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The role of the workshop in the creation of African art is the subject of this revelatory book. In the group setting of the workshop, innovation and imitation collide, artists share ideas and techniques, and creative expression flourishes. African Art and Agency in the Workshop examines the variety of workshops, from those which are politically driven or tourist oriented, to those based on historical patronage or allied to current artistic trends. Fifteen lively essays explore the impact of the workshop on the production of artists such as Zimbabwean stone sculptors, master potters from Cameroon, wood carvers from Nigeria, and others from across the continent.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253007490
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sidney Littlefield Kasfir is Professor Emerita of Art History at Emory University. She is author of African Art and the Colonial Encounter (IUP, 2007).

Till Förster is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Basel.

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African Art and Agency in the Workshop

By Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, Till Förster

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00758-2


Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa

Elizabeth Morton

Africa's first modern art workshop began in the mid-1920s at Grace Dieu Mission near Pietersburg, South Africa. It developed a trademark style of wood carving that won considerable critical acclaim in the 1930s and allowed the school to support and promote South Africa's first professional black artists. Two of them, Ernest Mancoba and Job Kekana, received contemporary and lasting acclaim. Although the workshop closed abruptly in 1939, its bas-relief style nevertheless became institutionalized elsewhere and is still produced today.

Grace Dieu is notable because it established a pattern that would be repeated in African art workshops for the remainder of the colonial period. The school developed a recognizable and consistent workshop style influenced by the idiosyncratic ideals of a European "founder." Additionally, the art was created by young peasant men whose training was restricted to a prescribed style. The workshop patrons found at Grace Dieu that it was best to identify a talented and reliable favorite, who could be hired to train the other artists in the desired manner. Finally, we note the emergence of rebel artists, who chafe under the uniformity and other demands of the workshop and who seek to create other forms of art.

Despite Grace Dieu's surprising success in supporting South Africa's first professional black artists, its art program had serious flaws. The key problem lay in the philosophical underpinnings of the school's style. As we shall see, Grace Dieu's art derived from the Arts and Crafts movement in England, whose theorists promoted decorative art forms in which the craftsman controlled the entire production process. At Grace Dieu, however, the artist was alienated from the design of his artwork. A related problem was that artists were trained primarily to produce the mission style, resulting in their continued technical deficiency in areas such as anatomical accuracy and exploration of a wider range of materials.

Emergence of Woodcarving at the Mission

Grace Dieu was an Anglican school founded in 1907, which gradually developed into a medium-sized teacher training college that attracted black students from across South Africa. Although the founders of the college never envisioned art as one of its teaching components, Grace Dieu had an experimental and practical side to its curriculum that indirectly encouraged it. Although the school's students were all teacher trainees, they had to take its unique handwork program. Although handwork was not formally examined, it nevertheless was allotted a quarter of all class time throughout the three-year course. Initially handwork included leatherwork, cardboard modeling, woodwork, drawing, and gardening (Mokwele 1988:97). Because the subject had no syllabus, it varied depending on the instructors' tastes. Sister Pauline, CR (1922–38), taught craftwork in a variety of media—such as raffia, fencing wire, grass, tin, and papier mâché. In 1921 principal Father Palmer (1912–24) also decided to add carpentry, with a view to starting the Transvaal's first accredited program for Africans. Despite Palmer's efforts, the white educational authorities refused to license the program as a result of official policy to protect skilled white labor from competition. Palmer's successor, S. P. Woodfield (1924–39), refused to take no for an answer and in 1924 he hired a full-time carpentry instructor, Wilson Lokwe, to teach carpentry within the handwork curriculum. For the next thirteen years Woodfield beleaguered the authorities to license his carpentry program.

In 1925 a new woodcarving specialty emerged suddenly among the fledgling carpenters. It developed almost entirely by accident, as a result of the infectiousness of a young teacher, Edward Paterson, on his way to seminary. Paterson, who had three years of formal art training in England, from 1921 to 1923, remembered his 1925 stint at Grace Dieu some fifty years later:

One day a pupil in the carpentry section brought me a stool he had made. On impulse I said it could be much better, and drew for him a design on the top and showed him with a chisel how to go about carving it in depth. From that moment there was a riot in interest and soon it became the habit to carve in bas-relief furniture of all sorts—then church furniture and crosses, etc. By the end of the year it was well-established—Sister Pauline CR, a nun taking over.

At the time of the Paterson-inspired mini-revolution, the students at the school had only the most rudimentary of tools. All they had were cheap penknives to carve rejected carpentry wood, and glass bottles to smooth their work. Even so, there was considerable talent at the school from the outset. Zachariah Sekgaphane, who trained as a teacher from 1925 to 1927, was the best carving student (Miles 1997:110). Ernest Methuen Mancoba, the school's African language teacher and a former student, also showed considerable interest, since he had loved sculpting clay animals while tending his father's cattle as a child. Perhaps more surprising was the interest shown in carving by Sister Pauline, the daughter of an English cabinetmaker. By all accounts she became obsessed with woodcarving and tried to absorb as much from Paterson as she could before he left. By the time Paterson departed, these three—as well as many students—were conversant with bas-relief furniture decoration.

Paterson did more than provide mere artistic training. He also created an entrée into the ecclesiastical art market by obtaining commissions for the school from various Anglican congregations. In fact, in 1925 the shop's revenues from these sales exceeded its expenditures—excluding teacher salaries. After Paterson left, Woodfield ensured woodcarving's survival by installing a large, new carpentry workshop and buying professional sculpting tools. Thereafter he described his school as "a training ground for teachers [and] the home of revived Bantu craft." With the enthusiastic Sister Pauline in charge, the school continued to receive orders from various Anglican churches for furniture. Woodcarving thus quickly emerged as the college's handwork specialty, and attracted all the best talent identified in carpentry classes.

The first few years following Paterson's departure were ones of consolidation for the woodcarvers. Sister Pauline, for all her enthusiasm, was a still an artistic neophyte. Meanwhile, Sekgaphane and Mancoba took some time to learn to manipulate the chisel. Orders for bas-relief furniture continued to come in, and the school was able to pay off much of the cost of the carpentry workshop with the revenues. Although Sister Pauline and her carvers lacked artistic sophistication, they still obtained ideas for their furniture from the penurious Paterson—who was always willing to provide bas-relief designs from seminary for a few quid. This was how the trademark Grace Dieu style emerged.

During the 1930s Woodfield, Sister Pauline, and the carvers all became more sophisticated. The school began to exhibit its works, starting with the 1930 World Missionary Congress. For the next few years they continued to do so at some relatively insignificant venues around Pietersburg. In 1934, however, Sister Pauline relinquished many of her teaching duties and took control of the school's new woodcarving department. The new department created two full-time positions for former students Eric Chimwaza and John Makenna, who were put on salary and given staff housing. During the year, the carvers began to exhibit at serious venues, including the prestigious South African Academy annual shows in Johannesburg. Mancoba and student Job Kekana were regular contributors, as were the professional carvers. Grace Dieu work was consistently well received and commanded good prices. Several works were also purchased by prominent public figures such as the Earl of Clarendon and the bishop of the Transvaal. As a result of the growing publicity, the school's order book remained full until the woodworking department was abruptly closed in 1939.

