The Peace Corps and African Art

Raymond Silverman's picture

Seeking a few individuals who have been actively involved in the field of African art as academics, curators, collectors or dealers, and who served in the Peace Corps in Africa during the 1980s or 1990s, to participate in a roundtable discussion at the upcoming ACASA Triennial Conference (Chicago, June 17-20, 2020).

For the first half of the twentieth century, African art was approached through the formalist lens of European modernism (i.e., “Primitivism”). In the 1960s attempts began being made to understand African art on its own terms, as the product of specific African societies. The “founding fathers” of this new field of inquiry—Roy Sieber (Indiana), Robert F. Thompson (Yale) and Douglas Fraser (Columbia)—cultivated a new approach that sought to examine the social, political and religious contexts in which African art was made and used. The majority, an estimated 60%, of the students with whom they worked in the late 1960s and 1970s were individuals who had recently returned from Africa having served in the Peace Corps. This phenomenon was paralleled in other disciplines, such as anthropology, history and political science.

Our interest in this roundtable is to consider the fundamental questions: What was it about the Peace Corps experience that led these individuals to study African art? Has the Peace Corps played a role in shaping the field of African art history? If it did, what was the nature of this influence? Assuming there has been a relationship between the Peace Corps experience and an engagement with the field African art, has it changed over the decades? To address the last question, we would like to have several generations of Peace Corp Volunteers represented on the panel. We already have identified a number of individuals from the early generation (60s and 70s), and would like to find a few folks who represent later generations, having served in the Peace Corps in the 80s or 90s.

If you have been involved in the field of African art, and served in the Peace Corps in the 80s or 90s, and might be interested in participating in what undoubtedly will be a very interesting roundtable discussion at the 2020 ACASA Triennial, please contact Ray Silverman (silveray@umich.edu).