« Writing Art Histories »

Sarah Johnson
Maud Houssais
Lillian Davies, Faculty member at Paris College of Art and Contributor to Artforum magazine, PhD student  at the École du Louvre

Our interest in participating in the École revolved around the idea of territory and place. Not only were the questions posed by the school important to us, but also the fact that the school was posing those questions in Paris. The École’s substantial and precise bibliography of key studies of contemporary curatorial practices and the construction of art histories in “mondes musulmans” would enable us to more knowingly position ourselves as researchers and writers. In this context, it would also be important to discuss how to conceive a discourse on art history when the accessibility to sources and their institutional preservation remains a challenge.

The texts by James Allan and Michel Espagne present very different arguments: Allan grapples with the question of how to integrate modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art with the traditional European discipline of Islamic art and Espagne tackles the broad notion of “cultural transfers”. However, both articles underline one important issue in the writing of art history: point of view. Allan takes on the question from his position as a professor of Islamic art at Oxford, and Espagne’s perspective as director of research at CNRS in Paris and as a specialist of German cultural history is clear throughout his article.

Allan questions our ability to write contemporary art because the discipline lacks objectivity: quoting and agreeing with Grant Kester who writes: “contemporary art history poses something of a threat to traditional art historical discourse: the threat of unregulated and multiple claims of interpretive authority.”[1] All art historical scholarship and for that matter academic scholarship is subject to “multiple claims of interpretive authority.”

While Espagne discusses cultural transfers between France and Germany, he clearly writes and interprets from a French perspective. As he writes in his text: “In a general sense, the social sciences correspond to national narratives, limited to particular linguistic spaces.”[2] He hopes for new identities which can transcend these national and local perspectives in scholarship. However, perhaps the solution is not to dissolve these perspectives but instead to bring in a greater variety of perspectives. Art histories and art criticisms from the region of the Middle East and North Africa are largely ignored in occidental art historical scholarship and pedagogy on modern and contemporary Middle Eastern and North African art. In order to better teach art history of the Middle East and North Africa and understand cultural transfers, one must incorporate local art histories from both the region itself and from a broader perspective, beyond Oxford and Paris.

From a North African perspective, the methodology proposed by Annabelle Boissier and Fanny Gillet offers fundamental tools to critically consider the art history of Tunisia and Algeria by combining two approaches, one investigating the effects of the art market in the cultural Tunisian recognition system, the other researching primary sources and conducting participant interviews with the actors of the visual art scene in Algeria.[3] Questioning the origins of art and its production in the context of these two countries allowed for two entry points for the investigation of Moroccan modernity: the question of the return of folk art as a historiographic and political tool, and the geographic motif as a means for periodization and specificity. This interpretation of the reading emerges not only as a fundamental method for rethinking discourse on the origins of art of the Maghreb but also for interrogating the production of critical art discourses in the future.

The role of museum institutions as well as the role of public collections in the preservation of artworks and archives was discussed throughout the École. How do museums of modern art influence art discourses? How does one escape the re-appropriation of cultural production for political or nationalist purposes? One answer can be found in the attitudes of artists and authors who join forces in independent and alternative networks in order to rethink the national and postcolonial discourse. In her essay Imagined museums[4], Katarzyna Pieprzak notes that the lack of modern art museums, which was a rallying cry when Ahmed Cherkaoui died in 1967, contributes to the formation of ephemeral museums in public spaces that in themselves create zones of contact between the artworks and the people. In the new contemporary Moroccan art scene, direct involvement in areas of production is preferable to the preservation of artworks and the institutionalization of a discourse. At the same time this dynamic offers an alternative to a museum that does not yet exist, and proposes new possibilities for artistic practices. One could cite, for example, Faouzi Laatiris, artist and teacher at the National School of Fine Arts of Tétouan since 1992; the artist Hassan Darsi and his creation of the mobile and urban platform La Source du Lion in Casablanca in 1996; or Abdellah Karroum who created Les Expéditions du Bout du Monde in 2000 in direct contact with outlying areas in Rif in Northern Morocco, and later in other international geo-cultural contexts. Is it possible to put these practices that seem a priori isolated and individualistic in perspective in the prism of art history? Or, in contrast, how can these new contemporary practices give a “third voice” to the dominant discourse in order to better identify these “moments of rupture, continuities and rebirths”?