Grace Dieu's Style: African Bas-relief

Grace Dieu shares with many other modern African workshops an emphasis on one particular medium and technique. Most of Grace Dieu's artworks were relief woodcarvings, on functional, often assembled, pieces such as chairs, altars, and plaques (fig. 1.1). This reliance on the functional was an obvious result of carpentry starting first, with the decorative aspect coming later. In addition, occasional freestanding woodcarvings, usually depicting biblical personae or other religious figures, were produced. The woodcarving style, though, was clearly derived from the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Edward Paterson was responsible for bringing the ethos of Arts and Crafts to Grace Dieu. He had trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, a school founded by the successors of John Ruskin and William Morris—the great Arts and Crafts theorists (Walker 1985:11–12). Ruskin and Morris both emphasized the need for art to enrich and beautify society and to help unify the social fabric by decorating all the objects that surrounded people in their daily lives. Hence the movement emphasized crafts such as furniture and wallpaper and textiles, and any art that led to the general aesthetic enhancement of homes and public spaces. According to Ruskin and Morris, art lost its raison d'être if it strayed from this formula (Harvey and Press 1996). Arts and Crafts was a democratic ethos, and was thus opposed to the kind of art for art's sake that emerged during the late nineteenth century. Instead, the movement was a backward-looking one that idealized the medieval craftsman as the perfect link between art and society. The guilds that produced these artists, Ruskin and Morris felt, were an organic part of their societies producing in response to popular demand. Moreover, the guilds ennobled their artists by allowing them to control the entire artistic process. Their craftsmen were responsible for the design and execution of all their artwork. Ideally, then, the artist was always the designer.

What Paterson saw in Grace Dieu's carpentry school was an opportunity to present the main idea of Arts and Crafts—namely, decorative function. Grace Dieu's role of supplying church furniture and ecclesiastical pieces continued this emphasis on function and decoration. The pieces produced were familiar items in any Anglican church. However, Paterson realized that these items could be decorated to give worshippers enjoyment, edification, and instruction.

A key contradiction, though, existed in the Grace Dieu workshop from the very beginning—the division between the design and the woodcarving. Never at Grace Dieu was there an attempt to train the carvers in drawing, design, or pattern making. Some of the students did create their own designs, but this was the result of their own efforts. Typically, plans came from trained white artists. Paterson created most of the designs, and others came from Grace Anderson (the wife of painter William Battiss), and from Sister Margaret—an Anglican nun attached to Sister Pauline's order. Paterson surely must have known that he was alienating Grace Dieu's carvers from their work (since he never worked from anyone else's designs himself), but never seems to have objected to the situation.

Further evidence of this contradiction can be seen in the writings of Woodfield, the patron of Grace Dieu's carvers. His school's woodcarving program aimed, he said,

to show that the African artist had his own means of expression, and that he could submit, without loss of inspiration, to the discipline of technical training. That attitude which regards a carving as good because it was done by an African and not because it is a good piece of work ... needed to be stamped out, and it could only be done if the African learned the true technique of carving and added to that his own manner of seeing things. The inspiration is there, the thorough grounding is still, in most instances, far to seek.

Woodfield, as much as he loved his carvers and promoted their work, clearly misunderstood the artistic process at Grace Dieu. Although he believed the school's carvers were free to express themselves, they were clearly alienated from the design process. He rationalizes the contradiction with his comment that carvers had to submit "to the discipline of technical training." In fact, Grace Dieu was extremely deficient in its technical training. Sister Pauline taught the use of the chisel, but there is no evidence she had great technical competence as a carver or art instructor. What actually happened is that the carvers were given basic carving training, and then "without loss of inspiration" were expected to submit to the discipline of inserting externally derived designs onto wood surfaces often unsuitable for them. This was the true technique of carving that was taught.

The limits of the actual technical training provided to the carvers handicapped their development and had a profound impact upon the school's style. As noted earlier, design development did not feature in the carving program. Additionally, there was no training in anatomy, despite the fact that human figures were featured in most of the works created at Grace Dieu. Instead, the method was for students to work from a two-dimensional design or from ecclesiastical artworks by Europeans such as crucifixes, which the college purchased for its chapel. Finally, it is clear that Sister Pauline did not have the technical background necessary to train her students on how to explore the media that they were working with.

