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17th ACASA Triennial Symposium on African Art — August 8-13, 2017 (Accra, Ghana)

 

by Ava Hess, on behalf of the Arts Council of the African Arts Association 

This summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Accra, Ghana for the 17th Triennial Symposium on African Art. As it would turn out, my first time participating in an Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) conference would coincide with a truly historic moment for the association: its first meeting on the African continent.

 Hosted by the University of Ghana, which accommodated over 400 attendees, the symposium was also unprecedented in its international representation. Thanks to the generous support of many benefactors, including that of the African Studies Association through an affiliated association grant, a record-breaking number of travel grants were awarded to 65 members from 18 nations. These numbers reflect the growth of the association, and of the field itself, in the nearly fifty years since the very first ACASA symposium was held in 1968.

The majority of the conference was held on the beautiful, sprawling campus of Ghana’s oldest and largest university in Legon, a northeastern suburb of Accra, and at the Institute of African Studies in particular. Conference-goers were welcomed at the official opening ceremony in the university’s Great Hall with performances by the Ghana Dance Ensemble. Prominent speakers, including a number of university and government representatives as well as the esteemed artist and scholar Dr. Atta Kwami, highlighted the historical significance of the this year's symposium, which also coincided with the 60th anniversary of Ghana's independence. 

The Great Hall also served as the venue for the Banquet and Awards Ceremony a few nights later. The evening of music, feasting, and dancing provided an opportunity to reflect on some of the tremendous contributions to the field by honoring recipients of ACASA’s Leadership Awards, Sidney Kasfir and Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, as well as awardees for publications, curatorial excellence and doctoral dissertation.

For decades, ACASA has brought together people of various backgrounds — scholars, curators, artists, students, and more — who share an interest in African art. And yet the vast range of what is encapsulated by this term ‘African art’ can be seen in the diverse content of the papers presented this year. Over 80 thematically organized panels covered artistic traditions of many media, from across the continent and its diaspora, both historical and contemporary in scope. By way of example, the panel “The Art of History: Rethinking the Past” presented examples of work from as early as the 17th century, while “Handling/Manipulating Photographs in Africa: New Perspectives in Photography History” featured a discussion of Nigerian memes that had been circulating earlier in the summer.

The presentations themselves took many forms.The 6 well-equipped conference rooms allowed for oral presentations and slide shows as well as sessions that took unconventional turns or were more experiential in nature. A series of panels entitled “Showing Sounds: African Audio-Visual Encounters,” for example, included demonstrations of experimental interventions into early African cinema recordings by Bettina Malcomess and a demonstration by Thabo Rapoo of a vernacular dance associated with jazz in South Africa called diga.

In addition to formally presented research, the symposium also featured artist talks and roundtables. A definite highlight was the conversation between Bisi Silva, the founding director of Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, and alumnae of its Àsìkò program, which has brought together emerging African artists and curators with international faculty in curatorial intensives that have taken place in cities across the continent for the past 7 years.The occasion also celebrated the release of their new publication, by the same name as the symposium's session, Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa.

Opportunities to venture off-site were made possible by the tremendous dedication and detail-oriented logistical preparation of the organizers. These ‘extracurricular’ activities included evening events that introduced ACASA members to Accra’s vibrant art scene and reflected the diversity of its cultural venues through partnerships with independent spaces like ANO, nonprofit organizations like the Nubuke Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Art, commercial galleries of international acclaim like Gallery 1957 in the Kempinski Hotel, and artist-run, alternative institutions like Nuku Studio.

Optional daytime visits to artist’s studios or workshops, all selected by ACASA’s Local Planning Committee, provided occasions for conference attendees to explore different neighborhoods and for more intimate settings to get to know one another. I was lucky enough to visit with Zohra Opoku, a multidisciplinary artist of German/Ghanaian descent who works in installation, sculpture and photography. Our group of six — some of whom were deeply familiar with Opoku’s work and the contemporary art scene in West Africa more generally, while others came with very different fields of expertise — gathered around the studio in Opoku's beautiful home, where she and her assistants showed us textile and screen-printed works she was preparing for an upcoming exhibition. These opportunities allowed for up close and personal engagements with artists working in Accra, in our case heightened by the exploration of family history and personal memory central to Opoku's practice.

On the last night of the conference, attendees boarded buses to the Museum of Science & Technology, where a reception to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the academic journal African Arts was held. On view was a large-scale end-of-year exhibition organized by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Fine Art Department and its contemporary art incubator blaxSTARLINES KUMASI. Spanning three floors of the museum, the impressive group exhibition featured over 80 artists, ranging from current students to some of the most prolific and renowned African artists living or deceased, including KNUST alumnus Uche Okeke. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose work is referenced in the exhibition's title Orderly Disorderly, was one of the few artists without a KNUST affiliation to be included. As an Iranian-American myself, this was an exciting surprise to see, and a reminder of the global artistic dialogues happening in and out of Africa that do not involve the West.

Post-Triennial tours were also offered to regions beyond the nation’s capital. Participating members were led on tours through rope walkways in the rainforest canopies of Kakum National Park and through the historic sites of Elmina and Cape Coast, known for their role in the transatlantic slave trade. Others embarked on a multi-day artistic and cultural exploration of Kumasi, the capital of the Asante region. Those lucky enough to stay in Ghana until the following week were able to partake in the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Jamestown, one of Accra’s oldest districts. Many of the artists who had participated in the ACASA Symposium produced work for the festival, including several powerful performances and installations that reclaimed use of sites associated with colonialism, such as Ussher Fort and James Fort Prison.

While perhaps new to ACASA myself, veteran colleagues I spoke with all noted what an unforgettable and special symposium it was, packed with illuminating research and especially lively debates — not to mention the incredible hospitality of our hosts, endless fufu, banku and red red, and several nights of dancing. The 17th triennial served as a time of self-reflection for the association and an opportunity to deepen connections between ACASA members across Africa and around the world, paving the way for future partnerships with more institutions on the continent.

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