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Author: David William Cohen
Title: The quest for Africa
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Passages
1991
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Source: The quest for Africa
David William Cohen

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 1, 4, 1991
Author Biography: David William Cohen is Director of the Program of African Studies at Northwestern. With E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, he is author of Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, which is expected to appear in February, 1992.
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4761530.0002.003

The Quest for Africa

DAVID WILLIAM COHEN

This article occupies the space reserved for the intended site of publication of a photograph of a map of Africa mounted at the National Museum of African Art, following a rejection by the Museum of our request for a copy of the map and associated caption for publication in Passages.

Every day hundreds of visitors to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., pass through the gallery displaying materials from Benin. They may notice and inspect a large map of Africa located just to the left of the entranceway. Indeed, the architecture of the area around the entrance to the the Benin gallery, along with the large scale of the map, encourages a viewing of the map from a considerable distance.

From such a distance the map looks to be a reproduction and enlargement of a seventeenth or eighteenth century map of Africa. As one moves closer and examines the detail, one is jarred by the possibility—or certainty—that the maker of this map played with considerable license in deploying names and illustrations onto the map from different periods. The observer may be bemused, or confused, by the conflation of diverse historical elements within one geographical illustration. One's sense of the African past is engaged and challenged by the intermingling of an intense historicizing image—that Africa has a past and here is one geographical representation of that past—with the deformation and reconstitution of historical "knowledge" through the anachronistic and ahistorical textual elements imposed on the map's surface.

In approaching the map in early 1988 a visitor would have noted an explanatory caption in small print next to the map:

This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the 'mysterious' continent. It also reflects the perception of the continent during the period of European contact with the Benin Kingdom, whose art is exhibited in the adjacent gallery. The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful. The sources of the Nile, for example, are shown farther south than the river's actual headwaters. Animals range from the fantastic to the scientifically accurate. Many of the mountain ranges are imaginary. Art objects from a number of early traditions, including that of Benin, are illustrated, although most were not known to European travelers.

In 1991 visitors could still view the map as they approached the entrance to the Benin gallery, but the caption had been modestly changed in the interval, the additions noted here by italics, the deletions by brackets:

This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn by European cartographers between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the 'mysterious' continent. [It also relects the perception of the continent during the period of European contact with the Benin Kingdom, whose art is exhibited in the adjacent galley.] The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful. The sources of the Nile, for example, are shown [farther] further south than the river's actual headwaters. Animals [range] vary in appearance from the fantastic to the scientifically accurate. Many of the mountain ranges are imaginary. Art objects from a number of early traditions [, including that of Benin,] are illustrated, although most were not known to European travelers.

In late August, 1991, I wrote to the National Museum of African Art to request, first, a photographic print of the map and, second, the present version of the adjoining caption, the two pieces to be published together and without extensive comment in Passages. A first response, September 9, 1991, was that an 8" by 10" photograph of the map was available and could be provided for $10, and that an inquiry would still have to be made in regard to the availability of the present caption text and also as to the method of payment.

On September 10, 1991, the situation changed. A curator at the National Museum of African Art wrote, via fax, that

As it turns out, the map was done strictly for in-house exhibition use and we have never had it published. Therefore we will not be able to provide you with a photograph of the map.

A further inquiry in regard to the availability of the caption text was made the same day by return fax. This request elicited a call from another curator at the Museum who reported that the reason the map and caption could not be provided was that

They [the map and text] were intended for this specific installation ... and it is felt that to publish them would be to take them out of the context for which they were created.

On September 15, 1991, a further letter of request was sent to Mrs. Sylvia Williams, Director of the National Museum of African Art, along with information about the field of interest of Passages. The letter noted that

I am able to visit the Museum periodically, as are thousands of others who pass by the map into your exhibition hall. But I would very much like to publish a photograph of the map and the related caption text/s in our new Passages: A Chronicle of the Humanities, published twice a year by the Program of African Studies, Northwestern. Passages is circulated free to three thousand addresses, including five hundred on the African continent. It is mailed to many who will never be able to visit the Museum and, therefore, who will never have an opportunity to be challenged by the issues that the map raises concerning the presentation and representation of the African past.

Receiving no response to this "appeal to higher authority," a further request to Mrs. Williams was made by mail on October 7, 1991. The next day, October 8, Mrs. Williams responded by telephone that her staff was "in full agreement that the map is part of an installation ... it was done for this specific purpose ... and the staff did not want to see it published outside of this context."

An opening to the manner of construction of the African past by the National Museum of African Art through the creation of a "composite rendering of maps of Africa" drawn over several centuries passes into a second domain in which the Museum, by its policies, attempts to control the place, time, and manner in which the map will be read. Perhaps the most frequently viewed and inspected map of Africa in the Washington area is withheld from view by broader and more distant audiences with an interest in the ways different authors and audiences construct—through imagination, composition [1], and reconstruction—images of Africa and representations of its past.

The notion of context—that the map and its caption were intended for a specific installation and therefore should not be carried to a remove from that context—draws attention to the very role of the National Museum of African Art, and other institutions with related projects, which—as their essential project—collect, draw upon, document, and display materials created for a specific and other context or function ... but which find themselves displaced or transplanted into museums distant from these contexts of origin.

A third issue concerns the different permutations of the notions of "public." The Museum, a Federal installation supported by public funds, seeks to engage a public through encouraging visitors to pass through its doors—without charge—day after day through a range of publications, activities, special shows, lectures, educational projects, public relations programs, and a well organized and popular museum shop. Yet at the same time the Museum seeks to regulate how "the public" will view its exhibits, experience its activities, and understand its project through, as noted in the experience of not obtaining an 8 by 10" photo of a map, controls placed upon the communication of images from within its galleries into other interpretative spaces.

The "quest for Africa" continues.

1. On the day that Mrs. Williams reported directly that a photographic print of the Museum's composite map would not be provided, the author received a promotional announcement from the Wisconsin Alumni Association encouraging the acquisition of the "Official University of Wisconsin World Globe." The letter to "alumni and friends" indicated that

"Very soon, the eyes of the world will focus on one of the most significant milestones in history, the 500th anniversary of the voyage to the New World by Christopher Columbus ... Created by Repogle of Chicago, the world's undisputed leader in globe-making, the handsome 16-inch sphere embodies Old World motifs such as antique parchment-like oceans, colorful cartouches and compass roses. Yet it is fully up-to-date, with brilliant colors defining the earth's geographical features and modern political boundaries on over 800 square inches of map surface."

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