Katchka: Since “contemporary” implies an aspect of time, it is most easily defined as present day. The notion of “contemporary” poses complications for the study of art in general, not just African art, obviously. It would be nice if we could say that contemporary art is art of the present day and leave it at that. But as a fixed category and designation, the farther away we get from the late 20th century, the more awkward it becomes. The upside to contemporary is that it can feasibly gloss over other distinctions such as traditional/tradition-based, popular, and fine arts. In that way it simplifies matters, and gets away from these problematic categories as distinct, when in fact they are dynamic and overlap. Like Karen says, though, these terms remain persistent in the absence of adequate alternatives.
I think Chika’s introductory anecdote is a perfect point of departure here; very illustrative and also provocative. On the one hand, it gets away from a temporally-based conception of contemporary by invoking discursive spaces. At the same time, temporality is implied because Simon’s comment points to changes not just in subject matter and interlocutors, but the nature of fieldwork, interactions, and discursive frameworks in the decades since he began field research has broadened significantly. At that time, I expect that information technology and global media did not have the reach they do now…So I can imagine it was jarring for him to enter a new area where there was not that same remove.
At the same time, given the wealth of material Simon has on hand, and the depth of his personal engagement, he is certainly engaged in varied discursive spaces with his interlocutors—so there is the space of his presentation of research material in a scholarly community vs. his dynamic engagement with interlocutors… Are distinctions perhaps of his (our?) own making? Or perhaps the separation is less tenable in this era?
I agree with Chris that the notion of a shared discursive space is problematic, at least in the singular: are there not multiple approaches and discursive spaces in which we frame our work, and in which both we and artists take part? (Perhaps you could have just as easily used the plural, though, Chika). If we consider the diversity of discursive spaces in which we all no doubt take part—in the field, in scholarly circles, in galleries, etc…don’t our own narratives, and our own relative power shift depending on the discursive space at hand?
Maybe one way of thinking about contemporary African art is how curators, researchers and artists position themselves with respect to the object (and related research material, and whatnot). It seems that senior scholars have been revisiting decades of research with a different or more dynamic eye, than their past writings have indicated. So perhaps “contemporary” art is characterized in part by an approach and/or interaction, as much as by a particular object resulting from a creative process.
Like Karen, the challenge that invigorates me as a curator is how to represent dynamism of African art in varied museum galleries: both those that may seem historical to the visitor (or rather, ahistoricized and evocative of an ethnographic present), as well as in contemporary galleries (where some conventionally trained contemporary curators consider geographic/regional distinctions ghetto-izing). My hope is that juxtapositions and creative presentation can go a long way in helping people call into question those distinctions that are part of the scholarly and general public lexicon—traditional, contemporary, popular.
The artworks anchoring the new African galleries at the NC Museum of Art let me play with this—the NCMA has a stellar Nok terracotta that was orphaned in a collection built on ethnicity and region, but I found fit seamlessly with Congregation (2003-2008) by South African artist Ledelle Moe, and both were complemented by a vessel by Magdalene Odundo. The commonalities were (roughly), medium, loosely figurative form, and ambiguous geographic and historical association. My intent was that the ensemble would be a talking point for docents and educators, and might percolate into the popular consciousness eventually. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when at the new galleries’ opening I overheard several visitors puzzle over, reconcile, and verbalize these relationships.
Since categories “traditional” and “contemporary” have been mentioned, I’d like to raise a final point related to terminology. For me, a complicating factor is the persistent reification/distinction between traditional and contemporary that is actively reinforced and constructed in various African countries—I look primarily at francophone Africa, and Senegal in my scholarship, and the categories are strictly delineated in cultural policy. While the distinctions may be a legacy of colonialism, at a certain point they become indigenized. How does our desire to dismantle these categories fit into their articulation and edification on the continent?