In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995 / Edition 1

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In Senghor’s Shadow is a unique study of modern art in postindependence Senegal. Elizabeth Harney examines the art that flourished during the administration of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president, and in the decades since he stepped down in 1980. As a major philosopher and poet of Negritude, Senghor envisioned an active and revolutionary role for modern artists, and he created a well-funded system for nurturing their work. In questioning the canon of art produced under his aegis—known as the Ecole de Dakar—Harney reconsiders Senghor’s Negritude philosophy, his desire to express Senegal’s postcolonial national identity through art, and the system of art schools and exhibits he developed. She expands scholarship on global modernisms by highlighting the distinctive cultural history that shaped Senegalese modernism and the complex and often contradictory choices made by its early artists.

Heavily illustrated with nearly one hundred images, including some in color, In Senghor’s Shadow surveys the work of a range of Senegalese artists, including painters, muralists, sculptors, and performance-based groups—from those who worked at the height of Senghor’s patronage system to those who graduated from art school in the early 1990s. Harney reveals how, in the 1970s, avant-gardists contested Negritude beliefs by breaking out of established artistic forms. During the 1980s and 1990s, artists such as Moustapha Dimé, Germaine Anta Gaye, and Kan-Si engaged with avant-garde methods and local artistic forms to challenge both Senghor’s legacy and the broader art world’s understandings of cultural syncretism. Ultimately, Harney’s work illuminates the production and reception of modern Senegalese art within the global arena.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Over the last three decades the study of modern and contemporary African art has moved inexorably into the mainstream of art history where it rightfully belongs. Elizabeth Harney’s scintillating study of modernism, modernity, the avant-garde, and the African imagination not only contributes to but enlarges the discursive and historiographic borders of the ‘new art history.’ Her detailed and beautifully written work provides a guiding insight into the centrality of Negritude in any history of modernism. This book is an invaluable resource for all those interested in African art history and its contributions to the history of the modernist avant-garde.”—Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director of Documenta 11 and publisher and founder of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art

“There is no book on any contemporary African art that even comes close to the richness and sophistication of this text.”—Christopher Steiner, author of African Art in Transit

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333951
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Series: Objects/Histories Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Harney is Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto. She was the first curator of contemporary art at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (1999–2003). She is the editor of Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora.

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Read an Excerpt

In Senghor's Shadow

Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995
By Elizabeth Harney

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3395-3

Chapter One

Rhythm as the Architecture of Being: Reflections on un Ame Negre

The philosophical and poetic visions of Leopold Sedar Senghor figured large in the cultural history of the immediate postindependence period in Senegal. As the first president, Senghor erected an elaborate institutional and ideological framework through which to promote the philosophy of Negritude. He envisioned Negritude not only as a theory of racial belonging for black people worldwide but also as a cultural rallying point with which to begin the crucial postcolonial process of nationalist affirmation.

During his presidency (1960-80), Senghor envisioned culture as central to the successful economic and political development of his newly independent nation. His attitude helped create an "art-culture system" that art critics labeled the Ecole de Dakar. The cultural productions of this school were said to give visual form to Senghor's poetic and philosophical writings on the relationship between Africanite and modernity. These works fashioned a distinctive artistic vocabulary to express a new awareness of African cultural subjectivity. The stylistic attributes and structural matrix of this Ecole will be further elaborated in chapter 2.

Senghor's brand of Negritude was informed by a wide variety of conditionsand experiences, many of which served to differentiate his philosophy from those of other Negritude theorists. An examination of his cultural and intellectual milieus in Senegal and France is indispensable if one hopes to understand the workings of the distinctive art world that emerged as Senghor institutionalized Negritude's tenets.

This chapter begins by tracing the development of Negritude philosophy in relation to the broader history of Black Atlantic investigations of pan- Africanist cultural paradigms. Like other black intellectual engagements with racialist thinking, Negritude developed partly as a result of a complex process of appropriation and rearticulation of earlier European ideas about Africa and its peoples. The particularities it acquired in the hands of Senghor and his contemporaries should be interpreted, therefore, within the larger framework of early modernist European intellectual thought and situated within a distinct period of "negrophilia" in Paris.