Considering articles by Hans Belting[5] and Robert Nelson[6], the terms “World Art” and “Global Art” were highlighted and the moment the author identifies as the rupture between these two eras: the exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”, which opened in Paris two years after the inauguration of the collections at the Institut du Monde Arabe in the same city. The global and local, zones that define the territory of Belting’s discussion, as well as certain territories of production and presentation (visibility), are also examined in Nelson’s text. To problematize Belting’s position, and the manner in which he communicates an idea of a certain genealogy and evolution of art history which approaches, at times, a tendency to explain (a verb he evokes in his discussion of the position of Jean-Hubert Martin at the time of the first Johannesburg Biennale when the curator noted the difference between “the ethnographic museum, where everything is explained and the art museum where living artists, as representatives of human creativity would honor ‘art’s hereos and ancestors[7]”), it was useful to turn to Rebecca Solnit’s polemical essay, Men Explain Things to Me:

Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Some men.  Every woman knows what I am talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field: that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported over confidence.[8]

For Solnit, there is a “continuum that stretches from [this] minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death[9].”

Nelson wrote his text with the goal of creating an “awareness of the jagged gerrymandered divisions of art history itself[10].” The American term “gerrymander” describes the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral circumscription in a manner such that a certain party or class is favored. Nelson’s use of this term evokes exactly what the determination and categorization of territories (temporal, geographic, religious or linguistic) implies: the power to manipulate the volume and force of voices and visibility, rendering some the role of “explainer” and others quieter roles.

The discussion that followed our presentations addressed questions of regional and geographic territories, academic territories of art history education, and territories of Fine Arts education and presentation in Morocco, Paris, Oxford, and many points in between. We were also interested in the idea of territory within artworks themselves, the territory of the studio and that of the museum as well as those of collections and exhibitions. With the goal of constructing engaged perspectives and points of view, rather than conclusions, we finished with a list of questions, important to identify and articulate for this week of work together, and going forward: How do we think about artistic singularity in the context of overlapping international trajectories while also confronting the problematic question of the origins of “Arab art”—if such a term can even be used? How do we treat our sources and with which tools? How is reflexivity activated in art history? Does the “otherness” of gender and territory imply faulty projections? From where are we speaking, and writing, and why?

Sarah Johnson, Maud Houssais, Lillian Davies

Berlin, Rabat, Paris


[1] James Allan, “Education and the Teaching of Contemporary Art from the Middle East”, in Contemporary Art from the Middle East: Regional Interactions with Global Art Discourses, ed. Hamid Keshmirshekan (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 90–99, 103.

[2] Michel Espagne, “La notion de transfert culturel”, Revue Sciences/Lettres  [En ligne], 1 (2013), URL: http:/rsl.revues.org/219,

[3] Annabelle Boissier et Fanny Gillet, “Ruptures, renaissances et continuités. Modes de construction de l’histoire de l’art maghrébin”, L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], 10 (2014), mis en ligne le 1er juin 2014. URL : http://anneemaghreb.revues.org/2096

[4] Katarzyna Pieprzak, Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

[5] Hans Belting, “From World Art to Global Art : View on a New Panorama”, in The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art Worlds ed. Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 178-185.

[6] Robert Nelson, “The Map of Art History”, The Art Bulletin 79:1 (1997): 28-40.

[7] Belting, “From World…”, 181.

[8] Rebecca Solnit., Men Explain Things to Me, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 4. First published in 2008.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Nelson, “The Map…”, 28.


Pour citer cet article

Johnson, Sarah, Houssais, Maud & Davies, Lillian, « Writing Art Histories », in Gillet, Fanny, Messaoudi, Alain, Naef, Silvia & Yavuz, Perin Emel (dir.), Dossier « Pratiques curatoriales. École d’automne 2016 » [en ligne], ARVIMM, 2017. URL : https://arvimm.hypotheses.org/681


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