From Rock Churches to Realism: Histories of African Art in the Second World

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


American and American-trained scholars have dominated histories of African art since the mid-twentieth century. Yet, in the polarized climate of the Cold War, a rival mode of studying historic and contemporary art from Africa developed in the Soviet Union. Building from the Leninist anti-colonialist impetus that drove the founding of the field of Soviet African studies, scholars of African art in Moscow and Leningrad insisted on the need to study objects and art works in order to reconstruct and record what V.B. Mirimanov call “polycentric supersystems.” Only these “supersystems” could truly map and document the continent’s rich, complex cultural history. Chastising American scholars for the in-depth local field-based research approach at the core of the Area Studies methodology, Soviet scholars insisted that focusing on macro-, rather than micro-narratives was a greater service to decolonizing Africa.

Many of these histories and their writers were either unknown in the West, or have been long forgotten, yet their legacy endures in one key population: African artists who trained in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Ethiopian artist, Eshetu Tiruneh, for example, studied Mirimanov’s writing as a student in Moscow in the late 1970s. In the 2010s he was still using Mirimanov’s texts to write an art historical book for his students in Addis Ababa. This paper examines the development of histories of African art in the Second World of the Cold War, and proposes that we pay closer attention to their lingering legacies in the former Third World, particularly on the African continent.
Period12 Sept 2018
Event titleAfrican Studies Association Annual Conference
Event typeConference