News & Updates
December 1, 2022
Description: Henry Balfour in a gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum by Unknown
Henry Balfour in a gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, c. 1895. Pitts River Museum, University of Oxford
Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal, recently interviewed Annie E. Coombes, author of Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (YUP, 1994).
Reinventing Africa was published in 1994, but the book’s content is still of great import and relevance today. How does that strike you, especially when you think about your original objectives for the book?
I’m thrilled that a book published nearly 30 years ago is still in use, particularly since it had its origins in PhD research completed in the 1980s! Although in some ways, I am not surprised that there has been a revival of interest in Reinventing Africa because of the resurgence of activism around restitution, specifically (but not only) in relation to the Benin “bronzes.” Reinventing Africa was the first book to engage critically with the violent histories of the British government’s 1897 looting of these cultural icons and to analyse the network of highly contradictory responses when they flooded the art and ethnographic market and museums in Europe. It was also the first to integrate these with an analysis of the active criticism of empire produced in Britain and, significantly, within the African continent itself and by Africans in the Diaspora. The book was published during a wave of important critical thinking around post-coloniality (generated in the field of literature rather than visual studies or art history). Reinventing Africa opened these ideas to a new field of interdisciplinary thinking about the relationship between the history of anthropology and different contexts in public metropolitan life that constituted the colonial subject for a broader (less specialist) public. It brought together popular Victorian “race” science, visual histories, and a critique of colonialism.
My work has always been driven by what I feel is a political imperative both personally and in the wider sense. The PhD started life as a more conventional investigation into a form of “primitivism”—the appropriation of African art by British post-war modernists (the Vorticists)—but my own encounter with the African continent completely transformed the focus of the research into one exploring the visual and cultural evidence of racial prejudice, disinformation, and resistance between 1890 and 1914. In 1981, on the eve of a civil war, I took up a volunteer position teaching in government secondary schools in the Democratic Republic of the Sudan (on the Eritrean border and in Shendi on the banks of the Nile). That experience, the lessons I learned from my Sudanese pupils and their families, and the political and ideological tensions and contradictions that I was forced to confront over this period, were formative in refining my research interests on the legacies of cultures of colonialism in the present. Returning to the UK, my university attempted to block the continuation of my PhD since my work in the Sudan was seen as an irrelevant diversion as well as being unrelated to art history! But teaching in the Sudan was an invaluable experience and provided the basis of a long-standing research engagement with history, heritage, and art practice relating to the African Continent (South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan, Nigeria) beginning with the publication of Reinventing Africa.
What do you recall was the most startling event or piece of evidence that you uncovered while researching your book?
I remember being fascinated by the extent to which there was a sustained critique of British imperialism and colonisation not only from the usual (and sometimes highly compromised) sources we might expect: the Anti-Slavery lobby; the Aborigine Protection Society, and the Congo Reform Association. In my research for Chapter 2, “Voices in the Wilderness: Critics of Empire,” I discovered a wealth of critical West African voices (journalists, business people and missionaries) whose writings were frequently reprinted and exchanged between radical, progressive, and socialist journals and newspapers within Britain. And crucially there was a burgeoning West African-owned press that provided a lively space for extended criticism of the colonial project.
While researching the chapters dealing with missionary and colonial exhibitions, I was also struck by evidence of real agency amongst the African performers (often presented in more recent scholarship as passive victims) who populated the West African and Somalian villages (for example). It was an agency demonstrated by their determination to protest their living conditions and wages.
I believe you are still engaged with many of the ideas explored in Reinventing Africa. Could you describe how the book informs your current research interests?
At the time the book was published, I had also written and presented a BBC film “The Colonial Encounter,” focused on similar issues (the representation of Africans and African cultures in ethnographic museums, visual arts and international and colonial exhibitions, and restitution) in relation to French colonising agendas (rather than British) at the turn of the 20th century. Both helped to pave the way for my research in South Africa in the wake of apartheid between 1994–2003. They were a form of “calling card” which provided people with a sense of where I stood politically and helped to open conversations with artists involved in creating relevant monuments and memorials and with museum curators who were trying to make their institutions meaningful to the black majority population who had been excluded during apartheid. The South African research was similarly concerned with teasing out some of the contradictions and difficulties of a variety of subject positions in the then “new” South Africa and the complications of representing these adequately in public culture. I’m really interested in how one can engage publics in the retelling/restaging of painful and traumatic histories (such as the brutality of apartheid) without forcing the viewer (if they were also a victim) to relive that violence again. Conversely, I believe it is critically important to find ways of actively engaging those publics who know little or nothing about these events while ensuring that these histories do not become homogenous or unilinear.
