Obituary for Prof Sidney Kasfir by Prof Till Förster
Long before I met Sidney, her work was a steady and reliable companion. Since my time as a PhD student in the early and mid-1980s, I read many of her articles and a little later the book which she edited after an Oxford symposium on West African masks and cultural systems. In particular her remarks on the interaction of play and ritual in masking performances were central to what I had observed in other parts of West Africa – and I am convinced, they still hold today.
I met Sidney finally at the ACASA Triennial Symposium on Africa Art 2001 in St. Thomas, on the Virgin Islands. Somewhere in Africa may have been a more appropriate place as we shared so many interests in its arts. We soon became aware that we did not only share interests but that we were also on the same wavelength when it came to the interpretation of what we had witnessed in different parts of the continent. It was the beginning of a long, sometimes interrupted, but never-ending conversation. Sometimes, we met at conferences and also in our homes, but more often, we used all sorts of media that allowed us to keep in touch as we were both regularly in remote parts of the continent. I believe, this long conversation was what characterized our friendship.
It touched on many aspects of African art, but there were a few central themes that emerged soon after we had met in the Caribbean. Sidney insisted repeatedly on not sub-dividing African art in a “traditional”—or a “historical”, as she later said—branch on the one hand and a “modern” or “contemporary” one on the other. That would, she said, eventually reproduce Western presumptions about art and how it is created. Neither are modern artists as autonomous as the Western artworld imagines them to be nor are artists working in “traditional” settings only bound to old, given styles and iconographies. The continuum of the arts of the continent would make it impossible to work only on one of these constructed realms—a claim with immediate consequences for empirical research. One should have some experience with both, she said. Else one would not understand artistic creativity in Africa, how it had changed in the past and continues to change today. Her poignant critique of the “one tribe—one style” paradigm, which had dominated African art studies for such a long time, grew out of her life and work which lingered repeatedly between modern and historic, but also urban and rural life-worlds. The rejection of these terms as incompatible dichotomies was the basis of her approach—and again something we shared.
Sidney mentioned repeatedly that her contributions to this and a couple of other key debates in African art studies were not well perceived in the beginning. She once mentioned, that the editors of African Arts “didn’t like” her article on authenticity—a text that was later reprinted in prestigious volumes about contemporary arts and their relationship to globalization. It remains certainly one of the most influential in the field. Sidney had anticipated and instigated debates that became central to African art studies.
Publishing together with Sidney was part of this exchange, a sort of ongoing conversation that sedimented in a text that we finally published as a book with contributions from younger scholars. Many of them were former PhD students of ours. Sidney enjoyed how they were engaging with strands of reflection that could be traced back to her early career when she was not yet an eminent professor at Emory University. Weaving these strands together was a big pleasure for her.
It is sad that this conversation, which reflected so many important dimensions of African art, has come to an end. But in my mind, I will continue to exchange ideas with Sidney—and I know, I’m not the only one.
Till Förster, Chair of Anthropology, University of Basel
This obituary will be published in African Arts.