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