After Reinventing Africa, I became increasingly aware of the importance of looking at issues from the perspective of what was (and is) happening on the African continent rather than starting with a focus on Europe. Consequently, a further two books analysed the colonial legacy in Kenya and the colonial and apartheid legacy in South Africa and questions and issues arising from the need to create a better and different understanding of those histories for local stakeholders, including in small local (sometimes rural) community peace museums in Kenya.
I’m now looking at the development of a number of new museums on the African continent including Musée des Civilizations Noires (Senegal); National Museum of Togo, Palais de Lomé (Togo); Edo Museum Of West African Art (Nigeria) and a range of much smaller community museums. I am particularly interested in the extent to which these new museums might offer insights for European institutions into ways of engaging a range of local and international publics with radically differing agendas and needs.
The epilogue to Reinventing Africa made a very clear case for the restitution of the Benin ‘bronzes’ following on from the historical research which set out the history of the looting of the ‘bronzes’ and the debates around their origins. Much of this iconic heritage is being returned by key European institutions, and I have had the privilege of participating in the planning workshops for the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) as an Expert Advisor on the “Heritage Collection Advisory Workshops” Online and in Benin City, working with representatives from the Benin Royal Court of Oba Ewuare 11; the Edo State Government; the Legacy Restoration Trust and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). We were tasked with planning the new museum and assessing the “breadth of the museum’s scope: time periods, cultures, and geographies, [the] acquisition strategies, [the] narrative structure of the exhibitions, the desired visitor experiences [and] the relationship of the “heritage collection” to contemporary African art and to the Museum’s research agenda.”
I understand that you were recently appointed to the ACASA Comparative Models of Repatriation and Restitution Sub-Committee. Could you perhaps explain the goals for this group as it relates to African art and artifacts?
I was delighted to become a member of this group at such a critical moment in the history a number of long-running restitution claims. The sub-committee comprises an international group of museum directors, curators, and academics with expertise on African history and material culture. We are tasked with assembling and analysing a range of international models for restitution and repatriation (including, among others, NAGPRA and the Registry of Resolution of Claims for Nazi-Era Cultural Assets) and then researching actual cases of cultural return or claims in order to test out the viability, benefits, and pitfalls of different models. We are doing this with a view to recommending “which aspects of these models may be adapted for a document of best practices for North American museums holding African art.”
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October 5, 2022
Description: The Icebergs by Church, Frederic Edwin
Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal, recently interviewed Alan C. Braddock, Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and Environmental Humanities at William & Mary, about his forthcoming born-digital eBook Implication: An Ecocritical Dictionary for Art History.
Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of the field of ecocritical art history? How did you first become interested in pursuing this in your research and writing?
Ecocritical art history evolved from scholarly innovations in literary studies and history. Literature scholars were doing something called "ecocriticism" and historians were exploring environmental history pretty extensively by the 1990s. Contemporary artists and art critics occasionally addressed ecological concerns during the late twentieth century, and a few art historians pondered the environmental significance of historical landscape painting, but none of these efforts were as focused or sustained as what scholars were doing elsewhere in the humanities. The first really important study in art history to take ecology seriously was Greg M. Thomas's book Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau (Princeton, 2000), examining the work of a leading member of the Barbizon school in France. Several years later, my volume of essays co-edited with Christoph Irmscher, A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (Alabama, 2009), was the first book in art history to refer to ecocriticism in its title, as a way of signaling an interdisciplinary affiliation with scholars in literature and history. My own interest in ecocriticism grew directly out of my research on the art of Thomas Eakins, a Philadelphia painter whose pictures of athletic rowers and other outdoor scenes seem very realistic even as they discreetly filter out troubling truths about ecological modernity, including disastrous water pollution and environmental injustice. Eakins's own sister, Margaret, died of typhoid—a disease caused by polluted water—but his pictures give no inkling of such problems, suggesting a disconnect between ecology and representation that invited ecocritical scrutiny. The 2010s and 2020s have seen an explosion of new scholarship in ecocritical art history addressing a wide range of topics and contexts.
What are your goals for Implication? After reading your book, how do you hope students will reconsider the way they experience and appreciate art?
I hope that students and other readers of Implication will come away convinced that all art—regardless of historical period, context, genre, or medium—has an ecological connection to the world in which it was created. Sometimes the connection is obvious and intentional on the part of the artist as an explicit expression of environmentalist attitudes. More often, though, especially when considering historical art that is rarely environmentalist in orientation, the connection must be discerned through careful ecocritical inquiry that takes various kinds of evidence into account, including the formal appearance of the work, the materials with which it was made, the attitudes and historical context of the artist, and interdisciplinary knowledge about ecology and environmental history. Ultimately, I believe strongly that ecocritical interpretation makes art history both more interesting and more responsive to the world in which we live.
