In these essays, one hears the narratives and learns the perspectives of a diverse group of people that greatly illuminate both meaning and intent.
African Art, Interviews, Narratives . . . is a highly reflective collection of essays about the work of constructing art history out of interviews. Designed to unsettle and open up the relationship between interviews and scholarship, it speaks to the work of anthropology by aiming to better understand the nature of the interview process itself, how we produce and convey meanings from interviews and related documents. While it will be of particular interest to anthropologists working as museum curators, it will be equally useful to any professional whose craft largely depends upon interviews.
African Art, Interviews, Narratives provides scholars the chance to reexamine the role of the interviewer, interlocutor, and art historian when making printed text from recorded interviews.
"This book enhances our appreciation for interviews as a research tool and cautions us to use this tool with greater awareness of its power to shape our subjects." Victoria Rovine, University of Florida
"African Art, Interviews, Narratives provides scholars the chance to reexamine the role of the interviewer, interlocutor, and art historian when making printed text from recorded interviews." Oral History Review
"African Art, Interviews, Narratives... is a highly reflective collection of essays about the work of constructing art history out of interviews. Designed to unsettle and open up the relationship between interviews and scholarship, it speaks to the work of anthropology by aiming to better understand the nature of the interview process itself, how we produce and convey meanings from interviews and related documents. While it will be of particular interest to anthropologists working as museum curators, it will be equally useful to any professional whose craft largely depends upon interviews." Leonardo Reviews
"In these essays, one hears the narratives and learns the perspectives of a diverse group of people that greatly illuminate both meaning and intent." African Studies Review
"This book enhances our appreciation for interviews as a research tool and cautions us to use this tool with greater awareness of its power to shape our subjects." —Victoria Rovine, University of Florida
Read an Excerpt
African Art, Interviews, Narratives
Bodies of Knowledge at Work
By Joanna Grabski, Carol Magee
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Talking to People about Art
A Starting Point
Without thinking about it deeply, you might not realize that talking to people about art is a practice fraught with difficulty. First, there is the fact that visual art especially, but also music and performance, deploy form to produce an effect in ways that often defy authoritative explanation. Art takes you to places filled with thoughts and emotions, but by a very different route than you would have traveled had words alone been the vehicle in which you rode. Indeed, it sometimes seems that art exists to provide a landscape of exploration and analysis in which words work only with the greatest deliberation, and then at the cost of losing some of art's provocative potency. When you talk to people about art, be they consumers or producers—audiences or artists—you face the problem that words can be clumsy, obfuscating, diffusing tools with which to record the making and experiencing of visual culture. It might be easier to use words to examine the things that exist around art, such as artists' biographies, influences on their work, the influence they have on others, the ways they manifest technique, or the goals they seek to articulate, though these topics too impose obstacles and are not as straightforward as they might seem. But exploring the broad world of art, from artists' backgrounds and abilities to the effects that artists seek to create and the experiences that audiences gain from art, is vitally important if we are to comprehend expressive culture's depth of resonance in the human condition and its relevance to all human affairs. So we must seek ways to use words that foster understanding of a creative domain that often seems anathema to verbal exposition.
Another great difficulty in talking to people about visual expression is that we are remarkably complex beings. We are densely intertwined bundles of hopes and aspirations, perceptions and points of view, knowledges and abilities, all shot through with the constant motion of being in a state of perpetual development and held together by the experiences we have shared with others and those we have had alone. We hold this complexity in common with art itself, which is one of the reasons art is tough to talk about and also one of the reasons art exists in the first place. It is not always easy—and sometimes not even possible—to engage with artists in discussions about their intent or with viewers about their interpretations. Even when dancing around the edges of expressive culture, by talking about biography and influence, technique and articulation, words force people to rearrange the tumultuousness of their creativity into ordered packets of communication. Thus talking to people about art can produce results encumbered with layers of ambiguity.
When you ask artists to talk about their work and experiences, will you learn about who the artists are, or who they want to be, or who they want you to think they are? Given the nature of being human, these seemingly different things are not that readily distinguishable. If you ask about places and dates in a personal history, is it reasonable to expect precise responses, as if artists keep journals just for the moment when they are talking to critics or scholars? If you ask about why they chose this or that in a composition, or what an image means, should you expect a complete or exact answer? Talking about art is very different from making it.