As a result of these factors, all the art produced at Grace Dieu shared similar stylistic traits. Most significantly, the relief was shallow, lacking both pictorial and physical depth and texture. Subjects of the works were depicted by a flat raised surface, with background areas removed to emphasize the shape of raised subjects. Raised forms were generally smoothed to create a flat polished surface, with only slight rounding on the shallow edges. Occasionally surface textures were created on the raised subjects, but only where simplified patterning could produce the effect. Examples include regular lines to form thatched roofs on traditional huts, diamond shapes to create scales on lizards, and rows of balls to produce hair braids.

Not only was the carving itself shallow, but so was the depth of field. Generally subjects were placed in a setting with only a simple horizon line, which was sometimes made more complex by a series of overlapping hills. Pictorial depth was only suggested by the overlapping of one subject over another or over the background.

The Arts and Crafts movement also had a pronounced impact on the designs provided to the Grace Dieu artists. Generally Morris had looked to the British Gothic past for visual sources. In addition, he had emphasized the decorative, rethinking the concept of pattern. Morris, for example, was a pioneer in visually flattening previously three-dimensional images on wallpaper. Hence, the emphasis switched from subject matter to line and color. Almost all of Grace Dieu's designs, therefore, utilize medieval patterns—often arch shapes to form frames, rosettes, and curvilinear patterns reminiscent of handwritten medieval texts. Where the Grace Dieu patterns are original, though, is in the African images of people, animals, and scenery interspersed with these anachronistic patterns. An excellent example of this is a Tudor-style chair. This chair's headrest features two African lizards symmetrically opposed with intertwined tails—an image reminiscent of dragon motifs from medieval texts. This Arts and Crafts emphasis on line and pattern is a decisive feature of the Grace Dieu style.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Rethinking the Workshop \ Till Förster and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
The Contributions to This Book \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster
Part 1. Production, Education, and Learning
1. Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa \ Elizabeth Morton
2. Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in Oku, Cameroon \ Nicolas Argenti
3. Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei, Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery Workshop \ Silvia Forni
4. An Artist's Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and South Africa \ Namubiru Rose Kirumira and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Part 2. Audience and Encounters
5. Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in Weya and Mapula Needlework, Zimbabwe and South Africa \ Brenda Schmahmann
6. Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Osogbo Workshops in the 1960s, Nigeria \ Chika Okeke-Agulu
7. Working on the Small Difference: Notes on the Making of Sculpture in Tengenenge, Zimbabwe \ Christine Scherer
8. Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System, Kenya \ Jessica Gerschultz

Part 3. Patronage and Domination
9. Lewanika's Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia \ Karen E. Milbourne
10. Artesaos da Nossa Pátria: Makonde Blackwood Sculptors, Cooperatives, and the Art of Socialist Revolution in Postcolonial Mozambique \ Alexander Bortolot
11. Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting, Zimbabwe \ Elizabeth Morton
12. "A Matter of Must": Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe Woodcarving Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria \ Norma H. Wolff

Part 4. Comparative Aspects
13. Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop Settings, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon \ Till Förster
14. Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Sub-Saharan Africa \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Coda: Apprentices and Entrepreneurs Revisited: Twenty Years of Workshop Changes, 1987-2007 \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir


What People are Saying About This

University of Florida - Victoria Rovine

A closer examination of the workshop provides important insights into art histories and cultural politics. We may think we know what we mean when we use the term 'workshop,' but in fact the organization of groups of artists takes on vastly different forms and encourages the production of diverse styles of art within larger social structures and power dynamics.

University of California, Los Angeles - Allen F. Roberts

Mozambican freedom fighters direct artistic cooperatives to anti-colonial ends. An entrepreneurial Zambian king "brands" his people through patronage of distinctive visual and performance arts. These and equally compelling case studies demonstrate how African workshops have long mediated collective expression and individual imagination. In their nuanced contextualization of "the workshop" across cultural, geographical, and temporal diversities, the editors frame apprenticeship, cultural constructions of creativity, pragmatic materiality, and phenomenologies of production as no Africanist art historians have before, and in ways applicable anywhere in the world.

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