With what audiences beyond art history do you hope your book will resonate?
I would be delighted if students, scholars, and other readers outside art history—notably in literature, history, and environmental studies—were to take an interest in my book. I think the book also has some important things to say about environmental justice. After all, art helps us recognize there are various ways of seeing and understanding ecology, depending on one's perspective, so it has the power to reveal inequities and disproportionalities.
You have been a pioneer in ecocritical art history and now you are at the forefront of embracing new publishing formats. What factors contributed to your decision to publish Implication as a born-digital book on the A&AePortal?
No publishing medium is without some sort of environmental footprint, but I really do like the fact that the A&AePortal will distribute Implication without consuming trees for paper or generating mountains of physical waste. I'll feel even better when our electrical grid runs primarily on clean, renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Perhaps just as importantly, a digital publication like this should be more accessible than a traditional printed book.
Implication: An Ecocritical Dictionary for Art History will be published on the A&AePortal in March 2023.
Image (above) Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861. Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Art.
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March 8, 2022
STUDENT EXPERIENCE PANEL
Art and architectural history students are welcome to join the A&AePortal Student Experience Panel to help guide the way for the future of the platform. Contact us at support@aaeportal.com to request more information.
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January 11, 2022
The A&AePortal team is excited to announce a Dedalus Foundation grant that enables free access for two years to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) Woodruff Library, which supports the three institutions that comprise the Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective at AUC: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. In addition, student interns from these schools will be hired to assist with metadata preparation for the site, and will be invited to engage in related discussions about inclusivity and cultural sensitivities in art and architectural history.
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November 12, 2021
Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal—
Description: Mende women with herbal wreaths by Busselle, Rebecca
Working on the A&AePortal presents many engaging opportunities—among them, for me, is selecting the content. This has allowed me to take a deep dive into YUP’s classic and distinguished list of art and architecture books, including out-of-print books published decades ago. Many of these exceptional publications not only deserve to reach a new audience, which the platform is designed to accomplish, but often focus on topics that are keenly relevant today.
One such book is the subject of this post: Sylvia Ardyn Boone’s Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. Originally published in 1986, this groundbreaking volume looks at the Sande Society of the Mende in Sierra Leone, a prominent secret female society that both guards and transmits the ideals of feminine beauty comprising the fundamental aesthetic criterion in their culture. At the time of publication, reviews highlighted its significance: a “major contribution to our ethnographic understanding of Mende culture;” “an extended meditation on notions of beauty and decorum and the way in which these can be translated simultaneously into art and . . . advancement for women;” “the first text to illuminate the power of the feminine aesthetic in West African art.”
While exploring Radiance from the Waters, I also learned about the book’s extraordinary author. Boone graduated from Brooklyn College and earned a master’s degree in social sciences at Columbia before studying at the University of Ghana, where she struck up friendships with visiting Black Americans, including Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Boone came to Yale University in 1970 as a visiting lecturer in Afro-American studies, after which she stayed on to become the first person of African descent to earn a Ph.D. in the department of art history. Boone then joined the Yale faculty in 1979, where she taught courses in art history and Afro-American studies, specializing in African art, female imagery, and women’s arts and masks. She was promoted to associate professor and in 1988 became the first woman of color to be granted tenure at Yale University.
Boone passed away in 1993 while still in her 50s. In order to secure the necessary rights to republish Radiance from the Waters, I needed to locate Boone’s literary executor. With the help of Yale’s development office, I contacted Vera Wells. As one of the first women undergraduates at Yale College in 1969, Wells had proposed the “Black Woman” residential college seminar at Timothy Dwight College, which resulted in Boone being recruited to Yale to teach it in the fall of 1970. Boone and Wells then went on to organize the historic Chubb Conference on the Black Woman, which brought Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Shirley Graham Du Bois to campus that December. Wells and Boone became dear friends, and Wells handled her estate. Wells was determined that her mentor’s intellectual contributions and visionary insights continue to circulate around the world. In 1994, Wells endowed the Boone Memorial Prize at Yale, an award that is presented annually at the University’s commencement convocation for the best dissertation, master’s thesis, or graduate essay dealing with African or African American artistic, cultural and/or historical issues. Wells also endowed the Yale College scholarship in Boone’s name so that undergraduates would continue to be inspired by Boone’s impact.