The early politico-intellectual history of Senegal, in which urbanized inhabitants could imagine communities and construct and transgress boundaries of racial, cultural, and political identity quite differently from those living in other colonies, provided a critical backdrop not simply to the development of theories of race and identity, at home and abroad, but also to the eventual flowering of Negritude as a cultural nationalist narrative under Senghorian rule. One can trace the development of a cultural system, public discourse, and aesthetic lexicon based on Senghor's continual refashionings of the concept of Negritude (figure 1).

While many historians and critics have focused on the poetry and prose of Negritude, questioning the preoccupation with amythic "traditional" Africa and the use of European essentialist, racialist narratives of African cultural history, few have given the same attention to the visual arts that flourished under Senghor's patronage. This lacuna has resulted in only a partial telling of the history of the period and, perhaps more important for our purposes, has ignored the crucial point at which theory was put into visual practice. The marriage of Senghor's philosophical preoccupations, his politics, and his own artistry was extremely complicated and often uneasy. Through its explication, one can begin to recontextualize the visual arts that arose within the matrix of a Senghorian art world.

Negritude's Birth: "What Is Africa to Me?"

Senghor credits his friend, the poet and politician Aime Cesaire, with first coining the term Negritude in 1932-33. The term itself was a clever riposte to the pejorative French label of negre (negro). Cesaire broadly defined Negritude as the "simple recognition of the fact of being black, and the acceptance of this fact, of our destiny as black people, of our history, and of our culture." He was also the first to publish the term, in 1939, in his now famous ode to his homeland of Martinique, "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal." He wrote:

my Negritude is neither tower nor a cathedral it thrusts into the red flesh of the soil.... Eia for those who invented nothing! for those who have never discovered for those who have never conquered.

For Cesaire, the act of defining Negritude was an intimate moment of reflection and revelation not intended to become either a personal philosophy by which to live or a blueprint for forging a cultural nationalism and aesthetic. However, by the first year of his presidency in 1961, his friend and colleague Senghor had developed Negritude into just such an entity. In Senghor's writings, Negritude becomes "quite simply the assembly of the values of the black civilization. It is not racism, it is culture." The term has been appropriated and reinterpreted by many parties, each with its own agenda. As one reads both the philosophical exegeses and poetry associated with it, one soon realizes that even its most avid proponents, such as Senghor and Cesaire, continuously redefined and reapplied it to an ever-expanding universe of ideas and forms. In its most common usage, Negritude describes a literary and ideological movement started by a group of young, black, male students from the French colonies who had come to Paris in the 1930s and discovered that despite their French colonial upbringing and their command of the language and culture, they were seen and treated as outsiders in the metropole. For these young intellectuals, Negritude initially served as a powerful apparatus for negotiating identity. It was a useful aid in their journey toward self-discovery and self-definition; an affirmation of their humanity and, as Frantz Fanon has suggested, their manhood. In a period marked by disillusionment with European civilization and Enlightenment rationalism, as well as growing anticolonial sentiments, Negritude also provided a discursive space within which to question reigning political and cultural hegemonies. Among its advocates were writers from French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean such as Birago Diop, Aime Cesaire, Etienne Lero, Leon Damas, Jules Monnerot, and Jean Price-Mars, many of whom supported institutions such as the Societe Africaine de la Culture and its journal Presence Africaine and contributed to pan-African conferences that called for art and artists to serve on the front lines of cultural development.

