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African Art and Agency in the Workshop

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<P>The role of the workshop in the creation of African art is the subject of this revelatory book. In the group setting of the workshop, innovation and imitation collide, artists share ideas and techniques, and creative expression flourishes. African Art and Agency in the Workshop examines the variety of workshops, from those which are politically driven or tourist oriented, to those based on historical patronage or allied to current artistic trends. Fifteen lively essays explore the impact of the workshop on the production of artists such as Zimbabwean stone sculptors, master potters from Cameroon, wood carvers from Nigeria, and others from across the continent. </P>
<P>Acknowledgments</P><P>Introduction: Rethinking the Workshop \ Till Förster and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir<BR>The Contributions to This Book \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster<BR>Part 1. Production, Education, and Learning<BR> 1. Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa \ Elizabeth Morton<BR> 2. Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in Oku, Cameroon \ Nicolas Argenti<BR> 3. Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei, Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery Workshop \ Silvia Forni<BR> 4. An Artist's Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and South Africa \ Namubiru Rose Kirumira and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir</P><P>Part 2. Audience and Encounters <BR> 5. Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in Weya and Mapula Needlework, Zimbabwe and South Africa \ Brenda Schmahmann<BR> 6. Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Osogbo Workshops in the 1960s, Nigeria \ Chika Okeke-Agulu<BR> 7. Working on the Small Difference: Notes on the Making of Sculpture in Tengenenge, Zimbabwe \ Christine Scherer<BR> 8. Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System, Kenya \ Jessica Gerschultz</P><P>Part 3. Patronage and Domination<BR> 9. Lewanika's Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia \ Karen E. Milbourne<BR> 10. Artesaos da Nossa Pátria: Makonde Blackwood Sculptors, Cooperatives, and the Art of Socialist Revolution in Postcolonial Mozambique \ Alexander Bortolot<BR> 11. Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting, Zimbabwe \ Elizabeth Morton<BR> 12. "A Matter of Must": Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe Woodcarving Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria \ Norma H. Wolff</P><P>Part 4. Comparative Aspects <BR> 13. Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop Settings, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon \ Till Förster<BR> 14. Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Sub-Saharan Africa \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir</P><P>Coda: Apprentices and Entrepreneurs Revisited: Twenty Years of Workshop Changes, 1987-2007 \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir</P><P>Contributors<BR>Index<BR></P>



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Patrick McNaughton, editor
Associate editors
Catherine M. Cole
Barbara G. Hoffman
Eileen Julien
Kassim Koné
D. A. Masolo
Elisha Renne
Zoë Strother
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
African art and agency in the workshop / edited by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
and Till Förster.
p. cm. — (African expressive cultures)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-253-00741-4 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-253-00749-0
(pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-253-00758-2 (eb) 1. Workshops—Africa. 2. Artists’ studios—
Africa. 3. Artisans—Africa—Societies, etc. 4. Art patronage—Africa. I. Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield.
II. Förster, Till. III. Series: African expressive cultures.
N8520.A39 2013
1 2 3 4 5 17 16 15 14 13CONTENTS
Rethinking the Workshop: Work and Agency in African Art \ Till Förster and Sidney Littlefield
The Contributions to This Book \ Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster
PART 1. Production, Education, and Learning
1. Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa \ Elizabeth
2. Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in Oku, Cameroon \ Nicolas Argenti
3. Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei, Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery
Workshop \ Silvia Forni
4. An Artist’s Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and South Africa \ Namubiru Rose
Kirumira and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
PART 2. Audience and Encounters
5. Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in Weya and Mapula Needlework,
Zimbabwe and South Africa \ Brenda Schmahmann
6. Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Osogbo Workshops in the 1960s, Nigeria \ Chika Okeke-Agulu
7. Working on the Small Difference: Notes on the Making of Sculpture in Tengenenge, Zimbabwe \
Christine Scherer
8. Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System, Kenya \ Jessica Gerschultz
PART 3. Patronage and Domination
9. Lewanika’s Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia \ Karen E. Milbourne
10. Artesãos da Nossa Pátria: Makonde Blackwood Sculptors, Cooperatives, and the Art of Socialist
Revolution in Postcolonial Mozambique \ Alexander Bortolot
11. Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting,
Zimbabwe \ Elizabeth Morton
12. “A Matter of Must”: Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe Woodcarving Workshop in
Abeokuta, Nigeria \ Norma H. Wolff
PART 4. Comparative Aspects
13. Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop Settings, Côte d’Ivoire
and Cameroon \ Till Förster
14. Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Sub-Saharan Africa \
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
Apprentices and Entrepreneurs Revisited: Twenty Years of Workshop Changes, 1987–2007 \
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

The essays presented herein began as a double panel on workshops convened at the Triennial Symposium
in African Art, held at the University of Florida in April 2007. Several panelists were our own graduate
students and former students—including Christine Scherer, Elizabeth Morton, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and
Jessica Gerschultz, a young group of scholars working in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya
who have, in the intervening five years, moved forward in their own careers and conducted more research
while acquiring jobs and promotions.
To augment their essays we have added our own—based on fieldwork conducted from Côte d’Ivoire
and Cameroon to Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania—and those of our colleagues Nicolas Argenti and Silvia
Forni, both working in Cameroon; Namubira Rose Kirumira, working in Uganda, Zambia, and South
Africa; Alexander Bortolot, working in Mozambique, and Karen Milbourne, working in Zambia. As the
manuscript developed, essays by two other senior scholars were added along the way: Norma Wolff’s
study in Nigeria, and Brenda Schmahmann’s study in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
We are grateful to the University of Basel and Emory University for providing the funds necessary for
color plates—and, more generally, for their support of our own scholarly research in several countries
over the years. Most of all we thank our contributors, who have patiently stayed with us through the
involved process of putting the book together.
Rethinking the Workshop:
Work and Agency in African Art
Till Förster and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir
Why Workshops?
Workshops—preliminarily understood to be any group of artisans, large or small, who not only share
a workspace but, in most cases, also draw on it as a stable framework of communication and learning
governed by the acknowledged expertise of one or more senior members of the group—are one of the
most basic institutions of production of African art and material culture. Yet empirical studies of
workshops are usually part of larger ethnographies or art histories, and so they are frequently and
frustratingly incomplete. This has been a deterrent to the development of a more general and theoretical
understanding of the role workshops play in the process of creativity—and particularly of how the
creative practice of one artist in the group relates to that of another or to the workshop as a whole. The
persistence of old and the emergence of new styles and genres remains poorly understood if it is not
related to the workshop within which artists learn and work.
Even a brief look at existing studies of workshops reveals how different they can be in African
societies. Workshops range from the early historic potter workshop of the ancient cultures in the Nile
valley to the postcolonial fine art workshop run by international artists. The differences in their internal
organization and their external impacts on the arts are equally large. Accordingly, the state of research is
uneven and disparate. Early colonial period accounts of artisanal practice are heavily weighted toward
metallurgy—especially the production of iron—and copper-alloy casting, whereas most of what we know
of carving workshops comes from late colonial or postcolonial sources. The Yoruba carving workshop
and apprenticeship are well documented (e.g., Bascom 1969a, 1969b; Carroll 1967; Fagg 1969; Kasfir
this volume; Pemberton 1987; Perani and Wolff 1999; Picton 1991a, 1991b; Willett 1971; Willett and
Picton 1967; Wolff 1982), as are apprenticeships of the Dan and Gola (d’Azevedo 1970, 1973;
Himmelheber 1960, 1963; Fischer 1962) and Senufo (Förster 1988, 1992; Himmelheber 1960; Richter
1980) workshop organizations, as well as Cameroon Grassfields (Argenti 2002; Koloss 2000, 2008),
Pende (Sousberghe 1959; Strother 1998, 2008), and Maconde (Dias and Dias 1970; Kasfir 1980;
Kingdon 2002). To piece together a fuller picture it is necessary to look at certain processes, such as
apprenticeship, across several kinds of practice within a community or a corporate group. One has to
keep in mind that apprenticeship itself can follow rules and regulations or it can be informal, and it can
take place within a workshop setting as well as outside of it.
