Out of Time, Out of Place: Primitivism and African Art

This article debates the proposition that artistic production mirrors humanity’s maturation from primitive superstition to scientific rationality. This effort sits at the intersection of demography, political economy and aesthetics. According to traditional demographic theory, primitive peoples are caught in a poverty trap of high birth rates, a condition inimical to industrialization, well-planned urbanization, universal education, women’s emancipation and cultural production. The analysis focuses on three dynamics: the demographic effects of mass migration on creativity: the trajectories of declining populations and their places in cultural hierarchies; and slavery and colonialism’s reduction to penury of skilled artists in pre-industrial societies. The method interrogates self-reinforcing trends of the canons of demography, political economy and aesthetics and the resulting concurrence on the path of progress, which assumes that art is a reflection of liberal historical advancement. The overarching argument of the article is that by setting the criteria and suppressing alternative accounts of the history of African art, these canons narrow and misrepresent our global cultural legacy. Background: sub-Saharan African art is classified as “primitive” according to the canons of art history, demography and political economy. This label is problematic because it conveys faulty demographic assumptions about sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the ways in which theories of human progress reinforce analyses underlying the designation of primitive. The proposition advanced is that these canons narrow, suppress alternative accounts of the history of African art, and misrepresent our global cultural legacy.
Journal of Arts & Humanities Volume 06, Issue 09, 2017, 16-22; DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18533/journal.v6i9.1251

LABOR FORCE FUTURES

Labor force futures
30 June 2017
© Meredeth Turshen

Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
According to the New York Times (“New collar jobs are giving people with tech skills but no degree a chance at better pay”, June 29, 2017), programs now hire adults without college education for middle level jobs in technology. All of the people interviewed for the Times article were under age 35. What does the future hold for adults aged 45 to 55 looking for a job? (This is one of the groups hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.)
Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025 up to one-quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University suggests that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
What does this trend mean for the future of college education? (The Times article says one-third of US adults hold a four-year college degree.) There are two aspects to this question: one, as states withdraw funding from public colleges and the costs of tuition rise, what happens when automation replaces the kind of job that enabled high-school graduates to work their way through college? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (August 18, 2016, http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-by-state-fact-sheets-higher-education-cuts-jeopardize-students-and-states-economic) says the decline in state funding of higher education has reached over 50% in Arizona and Illinois and over 30% in AL, ID, KY, LA, NH, NM, PA and SC).
The second aspect is, what kinds of work are college graduates going to find in the job market that will enable them to pay off student loans and establish independent lives? One possibility is work that has a direct impact on another human being; but only the current limits of robotics leave this opening. Machines may not yet do jobs that depend on personal interaction, but the Japanese are already experimenting with robots that care for the emotional as well as physical needs of the elderly in nursing homes (November 20, 2016 http://www.roboticstrends.com/article/japan_to_create_more_user_friendly_elderly_care_robots/medical). Work that combines high levels of dexterity with sophisticated decision making are being accomplished by systems like Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys, already FDA approved, which can automate delivery of low-level anesthesia in colonoscopies at a fraction of the cost of an anesthesiologist. Jobs that require an ability to persuade, negotiate and think creatively may not be way off for the most advanced software; automation is no longer about replacing repetitive work that involved very little real-time decision making.
As a university professor, I worry about my students, many of whom work full-time jobs to pay tuition; they are counting on their degrees to provide passports to professional careers. Automation debases the college degree. Politicians who are voting to cut funding for public education, who disrespect the teaching profession, who ridicule the arts and humanities as irrelevant, are opting for a soul-less mechanical society of people who will be unable to distinguish fascism from freedom.

Multiple Dimensions

Meredeth Turshen, Ibou Ndoye & Starr Tucker-Ortega
Multiple Dimensions: 9 – 25 December 2016
Opening reception: Saturday, 10 December 6-8pm
Artists talk: Sunday, 18 December 3:30pm
hob’art cooperative gallery
720 Monroe Street E-208
Hoboken, NJ 07030 www.hob-art.org
Hours: Th-Sun 1-5pm (201) 319 1504

Small group show @ hob’art

Turshen_Meredeth_Coloratura_2016

Meredeth Turshen, Coloratura, 2016 

                         MASHUP

Thursday, September 8 – Sunday, October 2, 2016

hob’art gallery, 720 Monroe Street, Hoboken, NJ

Reception: Saturday, September 10, 6-8pm

Gallery talk: Sunday, September 18, 3:30pm

The artists: Ann Kinney, Janet Kolstein, Meredeth Turshen

and Miriam Untoria

Congo Kitoko: Beauty and Violence

Congo Kitoko: Beauty and Violence
© Meredeth Turshen 3/21/2016

Kiripi Katembo, Subir (2011).
Kiripi Katembo_pic

In photographs and films, Kiripi Katembo documented the daily life of the inhabitants of Kinshasa and the instability of the political and economic situation in Congo. Some of his photographs were on view in the exuberant exhibition of Congolese art, Beauté Congo: Congo Kitoko, 1926–2015, at Fondation Cartier in Paris, 11 July – 15 November 2015. Katembo said of his work that photography provided