While these gatherings began in the early 1930s and continued after the Second World War, the complexities of the debates characterizing them only reached a larger audience in 1948, with the publication of an anthology of poetry from Africa and the Caribbean edited by Senghor and prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre. In "L'Orphee noir," an empathetic Sartre traced the contours of Negritude, regarding it as a powerful and much-needed awakening of and reckoning with black consciousness. In Heideggerian terms, Sartre characterized it broadly as the "black man's being-in-the-world." Recognizing its revolutionary nature, he explained to a European audience: "A Negro cannot deny that he is Negro, nor claim to be part of this abstract, colorless humanity: He is black. He is thus forced to be authentic. Insulted, enslaved, he draws himself up, picks up the word 'nigger' that has been thrown at him like a stone, and proudly asserts himself as a black man facing the white man." Sartre rightly isolated a central feature of Negritude: its emancipatory and subversive possibilities that provided those without previous access to the metanarrative of universal history or the power to control the means of communication and representation with an apparatus through which to reclaim and reinvent the meaning of blackness in the modern world. By utilizing and manipulating the linguistic and representational tools of the colonial master, Negritude also challenged the logic of the objectifying gaze under which the colonizer had for so long fixed and confined the colonized. Sartre explained, "Here, in this anthology, are black men standing, black men who examine us; and I want you to feel as I, the sensation of being seen. For the white man has enjoyed for three thousand years the privilege of seeing without being seen."

But for Sartre, the subversive nature of Negritude was but a means to an end, leading to a world without racial categorization and injustice. Thus the Negritude advocate was envisioned as worker and revolutionary in a dialectical process that brought liberation to oppressed peoples worldwide, not simply to blacks. Characterizing it as ultimately a "self-negating" movement, Sartre wrote: "Thus Negritude is the root of its own destruction; it is a transition and not a conclusion, a means and not an ultimate end." By applying a straight Marxist reading to the tenets of Negritude, Sartre easily elides the otherwise complicated and diverse histories of racial and class-based struggles in the modern age. The solidarity he suggests between colonized black and disenfranchised worker amounts to a dismissal of the specificities and violence of the colonial system.

The discussions of these young students, whether focused on a shared black consciousness and cultural memory or on links with a mother Africa, formed part of a continuing movement of self-reflection among intellectuals in what Paul Gilroy has called the Black Atlantic. I employ Gilroy's term here as a useful paradigm for understanding the historical complexity, breadth, and vitality of a vast community of people who shaped and participated in "an open-ended black political culture" through "an infinite process of identity formation." Within the flexible context of the Black Atlantic, one can approach the artistic and intellectual activities on both sides of the ocean as a single analytic field in which ideas, peoples, and objects continually circulated and engaged with one another. One can, therefore, situate Senghor's desire to express a distinctive African cultural identity through a carefully constructed vision of racial quintessence within a historically rich set of circulating ideas. As discussed below, exposure to earlier pan-Africanist and black nationalist writings and debates-from America, the Caribbean, and expatriate colonial Africans in Europe-was also a crucial factor in the later development of Senghor's and others' ideas of Negritude.

Pan-Africanism: Negritude's Progenitor

In 1903, African American intellectual, writer, and cultural spokesman W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays in which he spoke of Africa as a "sleeping giant" waiting to awaken in the twentieth century. Du Bois encouraged African Americans to take pride in their shared African heritage and in the integrity with which they, as a strong people, had endured suffering throughout history. Though addressing the particularities of the situation in the United States, Du Bois's description of "double-consciousness" or a sense of "two-ness" experienced by American blacks held a striking resemblance to later Negritude writings on the black condition under colonialism from both the Caribbean and Africa.

In the wake of the First World War and the great migration north, the growth of a pan-Africanist political perspective among black intellectuals in the United States led to a sense of oppression shared with their African brethren suffering under the forces of colonialism and imperialism. Du Bois took advantage of the wide interest shown in his ideas to help organize the NAACP, addressing specific demands of the African American experience and then, with the aid of the Senegalese deputy to France, Blaise Diagne, to design an international pan-African congress in Paris in 1919. Other meetings followed in 1921, 1923, 1927, and 1945, at which participants of African descent discussed themes of equality and justice. These gatherings not only served as sites for intellectual debate but also as hotbeds of political activism at which the young, future politicians of a postcolonial Africa engaged with socialist and communist theories and learned from the strength of European unionist politics.

