ed. by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster. (African expressive cultures). Indiana University Press, August 2013. 424 p. ill. ISBN 9780253007414 (cl.), $85.00; ISBN 9780253007490 (pbk.), $30.00; ISBN 9780253007582 (ebook), $24.99.
Reviewed January 2014
Megan Halsband, Reference Librarian, Library of Congress, firstname.lastname@example.org
This collection of fifteen essays, along with an introduction written by editors Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Förster, explores the concept of "the workshop" in the context of African art and material cultures and provides a rich exploration of a topic that has been addressed by few recent publications. "Workshops – [are] 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..." (p. 1). The essays, contributed by art historians, social anthropologists, curators, practicing artists, and scholars in African studies, cover both historic and contemporary subjects that span numerous cultural and geographic divides. Each essay approaches the overarching theme of "the workshop" from a different perspective, while the volume as a whole addresses larger issues of cultural authenticity, agency, economic and power exchanges, and colonial/anti-colonial/postcolonial artistic production. Primarily presented as "case-studies," these essays focus on diverse topics ranging from a Christian missionary wood carving workshop in South Africa (Elizabeth Morton), multi-format Osogbo workshops in Nigeria (Chika Okeke-Agulu), to patronage and court workshops in Zambia (Karen E. Milbourne.
Previous discussion surrounding the concept of "the workshop" focused on examples (especially historic) of the master-apprentice model or examples of what the editors refer to as "sponsored workshops" – those where individuals in leadership roles act as brokers of material and intellectual culture. Kasfir and Förster suggest that new discussions need to reframe the perception of the workshop as an economic and social institution rather than simply relying on established tropes. The essays provide specific examples of scholarship rethinking traditional perceptions of apprenticeship, artistic autonomy and communication, and authentic/established versus innovative production.
African Art and Agency in the Workshop, part of the African Expressive Cultures series, is a fully-indexed, scholarly resource with eight color plates, and each essay includes notes, bibliographies, and illustrations. Many of the authors, including Kasfir, Förster, and Brenda Schmahmann, have published extensively on the subject areas addressed in these essays. Although a background in the history of art, especially African art, will enhance a nuanced reading of this text, it is not required to gain useful insights on the subject. This interesting volume is highly recommended, especially for institutions that have collections covering artistic practice, African studies, postcolonial studies, and art history.