‘a way of seeing beyond reflection as it opens up a poetic window on another world, the world in which I live. I want each image to tell of the children born here who have to grow up surrounded by pools of water, and of the families who survive while others leave to live in exile. To me, this is one way of campaigning for a healthier environment and to denounce through images what Kinshasa’s inhabitants see as fate.’

Subir, the title of Katembo’s photograph above, means to endure, to suffer, to undergo or go through. Katembo captures people’s struggles against structural violence in the photographs he takes of reflections in puddles on the streets of Kinshasa (and displays upside down for greater effect). Silent killers like hunger, thirst, disease and poverty are the invisible manifestations of structural violence.

Katembo himself succumbed to the silent violence of cerebral malaria at age 36, within a month of the opening of the prestigious exhibition in Paris. Malarial mosquitoes breed in pools of water on streets with no drainage, in slums with no sewerage systems. Malaria is among the top ten killers in Congo, a silent epidemic that foreshortens the lives of tens of thousands every year.

Congo Binga: Burri’s Grande Sacco

Congo_Binga-Image

Congo Binga: Notes on Burri’s Grande Sacco

© Meredeth Turshen 3/9/2016

According to Emily Braun, curator of the Burri retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (October 9, 2015–January 6, 2016), this painting (a collage of burlap sacks) was created in 1961 to commemorate thirteen Italian airmen murdered in the chaos of Congolese power struggles that followed independence from Belgium. This account can be traced to a review of an exhibit of Alberto Burri’s work at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1963. The massacre occurred in mid-November 1961 in Kindu, a town in South Kivu, an eastern province of DR Congo that sits just above copper-rich Katanga. ONUC, the United Nations Operation in Congo, sent the Italians there to deliver supplies to a unit of Malaysian troops. Congolese soldiers loyal to Antoine Gizenga, who supported Patrice Lumumba (assassinated on January 17, 1961 in Lubumbashi), apparently mistook the Italians for parachutists fighting with Moïse Tshombe, leader of the Katanga secession.

The pieces of burlap are arranged in quadrants to create a central cross. The patch on the lower right is stamped Congo Binga, the name of a plantation town on a tributary of the Congo River in Equateur Province, some 850km northwest of Kindu where the murders occurred. How ironic that a sack from a Congo plantation, the sort of workplace where millions of Africans had died at the hands of Belgian colonists, should be used to memorialize thirteen Italian pilots!

For a longer version see http://roape.net/2016/03/16/congo-binga-notes-on-burris-grande-sacco/

Kongo Majesty, European Savagery

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan held an exhibition entitled, Kongo: Power and Majesty (September 18, 2015-January 3, 2016). The first gallery showed a selection of exquisite oliphants or trumpets, fine ivories expertly sculpted from elephant tusks in the sixteenth century.

Oliphant
via the Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/kongo/exhibition-galleries/gallery-one

Portuguese traders and missionaries acquired these masterpieces and brought them back to Europe. Two found their way into the Medici collection, inventoried in 1553 as “two ivory horns with engraved motifs”.

These sophisticated and sublimely beautiful oliphants are artifacts of a remarkable civilization, capable of an artistry that was subtle, intricate and inventive. Europeans saw something else. The exhibition label notes that “non-European objects were of interest primarily for their marvelous materials and as evidence of manufacturing skills”. Why were the Africans who created these instruments not honored as contemporaries of Michelangelo? Why didn’t Europeans regard the Kongo civilization as comparable to the Renaissance? Why did they reduce Africans to raw human labor?

Having just finished writing a book, Gender and the Political Economy of Conflict in Africa: The persistence of violence, in which I traced the history of slavery in the Congo, I knew that the Portuguese had inaugurated the transatlantic slave trade. I also knew the legacy of that trade, which was the largest forced migration in world history. The slave trade severely disrupted and reshaped African societies for a millennium, robbing African households of millions of young women, men and children. Slavery and the slave trades — across the Sahara, over the Atlantic Ocean and beyond the Indian Ocean — changed everyone in Africa: they affected kinship and community across generations, social relations of gender and work, sex and status, procreation and demography, hierarchy and stratification.

The Portuguese destroyed the Kongo kingdom; by the end of the seventeenth century it had fallen apart, disintegrating into its several provincial parts and sliding into civil conflict.

© Meredeth Turshen 2/3/2016

For a longer version see