But there are pros and cons to this approach: on the one hand, carving is a type of work like any other
kind of artisanship. One begins knowing little or nothing, is apprenticed to someone (often a relative or
friend of the family) who knows a lot, and gradually gains expertise—usually after several years. This is
as true of wood, stone, or ivory carving as it is of radio or motorcycle repair. On the other hand, the
production of certain objects destined to be receptacles for spirits often carries a whole set of
prescriptions, prohibitions, and ancillary practices that set this kind of work apart. It may, for example,
require that the apprentice exhibits a certain set of traits that makes him receptive to such work, as
d’Azevedo found among the Gola in Liberia in the 1950s and 1960s, when children earmarked for carving
apprenticeships were expected to be either “dreamers” or people “of special mind” who exhibited certain
food preferences and behaviors at an early age (d’Azevedo 1973:294).
In addition to workshops run on the classic master-apprentice model—and which are probably as old
as their European counterparts—there are also “sponsored” workshops that date from the late colonial era
onward and usually are set up by a cultural outsider acting as broker, by a mission, or—more recently—
by a development agency. Unlike the former type, these build on an uneven distribution of knowledge, in
particular of the international art world or handicraft market. These workshops have run the gamut from
Ulli and Georgina Beier’s Osogbo painting and printmaking workshops in the early 1960s, to the Shona
women’s appliqué and painting workshops of the late 1980s and 1990s in Weya, Zimbabwe, to the !Kung
San, Ku, and Khwe Bushman workshops of the 1990s in Botswana and South Africa; some of these are
discussed in separate case studies herein. These vary greatly in almost every respect except one: all the
participants are equally inexperienced at the beginning, so there is no sliding scale of mastery that comes1through years of apprenticeship. This introduces an element of competition; some participants will
display the skill and talent needed to become innovators, and others will drop out or become their
disciples or protégés. Short-term workshops that last a few days or weeks compensate for the absence of
an experienced master artist within the group by introducing a trained outsider to provide technical
instruction; this practice is usually accompanied by denials that the outsider “influenced” the style
2adopted by the participating artists. This article of faith sprang from an anticolonial philosophy tempered
with the belief that beneath the conscious level in every human dwells a creativity that only needs
encouragement to manifest itself. In 2012 this seems naïve and overly romantic, like the belief that all
Africans possess innate rhythm, but in the 1950s and 1960s this was firmly believed by such sophisticated
cultural brokers as Ulli Beier in Nigeria, Frank McEwen in Rhodesia, and Pierre Lods in
CongoBrazzaville (not to mention Léopold Senghor himself). This belief was rooted not only in the anticolonial
movement but in the antiacademic movement in French art, expressed by such figures as Gustave Moreau,
Matisse’s teacher.
A third model is a classic one, found also in Europe and Asia—the royal workshop or guild with a
king as patron. Well-known examples from Dahomey (King Gézo), Cameroon (King Njoya), and Nigeria
(the Oba of Benin and various Yoruba kings) are augmented by Karen Milbourne’s study of the Barotse
King Lewanika—like Njoya, a cultural broker in his own right—who organized the
early-twentiethcentury Lozi carving workshop at Victoria Falls. In this model the broker is not a cultural outsider but part
of the traditional elite, and creates a different structure and set of loyalties within the workshop.
These different types of workshops often coexisted at a time and sometimes interacted with each
other. So-called traditional workshops may provide the bulk of sculptures for the tourist market and, at the
same time, accommodate one or two outstanding artists who produce only on commission—but who also
make a living as intermediaries between the (often younger carvers) under their patronage and outside
clients, such as curio dealers who order semi-finished masks and statues in quantity.
These examples reveal the need to think more deeply on what workshops are and how they may best
be conceptualized. We, thus, would like to introduce some of the major issues we are trying to come to
terms with in our attempt to analyze the transformation of the African workshop. But first, we offer one
caveat: many, many African sculptors did not and do not carry out their practice in a workshop setting.
Some had a close personal relationship to only one master, who taught them individually and regardless
of the presence of workshops and other artists in their immediate environment. The Dan of Liberia and
Côte d’Ivoire had more personalized relationships that also fostered the appreciation of individual
mastery. Other African artists learned informally on their own—sometimes just by watching other carvers
at work, and at other times by trying to copy pieces they happened to see somewhere else. The Tiv, Ebira,
and Idoma of central Nigeria fall into this category. At other times, as Robin Horton (1963, 1965) wrote
about the Kalabari, young boys learned on their own by having to construct so-called junior Ekine society
masks. But these casual solitary learners are not our subject, although we will occasionally mention them
to highlight comparisons to workshop learning models.
The distinction between societies that had workshops and those that did not is not one of a linear,
historical transition from traditional to modern. Workshops exist in many contemporary African societies,
whereas some so-called traditional societies reproduce their arts more or less without institutions that
frame the learning of skills, and—by extension—the reproduction of style and genre. Obviously, there is a
wide variety of possible workshop constellations that crosscuts the divide between tradition and
modernity. We can place different kinds of workshops within the same analytical field of African art
studies without suggesting that all workshops look alike. There is no need to dichotomize workshops
across the continent as traditional or modern, nor along the more current lines of local or global. We
argue for a differentiated analysis of the workshop as a particular institution that shapes the reproduction
of art in many African societies. We will elaborate a fuller, more general understanding of the workshop
on the basis of the case studies presented in this volume, but must first offer a few words about what
workshops can be.
We have a double understanding of the workshop. On the one hand, we take the workshop to be an
institution that provides economic resources. What these resources are is an open question that only
empirical research can answer. On the other hand, the workshop is an institution that shapes the
imagination of its participants. As a cultural institution, it provides a setting where artists learn to see art,
and learn about style and genre and how to reproduce them. At the same time, the workshop is also a
social space that is constituted by its participants. Any analysis of workshops must take this twofold
character into account.
The two perspectives always merge, but it is helpful to keep them analytically separate: The economic
side leads to different modes of reproduction than the sociocultural side. If, say, tools are provided by aworkshop, their accessibility becomes central to those who want to make art. No artist can realize a work
in his or her imagination if denied access to the necessary tools. One may assume that the materiality that
goes with workshop settings frames and shapes the reproduction of art. The connection between the
material side and the production of art as material objects appears to be obvious. Less obvious, but no
less important, are cultural considerations. It is clear that the accessibility of tools and other resources
alone does not suffice to produce an artwork, and certainly not one that will be recognized as such by the
work’s intended public. The imaginative power of the artists as individual and social actors is a
precondition as well. First, an artist has to be able to imagine something invisible—that is, a work of art
that does not yet exist. Second, he or she has to be able to imagine how others will see and, at times,
evaluate it.
It is this power of imagination that distinguishes artists’ workshops from others—such as motorcycle
or radio repair shops. Technical creativity also requires powers of imagination—if imagination of a
different kind. In Africa, this is sometimes formulated as a “Jua Kali aesthetic” (Kasfir 1992, 2007) and
the artisan as someone close to Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur. But simply repairing an already existing
mechanical object certainly needs fewer imaginative capabilities than forming an art object from raw
beginnings. It is certainly a sliding scale, but in the end, it may help us to distinguish workshops in the arts
from those in other fields. Such powers of imagination do not fall from heaven. They are based on
experience, and more often than not, this experience is mediated by the social and cultural world in which
an artist lives. A workshop as an institution provides a framework for such experiences. A workshop is—
at least to some degree—a sphere that shapes individual experience, which then leads to an informed
mode of seeing and appreciation of artworks by its participants.
That said, it is not sufficient to describe how members of a workshop share certain tools or how
apprentices learn within a workshop setting from other members. It is much more interesting to look at
how the two spheres—the material and the cultural—interact. The provision of resources may frame the
work of the artists—but their work, in turn, shapes the materiality of the workshop. Any conceptualization
of the workshop in African art must take the articulation of the two strands of inquiry into account.
One may object that separating the two perspectives, economic and sociocultural, is but an argument
based on the historically grown distinction of the major disciplines that once were the roots of African art
studies, namely art history and anthropology. But the main argument is and remains what we take as a fact
—that material objects as goods in the economic sense and and as cultural products are in essence
different; thus, they need different modes of inquiry, analysis, and theoretical explanation.