I have exaggerated these difficulties to make a point. In our everyday lives we talk all the time without much thought about how effectively we are communicating. We assume that we are, and we forget that there are realms where successful communication is not easily achieved. One of these is crossing between languages and cultures, where different experiences in different realms of living make words and phrases, metaphors and turns of speech much less transparent and much more demanding of focused attention. Another arduous realm is art—including visual culture and expressive culture more generally—where both the people who make it and the product itself can constitute a world quite different from the ordinary places most people inhabit. In artworks, slight shifts of shape or volume, slight differences in material or texture, transformations of color and shade invade each other relativistically to play with meaning and value. Add images and symbols and it gets more complex—because both are tagged to surprisingly variable arrays of experience and interpretation. These dynamics of form can play across the consciousness of art viewers and art makers and have a genuine effect, cause a stir, produce a swirl of thought and emotion. But they still might not be easy to talk about, not easy to pin down and put into words; indeed, sometimes artists or viewers have no desire to talk about them at all. And sometimes artists talk in ways that promote their professional stature while obscuring the topic of their conversation.
In spite of all these difficulties, art still needs to be talked about with deliberation and attention. As marginalized as it sometimes seems in America, art is a vital means in most cultures for examining the situations and properties of social life and exploring ways to engage them. And artists are not just makers of things. They are individuals who have discovered skill in themselves and the ability and desire to apply that to ideas in their culture in ways that may be richly relevant to people. These are important, substantial things, things that bear on the very foundations of society and culture, and they are most worthy of attention. So scholars do talk to artists—and others—in the hope of enhancing our understanding, no matter how difficult the task.
This is my starting point: we must try to understand the intentions and accomplishments of artists, the interpretations of viewers, and the effects of artworks on individuals and society, and to do that we must talk to people. This chapter cannot cover all that ground. But in the sections that follow I will use my work with particular artists to explore the ways that words can work for us, how the play of words is embedded in relationships, and how context is as important for understanding words and conversations as it is for understanding visual culture. I will consider how "accuracy" and "objectivity" are simultaneously fantasies and essential goals that collide where human nature and the mandate of art history come together. I suggest that this paradox of fact and fiction is irreducible, but also in a positive sense an opportunity to better express the nature of what we might call art thought and art talk, and to better understand the character of art for individuals and society.
Experiences with Artists and the Notion of Objectivity
Three Malian artists have been prominent in my work as a scholar of African expressive culture. One, Seydou Camara, was a hunters' bard, whose profession it was to put the history and interests of Mande hunters in poetry and music in ways that were deeply satisfying and inspirational to audiences. Another, Sedu Traore, was a blacksmith, who made tools, furniture, and sculpture, and was also an herbal doctor, practitioner of divination, social mediator, and advisor to community leaders. The third, Sidi Ballo, began as a blacksmith while performing in his town's youth association as a masquerader, and then followed his passion and skill to become a full-time professional bird masquerader. I have learned much about Mande art from many people in Mali, but these three individuals have been fountains of understanding whose words—some spoken nearly forty years ago—still illuminate the things I say and write.
As an ethnographer of art and artists, I have paid much attention to the things these three artists said to me and to others, and often interwove their ideas and beliefs, experiences and perspectives into larger fields of spoken and written information. I have brought the voices of individuals, most particularly specific artists, strongly into the narratives I have constructed and the interpretations I have presented. More than that, I write quite intentionally in a tone that indicates the effect those voices have had on me. I always try to reflect accurately what I have seen and heard and been told. But the words I use and the rhythms I write in make my feelings quite clear.
By presenting the perspectives of others as well as my responses to them, I illuminate in two ways the vexed character of objectivity—that simplistic, illusory notion that distance is possible, facts are obtainable, and feelings are not allowed to intrude. Many fine scholars have shown such goals to be unattainable, the classic watershed works being Jackson (1989) and the introduction to Jackson (1996). Those goals are not realistic because at any given time and place society and culture are the constructs of particular people experiencing and engaging with their worlds. Even though it may seem as if there is a society uniform and universal to all of its citizens, in fact, there is no such thing. As ethnographers we place ourselves in a realm of reportage that requires us to try for a state of factuality. But the only facts we can obtain are those that describe the experiences and actions that comprise the actual lives of the individuals with whom we are involved. And doing that accurately depends upon our ability to observe and report with subtlety and care, while resisting any temptation to reduce what we encounter to easily graspable meanings. We should conceptualize objectivity by acknowledging the complexity of people, their lives, and their art, and we should strive as best we can to present that in our writing about artistry. Mande ideas about this are very helpful, because they characterize human experience as flowing through social landscapes full of clarity (jèya) and obscurity (dibi), both of which are constantly in flux and present simultaneously in people and their actions. Learning how to assess and interpret these mixtures of clarity and obscurity helps people live successful lives, and it also helps scholars write more "objectively" about art.
