Monday, May 4, 2015

Mudimbe on The Invention of Africa

V. Y. Mudimbe wrote The Invention of Africa in 1988.  A selection of this appears as "The Invention of Africa," in the Stephen David Ross anthology Art and Its Significance.  My comments will be based on that.  Mudimbe applies Mikel Foucault's ideas as developed in The Order of Things to the representation of Africans by Europeans.  He also makes a rather obscure comment about African tourist art which I will discuss at the end.  The point about European art focuses on changes that occurred in painted representations of Africans from the 15th century to the end of the 18th and then moves to the reception of African art (mainly sculpture, or if you prefer fetishes) in the 19th and 20th centuries.  He begins with a work by Burgkmair, his "painting" [actually an engraving, not a painting] "Exotic Tribes" of 1511 (see In Genea, fig. 7).  Mudimbe imagines that Burgkmair uses a white model to create the central male figure, and fits the work into standards of Italian contraposto, much like Michelangelo's David, but from behind.  Looking at this painting, and others by Europeans representing Africans up until 1600, he finds that they all seek similarities between whites and blacks, as also racial difference.  This leads him, in something of a conceptual leap, to note that this parallels the formalist method of Roger Fry who, in 1920, argued that one can analyze such works in terms of design, by which he meant expression by way of colors and masses.  Yet, Mudimbe argues, this neglects what he refers to as "invisible traces."  The painting can be seen as charming and decorative (as Fry might), yet it really expresses the "discursive order," as Foucault would put it.  Thus we have an instance of the conflict between formalists and contextualists.

Mudimbe finds in this print a "double representation" the first of which is to assimilate such "exotic" (African) bodies into the Italian style of the time, reducing the differences, while taking the white body as the norm.  But the other level is to note distinctions between races and even to classify types.  The second level comes to dominate in paintings of the next century.  This last point is a bit more doubtful. Then, representation of Africans change (probably due to the increasing use of Africans as servants and slaves in Europe and in the Americas.) Mudimbe holds that three major paintings from the 17th century by Rubens, Rembrandt and Rigaud, "explicitly express and related to another order" which he describes as a "new epistemological foundation the West." These modes of classification culminate in Linnaeus, whose Systema Naturae, coming out in 1735, classified Homo Sapiens into four races:  European, Asian, American, and African.  (Linnaeus also typified the characters of each, for example, the Africans as lazy.) There is no question that this method of classification was the foundation for later racial classifications, and thus a bulwark for racism. 

But I cannot see the Rubens Study of Four Blacks' Heads (1620), Rembrandt's Two Negroes (1697) or Hyacinthe Rigaud's Young Black (1697) as expressing the racist values of that classificatory system.  What is more noticeable is that unlike Burgkmair these three painters were highly sophisticated realists.  In the cases of Rubens and Rembrandt they seem to have simply found interesting looking black men in a Dutch seaport city and drew accurate representations of them.  The Rigaud, far from being racist, represents an African as noble and dignified. 

Mudimbe goes on to argue that when African art is discovered in the 19th century this same set of classifications, which of course helped to justify enslavement of Africans and ultimately the racism of colonialism, is in play.  The African artwork, in particular the "fetish," is seen as childish and primitive to the extent that someone like Mary H. Kingsley, writing in the late 19th century, argued that the Africans are incompetent in practical arts and could not produce even a fourteenth rate piece of cloth or pottery.  (This wildly false claim is amazing given that Kingsley was sometimes a sensitive observer of African life in other respects.)  

Mudimbe then says "These objects, which perhaps are not art at all in their 'native context,' become art by being given simultaneously an aesthetic character in their initial function and significance," and argues, somewhat obscurely, that it is impossible for these to put Western racist assumptions into perspective precisely because the standards by which the arts exist can only themselves exist within the "power-knowledge" of a particular culture.  So, the fetishes are seen as "wonderful," or rather, "savage," i.e. lower on the evolutionary scale.  This gives rise to the paradox of Fry (returning now to the formalist/contextualist issues) saying that the Africans may produce great artists but not "a culture in our sense of the word."  Fry says this largely because he thinks that for culture to exist there has to be not only a creative artist but "the power of conscious critical appreciation and comparison" (something that he personally has, in spades).  (Roger Fry, "Negro Sculpture at the Chelsea Book Club," 1920)  Mudimbe of course rejects Fry on this  and sums up by saying that the power-knowledge of an epistemological field allows one culture to dominate another.  Fry concludes his essay by arguing that the Negro artist, who can have profound imaginative understanding of form, would also accept cheap illusionist art with enthusiasm.  Many have noted that this is the shock ending of an otherwise positive essay on African sculpture.

The selection ends with a discussion of tourist art, in which cult objects are manufactured for the tourist trade and which there is consequently little context between the consumer and the artist and in which consumer demand trumps artistic creativity.  (Mudimbe neglects that some "tourist art" is really quite good and could be defined in other ways, for example as art made for a world art market.)  

A good further discussion of Fry on this can be found in
Marianna Torgovnick Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern LivesUniversity of Chicago Press, 1991.

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