At the same time we are also aware that every material object is born twice: from the hand and mind
of the artist, and simultaneously as an object of discourse (Tilley 1990:333)—that is, as a subject of
societal and cultural consciousness. This latter incarnation comprises what is written and said about the
object by its makers, sellers, users, collectors, and the cultural brokers who are responsible for moving it
among these parties. Although this discourse takes place primarily in the cultural sphere, it clearly figures
in economics as well. The important point about discourse is that it is partly responsible for how the
object is constituted, in the sense of being known and recognized. The question, then, becomes this: How
does it relate to the conceptualization and the everyday experience of the workshop?
We would argue that this is not merely an issue of an object’s creation inside the workshop versus a
corresponding discourse that develops outside it. The simple inside/outside distinction is complicated by
the fact that feedback often comes from cultural brokers, or occasionally the collectors themselves,
wherever a marketing interface is lacking. What sells versus what does not sell provides the most
primitive kind of feedback. But there are more refined types of feedback: for example, the potential buyer
in a painting workshop may decide that he does not like the way he is portrayed and suggest changes to the
artist; or someone might commission a mask and request that certain colors or features be added. These
interventions keep any workshop from being a strictly bounded entity.
The Workshop as an Economic Institution
The workshop as a social and economic institution has been an issue in a variety of disciplines. It has
obtained a high degree of attention in economic history as well as in the social sciences, in particular in
anthropological material culture studies. Studies of workshops in art history have often concentrated on
premodern art. Well-known examples are the mid- and late Gothic workshops of the Parler family in
southern Germany and Prague (Pinkus 2008; Schock-Werner 1978). Their wooden sculptures manifested
a distinct workshop style that influenced much of central Europe at the time. Another example is the
workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder. His paintings of Martin Luther introduced a new genre of
portraiture in the fine arts. It became a model for works in the century that followed and influenced thereformer’s image in the popular imagination over generations (Heydenreich 2007; Koerner 2004; Stiftung
preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg 2009). Sometimes labeled medieval or early
modern “art factories,” the workshops certainly enhanced the production of paintings because of the
material resources that they provided the artists (Stamm 2009). In these studies, the possible tension
between individual artists and their agency and the workshop as a social and economic institution is also
addressed. Workshops’ styles were not always as compulsory as they were sometimes described by later
3scholars and artists. Determining factors obviously included specific resources and the type of
interaction that was fostered by the provision of these resources.
We will first address this material side of the workshop before turning to the modes of interaction
among its members and the imagination of style and genre that such interaction fosters. In general, the
workshop played and still plays a key role in the social organization of the economy. As a room, a
building, or—more precisely and more generally—a social space, workshops can provide both a space
for cooperation and the tools and materials necessary for the production of goods and commodities. Until
the emergence of larger factories—or, roughly, until the beginning of the industrial revolution in the
eighteenth century—the workshop was the most important, if not the only, social space of artisanal
production, and it remained so in many parts of the world. However, it is not an institution that belongs to
a bygone era. It is not a medieval institution that faded away—although workshops were much more
4dominant in the organization of artisanal work until the advent of modernity. Despite its relevance to our
own history and its presence in our society and many others, the workshop has been neglected as an
analytical category. We believe that a deeper understanding of how workshops actually foster the material
production of art will also reveal much about the individual agency of their members.
Before analyzing the workshop more deeply in economic terms, let us briefly review the relevant
history of the concept of the workshop. Two essential features distinguish the workshop from other modes
of production:
a) A workshop provides the means of production, mainly materials, instruments, tools, and utensils.
What has been described for premodern Europe is by and large also valid for most contemporary
workshops in the Western world, precolonial African societies and for the informal economy of
many African societies today. Not every artist participating in a workshop possesses tools and
utensils. More often than not, ownership is uneven. Elders may be proprietors, as may adult artists—
but apprentices, for instance, may not possess even one of the tools they use. In some cases, the
community of the (elder or adult) artists as a corporate group owns all the tools; in other cases,
individual property by elders may be dominant. If, in this economic understanding, the workshop
mainly serves to provide materials and tools, the crucial question is who has access to these tools
and materials and how this access is regulated.
b) It is obvious that, even in this narrow, materialist understanding, workshops lead to a distinct type
of cooperation and interaction, more or less directly linked to the sharing of the means of
production and to the modes of interaction that this brings about. Of course, such modes of
interaction affect individual participants’ engagement in the workshop. Sociologists thus distinguish
“work in a workshop” (Werkstattarbeit [Weber 1980:64]) from other types of work, such as factory
work. As a type of work, Werkstattarbeit concerns how participants as social actors collectively
cope with problems and how they exchange ideas about their work. This perspective becomes clear
when one focuses on apprenticeship. Apprentices learn how to solve problems by participating in
workshops. Obviously, there are links between the two points—but interaction is also a social
practice that cannot be reduced to its material side. Very little research has been done on these links.
The relation between these two aspects of the workshop has certainly changed over time and
according to particular historical situations, but the workshop has remained a part of art history over the
centuries. As a distinct type of work and cooperation, its advantages were appreciated by many informal,
as well as formal, institutions. Die Brücke as a group of artists came close, in the early years of its
existence, to being a workshop that provided materials and a shared social space. It fostered material
cooperation as well as the exchange of ideas. Another example comes from the Bauhaus, which emerged a
few years later. When Walter Gropius was appointed director in 1919, he called for a reform in teaching
that, he said, should be based on the fundamentals of artistic work—that is, crafts and the mastering of
materials. The arts were, he said, best learned, understood, and taught when artists were working as a
team—not in splendid isolation. He believed devoutly that the teaching of handcrafts and the arts had to
be embedded in society. Thus, the teaching of the arts at the Bauhaus was—since the 1919 founding of theschool—based on workshop courses led by two masters, one of them an artist and the other a master
5craftsman. The aim of the workshops was to combine—or, more precisely, to unite—artistic excellence
and practical experience by bringing them together in workshops. As early as his 1919 manifesto, Gropius
claimed, “Schools must return to workshops” (Gropius 1919). Gropius’s emphasis on workshops,
however, was not an end in itself. He aimed at a strategy that would allow him to spread and implement
his ideas of design and architecture.
This short description immediately raises questions about the authority of the teacher or master artists
and the autonomy of the ordinary members. Let us first return to the economic side of workshops. If a
workshop is defined as an institution that provides certain resources to its members, the artists as social
actors must cope with these facts as conditions that frame their engagement with the workshop. The
provision of resources thus can be conceptualized as a structural context in which actors and their human
agency engage. However, the ways in which the artists cooperate in this setting are only partly caused by
the setting. If the workshop is understood in this sense, it is often conceived as more or less utilitarian; but
there is more to it than that.
The classical definition of workshops stems from the fact that the means of production are the basis of
any work and, by extension, the basis of the social interactions in which its members will engage. In
societies in which materials for a specific kind of artisanal work—such as metals or imported paints—
are scare resources, the workshop is a useful if not essential institution by which to enlarge the economic
performance of its participants and of the society in general. It is more likely, however, that this provision
of materials goes hand in hand with the provision of other resources. In the classical case studies, in
Africa as elsewhere, these other resources are mainly tools and facilities that are needed for work—to
borrow Marxist terminology, the means of production. A well-known example is the artisanal glass bead
production of Nupe that Siegfried Nadel described in the 1930s. What was provided was not only glass
as the central raw material, but also charcoal and—perhaps, still more important—the central smelting
oven. In his analysis, Nadel speaks of guilds to which an artisan must belong. The reference to early
modern modes of production is obvious. The parallels between European and African guilds also are
obvious. However, there are also significant differences: a European guild was a more comprehensive
institution than a workshop. It was tied to one city, and it had relationships to other, similar guilds in other
cities. The organizational frame was based on a more or less complex urban society, in which the guild
was one institution among others that complemented it. Although Nadel (1946) argues that Nupe
craftsmanship is also embedded in an urban society, it remains doubtful whether the term guild is an
appropriate description. What Nadel describes is much closer to other African institutions: membership
in the so-called Nupe guilds is mainly, if not exclusively, based on kinship. In addition, access to central
means of production is linked to kin seniority, which is also part of many other African institutions.
Although the kinship element also was often part of European guilds, the differences remain
significant. Even so, Nadel’s study is still an outstanding ethnography of such relationships in an African
society. It shows that an analysis of the workshop as an economic institution must address the question of
power relations with regard to the actual distribution of materials, tools, and other facilities in African
societies. In other words, it must address the modes of production. The older material culture studies
provide some data, but their main focus is on the technical side itself, not so much on its social
organization. There are only a few studies that analyze artisanal modes of production in Africa. Pollet and
Winter’s (1971) study on the Soninké and their blacksmiths is one. They distinguish the work of artisans
from that of farmers on the basis of how it is socially embedded. They see artisanal work as being
structured by client-patron relationships, whereas farmers’ work is mainly communal and based on kin
groups. But patronage in this case is not related to a market and the selling of objects; it is about the
control of knowledge and tools, which are the deficient resources among the Soninké. The case of the
Soninké shows that it would be far too easy to reduce the notion of resources exclusively to the material
means of production. Patronage and access to knowledge or to a particular market are equally important.
An appropriate economic definition of workshops needs to broaden the understanding of what resources
are relevant to the actors. It is an open question that cannot be answered by theoretical reflection. The
focus on the material means of production would be too narrow. A workshop that provides a particular
patronage, such as well-paid production for a royal court, will differ significantly from another workshop
in which material is the main resource provided. The former are is likely to regulate membership,
whereas the latter will probably focus on who gets access to the materials.
The major research question would be this: How does the sharing of particular resources relate to the
organization of the workshop as an economic institution? Are there typical modes of interaction within
this organization? The questions sound very anthropological or sociological, but they have direct
relevance to art studies, since the reproduction of style and iconography depends on how artists as socialactors work and how they interact with each other.
The workshop as a concept is also well established in art history. To some extent, it had initially been
borrowed from its original economic context. The abovementioned studies of early modern workshops
also address their economic aspects and relate them to style, iconography, and genre. But there is a
significant difference in the methodological approach of art history that leads to this other focus. Unlike
anthropologists and sociologists, art historians tend to conceptualize the workshop from another
perspective of the object as a result of work in which participants engage. The objects that have been
produced by artists come first, and if one is not able to trace individual artists, the workshop as an entity
is constructed on the basis of the outward appearance of objects. Anthropologists, however, focus first on
the actors and their practice—and sometimes forget about the objects that they create. Art historians
address the same connections as social scientists do, but they do it the other way round. The old
anthropological position, which is to treat the workshop as a corporate actor (not unlike the former ethnic
group), is still very much present in art museums—where artworks are often given such labels as
“unknown workshop of the Pot People” or “the Basket Folk,” to paraphrase Arthur Danto (1988). The
workshop thus appears to be an institution that is exclusively tied to premodern periods, when individual
agency was not yet an issue.
The workshop also plays a role in the more recent and modern history of art—although workshops are
often labeled by other terms; there were and still are galleries and art centers that organize workshops on
a more or less regular basis. This is particularly so in places where the majority of artists are informally
trained and may have no knowledge of techniques such as printmaking, which are usually acquired in art
school. Some cultural centers, such as the German Goethe Institut or the Centre culturel français, also
make use of workshops as cultural and at times political instruments. In some parts of Africa, missionary
art and handicraft schools are the major organizers of workshops, and some directly market the objects in
their own shops worldwide (see Morton, Forni, this volume).
Such institutions have a direct relevance to contemporary African art, although many critics would
deny the status of art to many, if not most, objects that come out of such workshops. However, there are
artists that are now recognized in the international art world that went through such workshops at certain
points in their careers. The bad reputation that workshops have in recent art history is probably due to the
modern focus on individual originality and the assumption that workshops will always lead to styles,
iconographies, and genres that all members more or less involuntarily have to share. The workshop thus is
treated as a place where all three—style, iconography, and genre—are (re)produced and where there is
not much space for individual agency. But such an understanding would precisely reproduce the
materialist assumptions about the superiority of the means of production—which is, as we have seen, a
misinterpretation of the economic basis of workshops. The role of individual agency becomes much
clearer if one takes the social and cultural side of workshops into account.
The original materialist assumption was that the provision of particular resources frames the work of
the artists and by extension, its outcome. If one resource—for example, the provision of access to a
particular market—dominates, it should then lead to a fairly even production of works, the repertoire that
this market demands. Examples that seem to confirm such a materialist position can be found all over
Africa and in many other parts of the world. The description of Tengenenge in Zimbabwe, for instance,
can be read as an example of demand-driven tourist production. Its workshop character would then be
twofold: the artists are provided stone for their sculptures, and, more important, they are offered access to
the tourist market by framing their production in one place. This is a utilitarian perspective that privileges
the economic, income-generating side of workshops. It has been the focus of most development agencies
and NGOs since independence. But, as Christine Scherer shows inc hapter 7, the ongoing interaction of
the artists within this setting also leads to innovation and new types of objects that are only later exposed
to potential clients. From the point of view of development agencies, which often fund craft workshops
precisely for this income-generating outcome, a workshop would be considered very successful if it
earned considerable income for its members, but such a quantitative approach goes against the
presupposition of art scholars that innovation is always more desirable than mere replication, which
would be aesthetically less interesting.
We strongly argue against a flat and shortsighted materialist perspective while simultaneously
maintaining that the material side is one important element of what a workshop is and means to its
members. Our argument is mainly based on the empirical observation that workshops providing the very
same resources do not necessarily lead to the reproduction of the same style, and at times not even to the
continuity of one (see Förster this volume).
In order to make use of the resources provided by the workshop, its members must sustain interactions
over time. It is, however, an open question how they do so. It is also debatable whether these interactionsmust always be tied to one place, as the conventional understanding of workshops almost always implies.
We will return to this question, but for now, it is sufficient to state that the provision of resources does not
determine the actions—that is, the art practices—of the members of the workshop. As any observer of
workshops knows, the artists and their orientations influence the context in which they act, even if they
cannot control it. This relationship is seldom addressed in African art studies and calls for an adequate
theoretical grounding; the examples of workshops in this volume thus invite us to rethink the concept of the
workshop across different contexts.
The Workshop as a Social Space of Learning and Interaction
A workshop is also a social setting. It is a social space in which individuals cooperate. When one
focuses on this social side, a workshop can be seen from quite a different point of view than the
abovementioned utilitarian perspective suggests: it is a sphere in which interpretive processes unfold.
Every artist who is or becomes a member of a workshop will interpret—and even has to interpret—the
actions of others in this context. He or she has to look at what others do: how they resolve practical
problems or questions of style and genre, how they respond to patronage, and so on. It is this act of
interpretation of others’ actions that is at the root of the educative as well as inventive character of many
workshops. A workshop is not a place where individuals accidentally meet and either exchange ideas or
not. It is a social institution that fosters particular modes of reciprocal interpretation and, in general,
social interaction. These modes are seldom as obvious as they would be in a class, where a privileged
and more powerful person teaches others right and wrong. The interactions taking place in a workshop are
often much more subtle. Artists in workshops learn much more through others, not from them.
The wide variety and subtle modes of interaction in a workshop call for a thorough and theoretically
informed analysis. That artists in a workshop learn more through others than from them is confirmed by
innumerable observations: most of the time, the younger artists who, according to the conventional
understanding of education, would be in apprentice positions, concentrate on their own pieces without
receiving any advice from their elders or masters. Elder artists usually intervene only when they see overt
mistakes or gross violations of what they expect to be an outcome of that work. However, this does not
mean that learning is reduced to such moments of direct instruction.
There are several possible strands of thinking with regard to human agency in a social setting. We
will first describe a two-dimensional approach and then try to differentiate it. From the perspective of
scholars such as ourselves, the practices within the workshop as social space can first be analyzed with
regard to two distinguishable but related dimensions: one is the pragmatic side of the artists’ work, the
other is its experimental or—if one prefers—its creative side. Any analysis of work in workshops must
keep in mind that the distinction is purely conceptual and analytical, not a feature of lived reality. The
artists as actors do not need to bother about the dimensions of what they do; they just engage in practice.
Analytical differentiation helps to understand human action, but it is not necessarily a conscious intention.
Artists and also the persons that run workshops may have different opinions about what they do. If these
opinions guide the actors’ practice, however, they must be taken into account by the scholars. In the end, a
synthetic view of work would have to overcome the limits of both perspectives and bring them together.
