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Professor explores links between African art and modernism

CURATOR AND ACADEMIC: Professor Elizabeth Harney is pictured here at the U of T Scarborough campus with African art catalogues she published. They were part of two exhibitions she curated at the Smithsonian Institution. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Megan Easton

Back in the early 1990s, when Professor Elizabeth Harney proposed to do her doctoral research on modern and contemporary African art, she received dire warnings about her unconventional topic from scholars. “People I respected said to me, ‘You will never get a job if this is what you write about.’”

Undeterred, Harney pressed ahead, and today she is a leader in her field – an area that has grown exponentially since she began. Now a professor of visual and performing arts, she is one of two recipients of this year’s Principal’s Research Award at U of T Scarborough. (The other recipient is cell biologist Rene Harrison, whose research was profiled in the winter 2008 issue of LIVE at U of T Scarborough magazine.)

Harney helped to carve out a whole new branch of research in African art, which began in the backrooms of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University. She was a Harvard undergraduate student completing a work-study placement at the museum and found herself with a bit of free time.

“I used to hang out in the storage areas, opening drawers and just being with the objects,” says Harney. The objects were from a collection of classical African art – sculpted figures, textiles, masks and other items typically found in exhibits on Africa.

She was particularly intrigued by a set of objects created in the colonial period called Colon figures. “I was fascinated by the sort of slippages in these objects between what was seen as traditional and what might be modern or indicate a connection beyond Africa.”

There were figures with pith helmets, for example, contrasted with figures riding in cars. Harney wrote her undergraduate thesis on these “slippages” – vacillations between traditional and modern -- and began investigating a phenomenon that had largely been dismissed by curators and academics. “In the field of African art, as with many other non-Western arts, authenticity is judged by pre-contact or pre-colonial dating. So everything I was interested in – the art that demonstrated Africa’s connection to the world and its changing traditions – was seen as bastardized art.”

Her curiosity was piqued by the exclusion of these pieces – which she found aesthetically and historically fascinating – from the canon of art history. Several years later, she went to the University of London on a prestigious Commonwealth Graduate Fellowship and began groundbreaking research on the link between African art and the modernist movement. “Modernism has traditionally been seen as a purely European phenomenon situated in early 20th-Century history,” she says. “But there were these other types of modernist themes happening in African art in the late 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when independence came.”

Her PhD thesis focused on Senegal’s vibrant visual arts scene under its first post-independence president, Léopold Senghor. “Using strong state patronage of the arts, he tried to transfer his philosophy about being black, modern and independent to a visual aesthetic in the new nation. No one had examined how contemporary Senegalese artists dealt with his legacy.” This research led to Harney’s book, In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995, which won the African Studies Association’s Arnold Rubin Book Award for the best work on African art.

Most museums and galleries exclude African art from the story of modernism, an omission that Harney is working to correct, both through her research and curatorial work. “The only relationship you might see between African art and modernist art is that old, tired narrative of primitivism: the luminaries of European art like Picasso looked to African art and were inspired,” she says. One of her ongoing archival projects focuses on early African modernists in the diaspora training in European art schools in the early 1930s.

Harney had the opportunity to start telling a more complete story of African art and modernism during her four years as the first curator of contemporary arts at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. The position opened up in 2000 when she was among a handful of doctoral graduates in the young field of modern African art. (Today more than half of graduate students in African art study modern and contemporary material.)

The Smithsonian job presented Harney with challenges that later evolved into a research interest in the politics of exhibiting and representing African artists. “I was trying to collect art from artists who didn’t want to be pigeonholed as African, because clearly their art goes much beyond geography.” Yet these same artists generally did not have a presence in the mainstream museums, so they faced the conundrum of where to show their art.

“A lot of traditional collections are attempting to deal with the contemporaneity of African art by drawing these direct linkages between the objects they have that are resolutely in the past and the practices that contemporary artists are using now, and it’s not always a direct line,” she says.

Partly in response to this tendency to impose historical and political identities on today’s African artists, Harney curated two innovative exhibitions at the Smithsonian that she later published as catalogues. The first, Ethiopian Passages, featured 10 current artists of Ethiopian descent living all over the world. It showcased their artwork’s eclectic approaches while illuminating how they reflected shared struggles with issues of home and identity.

The second major exhibition, Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art, brought together traditional and contemporary African art under themes related to language and the written word. The show celebrated the ingenuity of African art – ranging from ancient ritual objects to contemporary photography – that creatively integrates script.

Harney’s newest research considers how contemporary African artists in Europe incorporate the relationship between words and images, among other themes, to express their experiences of cosmopolitan living.

Since Harney came to U of T Scarborough in 2003 she has maintained her two-pronged career as a curator and academic. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to affect the field of curating and collecting African material while at the same time continuing important modernist archival research. I’m passionate about reaching so many different audiences with my work,” she says. “This is an incredibly exciting field to be in. It has grown up around me and now I’m running to be at the front again.”

Professor William Bowen, Chair of the Humanities Department, lauds Harney’s accomplishments. “Given that Professor Harney is at the beginning of her career, it is even more extraordinary that she has had such a profound impact on the study of modern and contemporary art in Africa. Through her groundbreaking publications and innovative curatorial work, Professor Harney has established herself as a pioneer and leader, shaping the conceptual framework for the discourse on modernity and African art.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough