Accueil > Research Areas

Research Area 5 — Art as a political object

Art produces politics and plays, therefore, a very real role in politics. This research area seeks to explain how art forms are created, operate and exert power. Covering a vast range of the visual and expressive arts, this research area points to the relevance of art for theorizing history and inquiring into political relations.

The era is past when anything “visual” was deemed to be illustrative and placed in the appendix of a printed text. Studying history and politics now means giving thought to the effectiveness and potential of what is visual. This approach does not hold for African studies alone. Extending it beyond Africa and its diaspora communities holds promise because research on art in Africa has been multidisciplinary much longer than elsewhere. Academics working in this research area have moved beyond a linear definition of history and beyond the definition assigned by art professionals in order to study all forms of creation that express a position in the world.
Underlying research projects for this five-year period are the following three principles : a) transperiodicity ; b) a transmedia approach to both the subjects and products of research (Combining old and new media clearly has cognitive consequences for studying from a new, more open angle how knowledge is produced, since writing tends to lose its monopoly as the source of science) ; c) transdisciplinarity, since we want to federate forms of knowledge (by working with botanists, chemists, choreographers, artistic directors, artists and digital specialists) so as to produce new topics for study.

This research area focuses on the following themes :
● How to study objects, visual installations, vestiges or performances without written or, sometimes, even oral documents ? To write the history of ancient Africa, forms, icons and materials have been analyzed (in particular studies of rock art and visual arts in Ethiopia, Congo-Kinshasa and Angola). In parallel, contemporary methods can be used for an epistemological approach to the study of ancient objects.
● How is the history of the fine arts (the lasting predominance of schools and salons) articulated with the analysis of differentiated practices of creation during situations of contact in the colonial and postcolonial contexts (from Saint-Domingue to Haiti, and also in Tunisia and Egypt) ?
● How do artists and politicians appropriate an artistic heritage and new forms of technology ? The intent is not just to study how the latter are reclaimed or manipulated but also to see how artistic creation produces politics. Among the subjects of study are : exhibitions, festivals, performances, plays, dances, films, videos and seminars devoted to the work of international researchers. Special attention should be paid to the production of popular videos that, from Nigeria, is spreading to several other countries. Not dependent on outside funding, these videos were long held in contempt, but they have now become a major form of expression, regardless of whether the underlying motivation is social, political, religious or consumeristic.
● How are the arts a driving force in the construction of a pan-African space ? How does pan-Africanism affect relations between African creators ? A series of festivals during the 1960s and 1970s is to be studied as a mold for political relations between Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. Another research program on the same question focuses on contemporary art festivals as a driving force in development on the local, national and continental scales.
● What is the role of dance in the forms of rites and ceremonies that are emerging in contemporary society ?
● How do “visual archives” help us renew research on migrations ? This question will be addressed by studying private archive collections in Mali.
● How do contemporary artists (especially in the performance arts and experimental video) give a form to “urban spaces” ? What political view, in a broad sense, do they have of the cities and towns where they live or through which they pass ?

The programs and seminars related to this research area are intended both to help archaeology, history, anthropology and political science address artistic questions more effectively and to reinforce education in this field. Another objective is to implement or revive programs of cooperation on these questions with African researchers (in particular, “Digital Anthropology” in Africa).

It is essential to reflect on what is art in Africa and about its reception on the market and by the public (whether contemporary art, cinema or the performing arts), by putting in question their qualification as “exotic”. We are aware that studying art in Africa implies a political commitment and, therefore, that our approach is a political act that needs to be thought out as such. A conference will focus on the critique of research on art and politics with as theme “the relevance of art for developing theories about history”.