Let us first examine the workshop in a pragmatic and phenomenological perspective. A workshop,
then, is a space which—at a given time—serves as a social setting to its members. Although it is more or
less stable in its basic structure—for instance, with regard to the provision of resources—it is also a
constantly changing social setting. Younger members may learn and then take the role of experienced
artists or teachers as older members reduce their presence and retire. Some members might request more
support with regard to specific resources—such as access to a tourist or urban market—whereas others
may contribute to the provision of resources, perhaps in terms of tools and materials or of direct
instruction. Changing membership as well as the changing roles and statuses of its members makes the
workshop a temporal-relational context of action. It is in this context that art practices emerge. They are
based on intersubjectivity—that is, on the congruence of perspectives of the cooperating artists.
Intersubjectivity must be created by the actors that engage in such cooperation. It grows out of a process
of interaction—a process that is often described as “work” by the actors.
It would be virtually impossible to cooperate without there being any overlap of the actors’
perspectives on their work. Even a superficial study of artists in workshops shows that they always share
a more or less explicit understanding of what they do and how they intend to do it. This points to the fact
that, despite all hierarchies, exchanges in a workshop always flow both ways between teachers and
apprentices. However, the degree to which a particular actor will have a chance to influence this
exchange is an open question. The case of the Bauhaus workshops illustrates that the will to overcome anyhierarchy may be closer to a modernist ideology than to actual reality. It is much more likely that a teacher
or an internationally renowned artist who has been invited to give a course at a local, African art
institution will be privileged in this exchange (Scherer 2009; see also Okeke-Agulu this volume).
Intersubjectivity means that the members can hold simultaneously to their own viewpoints as well as
to those of other members of the workshop. They do so by coping with emerging situations in the
workshop, if not always to the same degree and not always in a conscious attitude. But whenever
intersubjectivity becomes an issue, a particular human capacity is needed—that of imagination. One has to
be able to imagine first what others see and aim at, and then the possible outcomes of one’s own projects
and plans. Work and cooperation thus influence the imagination of the members of a workshop.
In this context, it is certainly helpful to discuss imagination before we address the possible link
between it and the work that is carried out in a workshop setting. We understand imagination, in its
original Latin sense, to be the human capacity to bring something to mind—or in the context of art, to
envisage something that does not yet exist, is out of reach, or is invisible. Whatever the object of is, its
essential quality is its absence in time or space. Thus, imagination is about the presence of an idea or,
more appropriately in our context, of an image in the mind of an individual or social actor. Imagination
lends presence to the absent, and the work of imagination can be understood to be the realization of
images in the mind—such as an object that takes a particular shape or style and that differs from other
objects that existed before. Imagination thus dissociates from the materiality of ordinary, everyday life.
Imagination in this sense requires distancing oneself from the schemes and styles that existed before. It is
by imagining the nonexistent that artists can overcome the constraints of past practices.
Imagination may lead to the realization of the imagined. That said, it is clear that imagination is
necessary to bring something—an object, an artwork, a performative act—into existence. Imagination is a
precondition for creativity, even if the outcome does not entirely fit the image that the artist had in mind
when he or she created the artwork. Neither does imagination mean that the artists always have a clear
image in mind of how the artwork that they intend to create will have to look. It may also—and, perhaps,
more likely—mean that they intend to transform existing schemes with regard to one or another element of
There are countless examples for such intentions. Even in the most traditional of contexts, artists have
often aimed at the transformation of a particular feature of the masks or statues that they create, for
instance through the introduction of colorful paints on Guro masks showing a woman with a snake. The
degree of clarity of the imagined is certainly related to personality of the artist, but is equally related to
the situation in which he or she works. If a workshop is conceptualized as a social space, the imagination
of the artists is bound to the ways they, as forward-looking actors, choose and transform a particular
practice out of the fluid and shifting fields of possibilities that emerge within the workshop. Even if the
workshop is the only source of materials, tools, and possibly other resources, and even if it limits the
agency of the artists with regard to technique or patronage, it still does not determine the work of the
artists. There always remains a degree of indeterminacy that is linked to how individual actors actually
engage in the workshop and in the interactions that it fosters as a social institution. Attention is focused by
these ongoing interactions, not only by the materials and resources offered. This side of workshops is
illustrated by all studies presented in this book.
What happens in a workshop is that members, and in particular younger members, project themselves
into the experienced work of others. They learn through others, not from others, as mentioned above. In
some workshops, they are invited to do so on the basis of past experiences. In other workshops, the
emphasis is much more on how to distance one’s own art work from preexisting schemes. Whatever the
focus is, styles and genres as schemes of work that orient the art practice of the participating artists are
almost always unevenly distributed when a workshop is created—and again when new members engage
in it. The classical uneven distribution is perhaps best illustrated by the late colonial workshops in which
a teacher, usually white and male, worked with younger artists and introduced them to new materials and
techniques. But the postcolonial workshop setting, such as that in the School of Dakar, can be analyzed in
a similar manner: in these cases, the more experienced artists do not explicitly take the role of teachers,
but the younger artists learn through them. The younger artist engages in interactions with the established
artists and learns to make considered decisions about style and genre—that is to say, about an artwork that
he or she, in the beginning, imagines and intends to bring into existence.
Imagination links experience and reason as it guides action and orients it toward the future. An art
practice devoid of imagination would reduce the artist’s work to mere means-ends rationality. The
dissociating character of an open mode of imagination is an essential element of all art practices.
However, imagination may lose its dissociating character long before the object is actually created. The
feeling of difference between the (imagined) object and the imagination may fade under certaincircumstances, in particular when the setting is highly emotional. Work in a workshop setting can be
conceptualized as an oscillation between open and closed modes of imagination, and between individual
and social modes of focusing on an imagined object.
This oscillation between open and closed modes of imagination has its background in the ongoing
social interaction in the workshop. A workshop is continuously evaluated and reconstructed by its
members. In other words, a workshop is not just a natural space that is filled with members and
interactions, it is a social space that is created and continuously reproduced by the actors. A workshop
constantly transforms its shape as members change their positions and engage in different interactions. But
this does not mean that it is an unstructured social space. The central empirical issue is to examine the
situations fostered by the ongoing interactions and cooperation: Are there straightforward and
welldefined situations with fixed frames of references to past experiences? Or are there more ambiguous,
unsettled situations and unresolved problems? Both are possible. A workshop can stimulate individual
problem solving as well as social engagement in these problems that then leads to joint projects seeking
to overcome them. The individualization of artistic expression may be based on interaction as well as on
the uniformity of style that is more often ascribed to workshops. And it would be far too easy to interpret
such differences in the familiar tradition versus modernity dichotomy. Frank McEwen’s workshops and
the emergence of the so-called Shona stone sculptures are striking examples of a fairly high uniformity of
style. It is also interesting to note that this example points to an internal contradiction in many workshops
of this kind: artists who are invited to engage in a deliberately forward-looking agency and who feel
creative can often be highly conservative with regard to styles and solutions once they are adopted. We
believe it is precisely the unproblematic situation in which new modes of artistic expression are expected
from them that leads to this paradox. McEwen urged the artists in his workshops to never copy. But at the
same time, almost all examples of stone sculpture that they saw were made by the other members of the
workshop. The situation they worked in was characterized by two factors: first, McEwen would
recognize a particular style by a particular artist as innovative and promising. This style thus enjoyed the
appreciation of the master, which made it a solution for the formal problems other artists in the workshop
were facing. Second, the success of this style was not limited to the immediate sphere of the workshop
and the local art world in Zimbabwe. Owing to McEwen’s patronage, it had an outreach far beyond the
Zimbabwean audience. It guaranteed to some extent both income and recognition in the international art
world. It is not too farfetched to describe this process as the emergence of a workshop style—one that
was then incorrectly labeled “Shona stone sculpture.” Once established as a genre, it was reproduced by
many artists who sought to make a living—even if they developed other, personal styles besides the one
6that sold better.
The possibilities a workshop offers to its members vary over time, as do the conditions of their
engagement. Numerous empirical studies have shown that the conditions of work shape the individual, but
there is also strong evidence that individuals shape the conditions in which they work. Artists as members
do so by acting and interacting within the workshop. Creativity is embedded in the actions the artists
engage in or maybe refuse to engage in. It is the continuous reorganization of work that is at the root of
their agency and creativity. If, then, the creation of an artwork is taken as an event and as an outcome of
work performed in a workshop, this action can be conceptualized as an event that emerges within the
workshop as well as out of the workshop. The artists’ experience of what happens in a workshop is based
on a series of such events. They constitute the history of the workshop as a historical institution of
creative work. But there may also be moments in the history of workshops when the members engage in a
reflexive attitude toward the institution and come to see it as being of continuous existence. They may then
situate themselves and their art practice in this context. The workshop is then often seen as a place that
links the future to the past and to experiences that proved to be successful.
