Shrine von Muraina Oyelami
Shrine by Muraina Oyelami, late 1970s or 1980/81 Iwalewahaus Collection

African Art History and the Formation of a Modern Aesthetic

African Modernism in institutional art collections related to German collecting activities

The time of change, which, especially after independence, left its mark on the African continent within the context of modernization and globalization, is accompanied of a modernity in the arts in the period between the 1930s and the 1980s. It was the time when a development of new artistic expressions took place, reflecting on this change.

Large art exhibitions and biennials such as documenta11 and the Biennial of Venice particularly drew international attention to modern and contemporary African art. A comprehensive examination of the African modernity as a postcolonial modernity, which includes historical, personal and aesthetic encounters with Europe, is still missing.

The growing presence of modern and contemporary African art in Germany yet requires a detailed research on the African modernism in German collections. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the present and the future of art from an African and Western perspective.

This is the reason why the following institutions - Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth, Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt and Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration in Kampala - got together in this research project to examine the African modernity within a trans- and interdisciplinary frame, starting with their art collections. Marked by the collectors Ulli Beier and Jochen Schneider, the main focus of the collections at Iwalewahaus and the Weltkulturen Museum is on artworks from Nigeria and Uganda respectively. Because of their parallelisms, the individual (hi)stories and contents of the three collections are suitable as objects of research. In addition, their complex connections have to be part of the investigation.

Central questions are how to deal with African modernism and how a critical survey of German collections of modern African art can be possible. Instead of highlighting the biographies of the artists, patrons and collectors, a visual approach from a pictorial perspective will be applied to ascribe the artworks more autonomy. As the object of research, selected objects of the collections will enrich the scientific study of the aesthetics of artistic practice on the African continent. In the course of this extensive contextualization the centre of the discussion about African art should move into the global south. The four-year cooperation is supported by experts from Germany, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Great Britain and the US.

During and after an intense examination of the collections, workshops regarding the themes "Writing art history and the definition of the canon", "The policies and politics of acquisition", "Collections of African Modernism related to German/Ugandan/Nigerian art history", "Entangled histories of art collecting", and "Aesthetics of African Modernism" shall expand the well-founded exchange. The scientific findings shall be made accessible to an interested public through the participation at conferences (CAA, ECAS, ACASA) and a row of publications as well as at least one exhibition. This way the (hi)story of the collections should be reconstructed.

The international research team, which is accompanied by guest researchers and associated advisors, is composed of young and experienced professionals in art history, visual studies, curatorial studies, museology, archival studies and anthropology as well as artists.

The project is sponsored within the program "Forschung in Museen" (research in museums) by VolkswagenStiftung.

Project term: 2015 - 2018

Nadine Siegert, Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth, 0921-554503

Research team: 

Management: Nadine Siegert, Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth

Katharina Greven, Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth; George Kyeyune, Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration; Kathrin Peters-Klaphake, Makerere Art Gallery / Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration; Yvette Mutumba, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Smooth Nwezi-Ugochukwu, Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover (associated researcher).

Junior Researchers:
Lena Naumann, Hasifah Mukyala, Siegrun Salmanian


Supporting program

Lecture Series African Modernisms

The lecture series is organized in cooperation with the work group Aesthetics of the Bayreuth International Graduate School of Advanced African Studies and co-curated by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi (Hood Museum of Art, Darthmouth College).

International scholars and experts in the field of African art give public presentations to enrich the theoretical input for the research of African Modernism and a close reading of the Iwalewahaus collection of modern and contemporary art.

Elsbeth Court (SOAS, London), with her presentation "Looking Back with Jak", situated works by Jak Katarikawe within the East African art history. Within this context, she also linked his works in the Iwalewahaus collection with statements of the artists.

Atta Kwami (artist) followed the development of modernisms in Kumasi, Ghana in his presentation entitled "Making modernism in Kumasi and its aftermath". For a closer examination he engaged with the artists El Anatsui, George Afedzi Hughes, Kwame Akoto (Almighty God Artworks), Alex Amofa, Owusu Ankomah and Ibrahim Mahama.

Salah Hassan (Cornell University, Ithaca) puts his focus of his lecture "Khartoum Modern" on the years between the 1960s and the 1970s as they reflect modernist developments in Sudan's art scene. The main emphasis of the presentation is on the Khartoum School and its artists like Ibrahim el Salahi and Ahmed Shibrain, whose works are also part of the Iwalewahaus collection. (Date: 08.06.2016)

Sarah Van Beurden (Ohio State University) engages with modernism in Zaire between the 1960s and 1970s. The impact of the cultural politics of authenticité will be considered in her lecture "Mobutist Modernism: Art and the Construction of Zairian Cultural Authenticity". (Date: 22.06.2016)

Smooth-Nzewi Ugochukwu (Hood Museum, Hanover) reflects in his presentation "Nigerian Modernism in the 1980s" on African art during the specific period of the 1980s. With a focus on Nigerian modernism defined by Structural Adjustment, the postcolonial time of transition in the field of culture and arts become visible. (Date: 14.07.2016)



Public Symposium (Hi)Stories of Exhibition Making / 1960-1990

within Kampala Biennale

04.09.2016, National Museum, Kampala

Program for download as PDF

Elsbeth Court: "Looking Back with Jak: His Career in the Context of Modern Art in East Africa", 20.05.2015

Atta Kwami: "Making Modernism in Kumasi and its Aftermath", 20.06.2015