In the same year as Du Bois's first congress in Paris, the Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey arrived in New York and founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which asserted that African Americans could never live with real freedom and justice in the United States and favored a mass exodus back to Africa. While Garvey never stepped foot on the African continent, his zealous calls for a renaissance of the black race were noted by young scholars and politicians like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta who would later formulate their own ideas about pan- Africanism, suited for the exigencies of the decolonization era. French-speaking African intellectuals in Paris who preceded Senghor, Cesaire, and their colleagues also imbibed Garvey's rhetoric.

In 1925, African American philosopher Alain Locke published a collection of essays in a book entitled The New Negro, which celebrated the vitality and uniqueness of African American culture. These essays served as a call to action for the African American "talented tenth" to create a discursive space for black culture within a racially polarized America. In the foreword, Locke envisions the search for a distinctive black consciousness through artistic endeavor as one of self-determination, as a kind of emergent nationalism that relied on the awakening of the spirit of the black masses. He wrote:

The New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, and especially of a New America. Europe seething in a dozen centers with emergent nationalities, Palestine full of a renascent Judaism-these are no more alive with the progressive forces of our era than the quickened centers of the lives of black folk. America seeking a new spiritual expansion and artistic maturity, trying to found an American literature, a national art, and a national music implies a Negro-American culture seeking the same satisfactions and objectives.

We will hear echoes of these ties between nationalist rhetoric and black aesthetics in the discourse surrounding the Ecole de Dakar and the Senghorian art network.

In his collection, Locke included an essay entitled "The Legacy of Ancestral Art," which strongly encouraged African American artists to study, reflect, and draw on their African roots by giving form to this heritage in their works. Locke observed that for European artists, African arts were "a mine of fresh motifs, ... a lesson in simplicity and originality of expression.... surely, once known and appreciated, this art can scarcely have less influence upon the blood descendants, bound to it by a sense of cultural kinship, than upon those who inherit it by tradition only."

African American writers soon responded to Locke's challenge. In the following year, Countee Cullen published "Heritage," a poem in which he asked, "What is Africa to me?" musing romantically about his mother continent. 32 In 1928, novelist Claude McKay published his novel Banjo, in which he eulogized the folk traditions and wisdom of ordinary, hardworking African Americans. McKay believed these individuals had the "raw unconscious and the devil-within-them pride in being Negro" and illustrated "the irrepressible exuberance and legendary vitality of the black race."

McKay's cultural primitivism placed his writings squarely in line with those focused on an immutable, racially based, shared collective identity. His work was much heralded not just by African Americans but also by French West African and Caribbean students keeping abreast of the African American renaissance from Paris. Senghor once said of him, "Claude McKay can be considered ... as the veritable inventor of Negritude ... not the word ... but of the values of Negritude." Friends of Senghor recall that he was especially impressed with the productions of African American poets and writers, claiming that he could recite many of their works by heart. In his memoirs, he admits to their impact on his own early writings: "Above all it was Negro American poetry. I even met some Negro-American writers. These discoveries were true revelations for me, which led me to seek myself and uncover myself as I was: a Negro (negre), morally and intellectually interwoven with French. I then burned almost all my previous poems to start again at zero. It was 1935." Senghor and his colleagues in Paris had direct access to these writings and opportunities to exchange ideas with the authors at the pan-African congresses and in a literary salon and journal run by a Martinican woman, Paulette Nardal.


Excerpted from In Senghor's Shadow by Elizabeth Harney Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Rhythm as the architecture of being : reflections on un Ame Negre 19
2 The Ecole de Dakar : pan-Africanism in paint and textile 49
3 Laboratories of avant-gardism 105
4 After the avant-garde 149
5 Passport to the global art world 217
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