The constant interaction of the members is the basis of what we call the iterational dimension of
workshops. We prefer this term to the older terms “tradition” or “continuity” because it focuses on the
fact that former solutions to practical problems or to questions of style and genre have to be brought in by
the artists themselves. The term iteration comes closer to human agency than tradition or continuity: it
points to an active engagement with past experiences. It is an intentional choice by the artists, but not
necessarily a conscious one. Significant parts of such experiences are embedded in bodily knowledge and
remain below the surface of consciousness because of their routinized character. An artist, who, say, has
learned how to draw a human face, does not need to recall all his knowledge when he starts to paint. He
trusts his capabilities and will adapt them to the situation that he has to cope with. Thus, we reject the
notion of an essentialist, preexisting tradition and understand iteration to be an intentional activation of
practical capabilities that refers to the understanding of their work that the artists have acquired over time.
Iteration must be analyzed within the context of specific situations in the historical life of a workshop.Hence we do not assume that workshops at all times, in all places, and regardless of the personalities of
their members are equally iterational. Rather, it is the historical, cultural, and social variability that
interest us.
It would be a gross mistake to assume that workshops always privilege the iterational dimension in
human agency and art practice. It can be the opposite, as the example of the workshops organized and led
by Ulli and Georgina Beier in Osogbo in the late 1950s and early 1960s shows: they were thoroughly
oriented toward the future and privileged the projective capacities of the participating artists. Both Ulli
and Georgina Beier deliberately urged the artists to break with the past and invent a new art—one that
could claim to be part of an original African modernity. At least to some extent, this orientation was due
to particular historical circumstances, i.e., to the rejection of the colonial past and anything viewed as old
in a moment of national liberation. In this way, the intentions of the Beiers both overlapped with and
differed from those of McEwen, who discursively constructed so-called Shona sculpture as something that
explicitly referred to the African past, claiming that today’s stone sculpture was iterated from olden times
and was only revived through his presence. The trope of a revived African past has become enormously
successful and today figures prominently on the websites of almost all galleries and stores that sell
Zimbabwean stone sculpture worldwide (e.g., Art Zimbabwe n.d.; ZimSculpt n.d.). Both examples show
how differently a workshop may frame the actual production of art at a particular moment in history.
Beier’s Osogbo and McEwen’s Zimbabwean workshops had a cultural background and led to a deep
transformation of what art in a postcolonial society could—and, to some degree, should—be. The wide
variation in how the material, economic, communicative, and cultural aspects of workshops may influence
one another calls for more empirical studies of this interaction. Workshops are neither a closed chapter in
the general history of art, nor are they bounded by the African past. In many varieties, they are part of the
African present.
Empirical Perspectives
The workshop as an economic institution underestimates the agency of the artists, whereas the concept
of the workshop as a social space of interaction neglects structural influences and, perhaps, constraints.
What is needed is an informed understanding of the interrelationship between the workshop as an
economic and social institution and the workshop as a space where individual and collective agency
meets. Both strands of conceptualization of the workshop must complement each other for a thorough
analysis of particular cases. How their interplay shapes the reproduction of style, genre, and iconography
is the question that we are interested in and that will guide our interpretation of empirical findings in the
following chapters. The central empirical questions to the ethnographic data presented in this book are
these: How are the choices made by artists related to the institutional structure of the workshop? What
kind of contexts and situations keep artists engaged in existing stylistic schemes and in institutionalized
past experiences? How do the more imaginative, future-oriented engagements relate to the emergent
situations in a workshop? And—last, but not least—how do differently structured workshops support
continuities of styles and genres or agentic orientations toward the future?
Little attention has been given to these questions. Descriptions in the existing literature are based more
on presumptive examinations of workshops than on a learned, theoretically informed analysis. How
important such an analysis is becomes apparent when one examines some recent cases of how workshops
were affected by violent crises. The urban workshops of the Senufo carvers were, until the beginning of
the Ivorian crisis, mainly producing for three market segments. One was the tourist market at the coast,
with its resorts, big hotels and curio shops; the second was the connoisseur market, with its demand for
7replicas and other supposedly old pieces; and the third segment was commissions by local clients. After
the outbreak of the warlike crisis in 2002, the tourist market became very difficult to access. Most resorts
closed, and bringing the sculptures to Senegal or other major tourist destinations was beyond the means of
the carvers. However, new clients showed up—particularly rebel leaders and their staff. The workshops
adapted to the new situation quickly and changed both their internal organization and products. They
started to produce and sell objects that they called genuinely northern Ivorian—an emerging genre that is
closely linked with the political identity of the rebels as representing the legitimate political and cultural
claims of the disadvantaged part of the country. At first sight, this seems to be a perfect example of the
demand-driven transformation of a workshop setting. But a second glance reveals that the emergence of
new genres is to a large extent also informed by the agency of the workshop as an arbiter of what is an
appropriate representation of northern Ivorian culture and what is not (see Förster this volume).
The description and analysis of such examples brings us back to the disciplinary perspectives
mentioned above. Anthropologists often took the engagement of the actors in the workshop as habitual, buthabitual engagement is often seen as a somewhat mechanical reaction to particular circumstances. In the
older art-and-society studies (e.g., Forge 1973), such implicit conceptualizations of workshops have been
a prevailing tendency. It reduces the artists and their agency to stimulus and response—to mere behavior.
Such statements, as we are all aware, fit neither the so-called traditional workshops nor the new types of
workshops that emerged over the last twenty to thirty years with contemporary African art. However, the
modernist statement that privileges individual inventiveness as the only driving force of creativity does
not address the question of the relationship between artists and workshops either. It led to a
conceptualization of the workshop as a space in which individuals merely meet. In modernist thinking, it
is the (moral) will of the individual to transgress boundaries of style or genre.
It is already clear that neither a perspective privileging the autonomy of the individual artist nor the
opposite, a perspective that looks exclusively at the constraints, will do justice to what a workshop
actually means to the artists in a specific historical situation. The coda will reconsider such open
questions in light of the empirical studies herein. The general question is about how to relate individual
and collective agency to the interaction that is framed by the workshop as a societal institution. This is
mainly a question to be answered after thorough empirical inquiry. At a general institutional level, the
question addresses a theme that accompanies all studies of art: the tension between authority and
1. The technical expertise of the workshop organizers is sometimes an exception, but the competences
of the local members of the workshop are generally low in the beginning.
2. A fairly well documented example is Osogbo. In long-term workshops, many changes occur over
time and the process is not so simple. For example Frank McEwen maintained a firm hand over what
constituted acceptable work in the Salisbury National Gallery workshop, but Joram Mariga was for many
years cast into the role of master teacher once the workshop moved out of Salisbury.
3. See, for instance, the role of Lucas Cranach the Younger, who took over his workshop from his
father and enlarged it in economic terms but soon developed an individual “handwriting” in his paintings.
4. Software companies run workshops in the programming of new software, and in the scholarly
world, workshops are one of the most widespread means of bringing competent people together and
generating new ideas.
5. In that first year, Gropius appointed three artists, Lyonel Feininger, Gerhard Marcks, and Johannes
Itten who all started teaching workshop courses to their students. On the workshop courses and the ideas
behind them, see Gropius (1963), Droste (2006), and Meyer (2006).
6. An example is Tapfuma Gutsa, who produced “Shona” stone sculptures in the earlier period of his
life. After having been invited to the Tate Gallery in London, he discovered many other modern artists as
Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Alberto Giacometti. After having come back to Zimbabwe, he again
produced stone sculpture from time to time to make a living, but simultaneously, he started to transform
his entire art and made objects as his famous “African Genesis” from 1995 (Gutsa 2001; personal
communication, August 23, 2001).