Wells graciously encouraged the idea to republish the book, and shared information with me on the author’s life and accomplishments.
“Sylvia Ardyn Boone was a woman with amazing wisdom, caring kindness, and thoughtful generosity of spirit who graced my life as my teacher—and then allowed me the privilege of becoming her friend. She had such wide-ranging knowledge and catholic tastes that I seemed to learn new and exciting information during every conversation! Whether commenting on the day’s news, foreign films, jazz, opera, or the latest popular books, Sylvia always had a special insight or analytical critique. However, she was especially well-versed on African and African American history, culture, and artistic issues. I’d love for us all to benefit from her synthesis of what’s happening in our current world situation, here in the U.S. and on the broader global stage.
I am thrilled that Radiance from the Waters has become newly available on the A&AePortal—not only to the scholarly community of academicians like Robert Farris Thompson, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Deborah Willis, who have cited her work in the past, but also to anyone interested in learning about the ideas and ideals of beauty.”
Description: Mende girl painted with hojo by Busselle, Rebecca
Radiance from the Waters also features some beautiful photographs of Mende women, which were taken by Rebecca Busselle. In time, I located the photographer to request permission to include them on the ePortal. Not only did Busselle willingly agree, but she also generously offered to provide new high-resolution files of the original photographs, some of which you see reproduced here. These photographs bring us intimately into the Sande society, and help us to further understand the import of these compelling women and their culture that Boone was devoted to understanding and sharing. Busselle also reminisced with me about the project and the arduous task of making photographs in West Africa. Here she describes a trip during which she created the images for Radiance from the Waters:
“We arrived in Sierra Leone in the fall, 1972 from Manhattan, where with three children to tend I’d never had a darkroom. In Bo, 1973, I discovered I could buy a Russian enlarger, chemicals and (sometimes) photographic paper in Freetown, 5 rugged hours away. With an air conditioner purloined from the Peace Corps I set up a darkroom where I developed film and made prints when we had running water, usually between 5-8 AM. I photographed as much as supplies permitted until we left, in the fall of 1975. If I could, I’d give the names of everyone I photographed as well as the dates, since they were friends and neighbors, or folks in nearby villages, and deserve to be acknowledged.”
I have the A&AePortal to thank for the opportunity to learn about all of these exceptional women—Boone, Wells, Busselle, and the Mende women of Sierra Leone—and I am eager for others to discover their histories and contributions.
~Description: Mende women by Busselle, Rebecca
All photographs © Rebecca Busselle
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June 2021
Description: A&A_Logo_withBadge_Med
CELEBRATING TWO MILESTONES
"An invaluable resource. . . ." "A gold mine. . . ." "A lifesaver . . . ."
Quotes from A&AePortal users
In June 2019, Yale University Press launched formal subscriptions to its innovative new online platform for art and architectural history scholarship. In development for over four years and funded with generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the A&AePortal (Art & Architecture ePortal) has quickly become a key destination for online research and course use. Featuring content from 17 prestigious publishers, the site now offers 250 eBooks in 24 subject areas, in categories that range from surveys to artist monographs to museum catalogues to catalogues raisonnés. The eBooks are a mixture of out-of-print, backlist, and recently released titles and include Josef Albers’s celebrated Interaction of Color; the 11-volume critically acclaimed series The Image of the Black in Western Art; Michael Baxandall’s classic Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures; T. J. Clark’s influential Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism; two authoritative volumes on Islamic art and architecture from Yale University Press’s Pelican History of Art; Dell Upton’s compelling What Can and Can't Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South; and the groundbreaking exhibition catalogues Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today and Women of Abstract Expressionism.
Patricia Fidler, Executive Director of the A&AePortal, said: "The team is delighted to celebrate the platform’s second successful year and to reach its goal of 250 books. Based on the positive response to the site, with usage growing 41% from April 2020 to April 2021, we will continue this exciting and meaningful work, focusing on titles that are most relevant to faculty and students, including more books on women artists, and African American, Latin American, and indigenous art, while also increasing the number of titles in other core areas."
Many users have expressed gratitude for the A&AePortal, especially during the pandemic. One student comments, ". . . the portal's advanced search capabilities and linkage of images between texts allowed me to efficiently proceed with my research without missing a beat."
John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press, indicates, “YUP continues to strive for ways to innovate within our publishing programs, and the A&AePortal is an excellent example of these efforts. The previous year of pandemic lockdown with physical inaccessibility to scholarly resources and library collections has profoundly dramatized the need for alternative research access.”
The A&AePortal is currently open in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.