Folded into our interpretations are the perspectives of those we talk to and the perspectives we hold ourselves, all of which are subject to change with our experiences. We cannot and should not avoid shaping what we say based on our experiences. I am an individual with a background and a bent of mind. So are all the people I have talked to. My bent of mind flags objects, events, and ideas about the world that strike me as marvelous examples of the human condition—things that reveal perceptiveness, sensitivity, entrepreneurship. Art appeals to me because it is so often ripe with these things. People graced with these things appeal to me too. So it is no accident that I spent most of my dissertation year of research with the blacksmith Sedu Traore, whom I met during a lengthy process of seeking out smiths to work with in towns south of Bamako.
During my research, I talked to a great many blacksmiths, including a brash young smith named Mama Konate, full of impish social iconoclasm, with a good smithing technique and a will to hard work, who enjoyed pushing people's buttons. I also met a very old smith named Magam Fané, essentially retired except for making youth association masks, who took very seriously the importance of knowing blacksmiths' lore and gave me a rich interpretation of the ancient sorcerer-smith Sumanguru Kante's story. I visited these smiths many times and learned a great deal.
But I visited Sedu Traore far more, and found him to be a very hard-working, technically sophisticated professional who seemed to want to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to him. If I asked Sedu a question about being a smith or making things, he frequently took that as an opportunity to ask me questions too, about my society, our beliefs, and our activities. He radiated a kind of comfort with himself, a curiosity about the world, and he had a sense of humor that would prove to be dry and understated but often peppered with a bit of glee. He was not nearly so old as Magam, nor so young as Mama. The way he engaged me produced the impression that he was a substantial person in his social surroundings, a person quite interested in human nature while also finding it important to shape that nature into good citizenship.
I noticed right away a little pile of sand just inside the door to his forge. I also noticed many bundles, bunches of vegetation, and other organic materials hanging on the walls and from the rafters. I discovered as we spent months together that he was considered in his town and many others to be an effective and successful herbal doctor—thus all those materials—and a good soothsayer—thus the pile of sand. So Sedu was as appropriate a person as ever I could have hoped to do research with. I was lucky to have met him, and even luckier that he was happy to spend lots of time with me. But except for the good fortune of the initial encounter, the rest was not an accident. We meshed because his bent of mind matched mine in many fruitful and rewarding ways.
And so we spent most of a year together. He called me his apprentice, an informal appellation that gave us a metaphorical handle on my presence in his social and professional space, a handle full of humor (a real apprenticeship is so much more than I experienced, and so much longer too) but also respect (I was allowed to be there because Sedu found some of the same qualities in me that I found in him). Often I came with lists of questions—which he might answer simply and directly, or elaborately and indirectly, or not at all. Sometimes questions led to discussions, and sometimes discussions occurred with no questions asked. And sometimes discussions and questions led to additional questions—some I asked him and some he asked me. I came to feel that just being in conversation with Sedu was the key, what taught me the most about him, his profession, and his productivity.
I discovered as we talked that I was also interested in herbal medicine and sorcery, things I had not thought much about until I saw his pile of sand and bundles of materials, and then connected the dots. Sedu believed that carefully earned knowledge leads to the power to heal, in both physical and supernatural realms. Knowledge is a practical fact of life and a common feature of the physical and social world. It can be immensely complicated, because the physical and social worlds are. It can also be scary, horrendous, poorly managed, and used to despicable ends, just as it can be helpful, delightful, well organized, and used to highly principled ends. Sedu was not free to talk about the secrets of herbal medicine and sorcery. But he was free to talk about their principles and characteristics. And the way he talked about them most certainly led me to the stance I take in all of my writings, that these potent parts of the Mande world are powerful indeed but not universally feared, not irrationally constructed, and not bad by default or definition.
Many other people I talked to share that view, such as Seydou Camara, his son Sekuba, Sidi Ballo, and numerous additional individuals, including my anthropologist friend Kassim Kone. But these people did not just say these things to me. They showed them to me in the ways they acted, how they comported themselves in their social worlds, and how they connected topics together when we had conversations.
It could have been otherwise. I once met a very unpleasant, mean-spirited blacksmith. Perhaps it would have been fruitful to do research with him. He knew much, for example, about the flute and blacksmiths' music. But I did not, and when I thought about the few times I spoke with him and some of the things he did, I realized that I could have seen sorcery quite differently (and much more narrowly) had I spent lots of time with him.
Excerpted from African Art, Interviews, Narratives by Joanna Grabski, Carol Magee. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.