7. The first two segments were documented in the early 1990s by Steiner (1995).
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The Contributions to This Book
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster
African Art and Agency in the Workshop brings contributions from art history and social
anthropology together. The chapters address novel perspectives on the workshop in African art, but do so
in related fields. These perspectives intersect concrete, heuristic, as well as conceptual problems in
recent studies of workshops in African art. Most of these problems are not specific to African art, but are
relevant to the study of workshops everywhere and at any time in the history of art. Most importantly, the
perspective that most of the contributors engage intimately builds on the experience of African artists
working in contemporary Africa. This contemporary setting is no longer bound to an unchanging,
socalled authentic tradition, nor is it bound to a rootless life in one of the fast-growing African megacities.
Artists in contemporary Africa neither work in a timeless traditional context nor are they reinventing
themselves and their art from a blank slate. The workshop is, we argue, one of the institutions that mediate
what is iterated from the past and how the artists imagine their own art in the African present and future.
The fields that structure this book are at the core of how the contemporary artist situates him- or
herself in a workshop. Education and learning, the focus of part 1, have always been central to workshop
settings. It is a truism to state that the production of art never takes place in a vacuum, and that no artist—
regardless of whether one wants to distance oneself from one’s predecessors—works in complete
ignorance of what others have done. The workshop, however, is a central institution as it provides such a
context of learning.
In a longitudinal study of a famous Yoruba family workshop, Norma Wolff traces it from its
efflorescence in the early 1970s to its radical shrinkage by 1999. The Adugbologe family business,
originally established around the local demand for religious sculpture in Abeokuta, at first survived the
decline in demand that came with the parallel weakening of indigenous Orisa worship. Hausa traders
stepped in to replace traditional patrons and new variations on old forms emerged as the commodity
status of the work was no longer “enclaved” (Appadurai 1984), but became part of a burgeoning global
market. Only a few older family members knew the rituals that must be performed during the carving
process to activate an object and make it acceptable for religious use. This knowledge was lost to all but
a few of the younger artists, who no longer needed to know.
But intrusion by the state in the late 1970s, through the enforcement of antiquities laws, sidelined the
Hausa traders, many of whom stopped visiting the Adugbologe compound. With only a few traders and
even fewer local patrons, the level of production in 1999 had shrunk to a small fraction of the workshop’s
former output, yet the family itself chose to stay together as a close-knit lineage in their Abeokuta
compound, suggesting that their conceptualization of the workshop as an institution is built on a much
stronger foundation than just their response to market demand.
Elizabeth Morton addresses a particular moment in the history of African art, namely the role of
patron-driven workshops in a hierarchical colonial setting. Such workshops existed in many parts of
Africa, under French as well as British domination. They were sometimes related because teachers—and,
to a lesser degree, students—were sent from one workshop to the other. This practice was mainly meant
to bring the best teachers and students together in one of the better-equipped training centers, but it also
stimulated the exchange of skills, iconographies, and styles. Education and learning in such a setting often
led to particular workshop styles that differed significantly from the styles that dominated the arts in the
region. Morton studies Grace Dieu Mission, a woodcarving workshop that was founded by a Christian
mission in Pietersburg, South Africa, in 1925. She shows how learning to carve under the guidance and
patronage of a missionary first led to a production of a recognizable mission style. The key figure was, as
in other workshops in colonial settings, the founder, who simultaneously served as a teacher in skills and
techniques, in mainly Christian iconography and not least in a specific style that made the emerging art
school unique. As a program, the teaching was indebted to Christian belief, and Grace Dieu’s remarkable
success is certainly related to the fact that the recognizable style that it produced was associated with that
belief. However, the founding father, Ned Paterson, was also inspired by the English Arts and Crafts
movement. Adopting the idea that the entire production process should be controlled by the artists, hegave them the means to emancipate themselves from the school and the workshop style that he wanted to
foster. As domination usually generates resistance, a few of the artists intentionally wanted to break with
the narrow frame of the workshop style and became known as some of the first truly modern artists of
Africa. Job Kekana, Ernest Mancoba, and Gerard Sekoto were rebels who developed their individual
styles against the background of their former experience as members of a narrowly knit and ideologically
informed workshop.
Nicolas Argenti explores the links between embodied practices and local conceptions of carving on
the one hand, and ideologies of royal power and authority on the other. He examines the lived experience
of carving from the standpoint of his own apprenticeship in Oku, a Cameroon Grassfields kingdom. The
chapter first highlights the limits placed upon carvers’ ability to impose a form upon matter at will. These
limits result from the availability of resources, the social affiliations of the carvers, and—not least—the
cosmological framing of carving. The workshop was the forest where the carvers had access to wood and
where they could ensure that women and non-initiates would never see a carving in production. The
artworks were then finished in the workshops of ironsmiths in the village. Argenti then elaborates local
epistemologies, according to which the technical limits placed on the carver’s capacities by the raw
material lead to the anthropomorphization of the tree or wood as an ancestor. Carving in the forest was to
co-opt its life breath and to venture into the realm of the ancestors who go there when they leave the
world of the living.
This act, Argenti writes, parallels the king’s ability to engage with the forest and the world of the
ancestors into which he will transform when he leaves his body. He is the transformer par excellence and
the primary link between the worlds of the living and the dead. Through the transformation of wood and
the control over the life force that carving affords, carving has become analogous with the work of kings.
Argenti concludes that the paradoxical result of this folk model of the tree as an animate being is to turn
the limits of the carver’s technical capacities into a form of symbolic authority that is closely controlled
by the palatine authorities. The cosmological framing of Oku workshops translates into particular modes
of learning in a space that is protected by the authority of the king.
In a study conducted by a practicing artist, Namubiru Rose Kirumira, she and Sidney Kasfir describe
two international workshops for contemporary artists held in 2005, Thupelo in South Africa and Insaka in
Zambia. Sponsored by the Triangle Arts Trust, these workshops have occurred in fourteen African
countries since 1985 and represent an experiment in spontaneous creative interaction among a group of
twenty to twenty-five artists who, in theory, have never met before. The workshops have had varied
success, in part because artists have demonstrated different levels of commitment to the interaction.
Kirumira found that many were “comfort-zone” artists who were reluctant to experiment with new
materials or listen to peer criticism from other members of the workshop. But some were able to realign
their ideas and take on unexpected challenges, such as the absence of their usual working materials. The
study leads us back to the centrality of the workshop as a social environment and the fact that aesthetic
choices are embedded in a larger social whole.
Part 2 focuses on another recurrent theme in the study of workshops, the relation between artists and
their audience and the way it is mediated by the workshop setting. This often tension-laden relationship
has been cast in two different but related vocabularies. One comes from economics or, more precisely,
from economic anthropology: the workshop belongs to the realm of distribution following the production
of art. Very often, workshops try to build a bridge to possible consumers of art—connoisseurs and
collectors—when these consumers are far away. In economic terms, workshops seek to open a venue to a
distant (art) market. Another opportunity emerges when possible consumers are close by but not aware of
the art production. In this case, the workshop may become a means to attract their attention, perhaps
through presence in specialized media that focus on a particular art audience or even through joint
commercial advertisement if the art addresses a wider audience.
Framing the workshop as a mediator between producers and consumers is a justifiable perspective.
However, it remains a one-sided functional interpretation of the relationship, as every exchange with an
audience inevitably is also an encounter between different actors with different social and cultural
backgrounds. A workshop that mediates among artists, connoisseurs, and collectors can be understood as
an institution of cultural brokerage. Through the workshop, the artists may learn more about the
expectations of an audience. If the latter is beyond the horizons of their lifeworld, the workshop may even
be the only way to learn more about that distant artworld (and to access it). In late colonial and
independence-era settings, when the patrons and teachers no longer aimed to stimulate what was formerly
called an authentic, African expression of art, they were consciously trying to open a window to the
international artworld. Distancing the workshop and its member artists from so-called old, traditional
African art fitted well into the then-dominant anticolonial discourse, as it opened a new space to situate acontemporary African art in world art. It is probably this encounter between African artists and the
international artworld that informed most workshops during the decolonization period of the 1950s and
1960s. But it did not end then. Many workshops still try to bridge the gap between artists and a distant
Brenda Schmahmann analyzes such a workshop in rural north-central Zimbabwe and a second one in
Winterveld, a peri-urban area northwest of Pretoria, South Africa. The first was founded as the Weya
workshop in 1987. It was framed as a self-help project for disadvantaged women who were Shona
speakers. The workshop initially aimed at more than just the production of arts and crafts; it wanted to
foster the agency of the women in a patriarchal society with unequal relations of power. As women
normally remained in communal areas, the workshop had to bypass the obstacles resulting from male
domination in Shona society, and also to bridge the distance to the market in Harare. Ilse Noy, the founder
of the Weya workshop, was an art teacher contracted by the German Volunteer Service (DED). She
started out by teaching the women to sew garments for their families and for sale, but they found no local
market for the latter. Nine women then jointly produced an initial work, an appliqué wall hanging titled
The Life of Benjamin in Zimbabwe. The wall hanging was meant to be a gift for a friend of Noy’s in
Germany. Because it stimulated highly positive responses among potential customers in Europe, it became
a kind of initial spark to the production of further appliqués. Interestingly, the women maintained, under
Noy’s patronage, the mode of collaborative production that they had adopted for the first appliqué.
The Mapula Embroidery Project in Winterveld, South Africa, shares many features with the Weya
workshop in Zimbabwe. Although it is much closer to the market in physical terms, and was thoroughly
affected by the fast urbanization of the area, it also concentrated on a disadvantaged group of women, in
this case related to the oppression that women had suffered through racial politics under the apartheid
regime. The project was introduced in 1991 by members of the Pretoria branch of Soroptomists
International, who wanted to establish an income-generating project for women, in collaboration with the
Sisters of Mercy. The distance in the case of the Mapula Embroidery Project was social, not physical, and
like the Weya project, it aimed at making the urban market accessible to the women. Again, this workshop
fostered one style, which could be identified with the women as a group.
Chika Okeke-Agulu writes on one of the most influential workshops of the decolonization period, the
series of Mbari Mbayo workshops that were organized by Ulli and Georgina Beier between 1962 and
1964 in Osogbo, a Yoruba town in southwestern Nigeria. Often the work of the Osogbo group of artists
has been treated as a direct product of the colonial or romantic imaginations of European teachers. In the
same vein, critics such as art historian Babatunde Lawal have questioned the cultural authenticity of work
they produced, since the artists were under the influence of primitivist European teachers. These positions
presuppose the gullibility of the workshop-trained artists; the cunning, imperialist ideas of their European
teachers; and a skewed, unequal power relationship between the semiliterate African student and the
European teacher. Put simply, they raise questions about the authenticity of the work produced by these
artists and, related to this, the pedagogical relationship between the European workshop teachers and
their African students.
Chika Okeke-Agulu’s chapter stakes out an alternative position by exploring a unique aspect of
Oshogbo artists’ work: the involvement of the original artists in dance, theater, and music before the
summer workshops that introduced them to painting and printmaking, and suggests that this historical fact
is crucial to our understanding of the workshop and its artists, particularly the relationship between
teacher Georgina Beier and the (student) artists. He argues that there is clear evidence of a much more
complex teacher-student interaction that reveals mutual influence, rather than the unidirectional influences
characteristic of other contemporary workshops. Although the denial of hierarchy in the relationship of
teachers and students is a trope of many decolonization discourses, the novel element is much more the
postulation of spontaneous interaction and creativity by all participants that Okeke-Agulu analyzes in
terms of game theory.
Second, he writes that the work of the Osogbo artists refutes the authenticity arguments advanced by
the group’s most ardent promoters and critics. Compared to any indigenous traditions they might have
inherited, their simultaneous participation in production of contemporary theater, dance, painting, and
printmaking is thoroughly new—and, in some sense, even avant-garde—although it is bound to the
historical situation that demanded a complete break with the past to build a new, postcolonial Africa.
Furthermore, this ability to adopt multiple artistic personae is in synchrony with a Yoruba cosmological
context in which important deities perform diverse roles and manifest multiple identities.
The other, more economic, side of workshops becomes much more visible in Christine Scherer’s
chapter. The Tengenenge workshop in a rural area in northern Zimbabwe has often been dismissed as a
production site for bold tourist art or for mixture of invented traditions that merge existing styles with theexpectations of (mainly foreign) visitors. Already the fact that it was advertised as being a typical African
village conforms to the Western imagination of Africa as a remote place where people live close to
nature. In fact, Tengenenge did not exist as a village but was founded by Tom Blomefield, a South African
tobacco farmer and miner. He invited his workers to sculpt the serpentine stone of that place to find an
alternative to the economic downturn of the mid-1960s, when the white minority government of Zimbabwe
led the country into international isolation, and Britain retaliated by imposing a trade embargo on
Rhodesian tobacco.
The bottom line of Tengenenge as a workshop was, so its critics wrote, a purely economic incentive.
The more than three hundred sculptors and more than eleven thousand exhibited sculptures spoke for
themselves. There was nothing wrong with providing an income for these workers in a remote part of the
country—but it simply was not art, they said. In her contribution, Scherer analyzes the Tengenenge
workshop from another perspective. She looks at how the interaction among the artists as well as among
artists, their patrons, and clients constitutes a distinct sphere of meaning that fosters the emergence of a
shared style despite all commercialization. Her main point is that communication among the artists is
seldom cast in words. It is also not directly related to the economic incentives actually set by Blomefield
as patron when he ranked the most successful artists in terms of sale and type of artwork. Most
interactions between the artists are not related to this ranking. The artists discuss other issues. Their
communication rotates around the value of stone sculpture and, in particular, around the invention of new
types and models. Although this still indirectly relates to the art market, it also opens a social space for
creativity based on mutual exchange among individual sculptors. Scherer argues that the institution of the
Tengenenge workshop as “refugio” is able to expand modernist concepts such as they are reflected in
debates of art versus craft or so-called genuine versus tourist art. Hence it comes as no surprise that
Tengenenge actually produced artists that became known in the international artworld.
Jessica Gerschultz addresses the role of workshops in the urban, modern world of Nairobi. The city’s
contemporary art scene is a complex web of encounters and relationships among artists. These
relationships are formulated and sustained through a dynamic network of workshops underpinning
production and exhibition. In this network, multiple levels of workshops act as the key unifier, bringing
various individuals together to share materials, create, critique, and exhibit. Gerschultz analyzes
Nairobi’s workshop network as a fluid system that allows artists to develop and sustain relationships
beyond a particular studio space or moment in time. The workshops situate artists in the contemporary.
Because of the limited connotations of workshops as sites of production and the corresponding neglect
of their role as social networks at the heart of Nairobi’s art infrastructure, Gerschultz aims at a wider
understanding of workshops based on what the term workshop implies, and for whom. Tracing emic
perspectives means to shift one’s focus toward the communicative aspects of workshops as social and
cultural institutions as outlined above. She first describes the configuration of this workshop system
before considering its connection to artists’ relationships and its relevance to artists’ conceptions of how
knowledge is disseminated. By reevaluating the workshop in the particular context of Nairobi, she shows
that workshops in the urban artworld comprise a navigable system in which artists develop professionally
by relying on each other for training and support. Finally, she demonstrates the centrality of this system
and its impact on artists’ modes of working by tracing the career paths of several Nairobi artists who are
representative of the wider grouping of workshop-affiliated artists.
Part 3 is dedicated to the analysis of patronage and domination in workshop settings. Patronage was
always a central element of workshop organization in African history. The workshops at royal courts as in
the Cameroon Grassfields were, and to some degree still are, but one example among many. Under
colonial domination, the link between workshops and patronage often became even stronger, as the
various missionary art schools from all parts of the continent show. But the close relationship between
workshop and patronage do not end there.
Workshops are not necessarily bound to patronage. Countless workshops in acephalous societies
promote an intensive cooperation between its members without privileging one or the other actor as a
patron. Other workshops are clearly hierarchical and often have a kind of leader who either comes from
the artists themselves or who may be an outsider who offers the artists services that they may not, or
cannot, do themselves. Patronage can take many different forms. It may range from purely economic
services as a regular commission of works to an intensive engagement in the production process. At times,
patrons may marginalize some artists because of their style or iconography, and buy more from those
whose artworks they find more compelling. The tastes of the patrons and the formation of workshops often
go hand in hand.
Domination, including political domination, is often closely related to patronage. As in other parts of
the world, political leaders have been important patrons as well. At times, the normative expectations of a