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African Arts, Archives and the Anteroom of the Academy

African Arts, Archives and the Anteroom of the Academy: posterConsiderations of the significance and status – often framed as precarious or ‘in crisis’ - of the Arts and Humanities in universities in South Africa and the continent have a long complicated history. The tenor of discussions have, correctly, revolved around two fundamental premises: that the arts and humanities are central in the ‘cultivation’ of an informed, independent and critical thinking citizenry and, secondly, that the latter requires the recalibration - ‘transformation’ or ‘decolonization’ - of the Arts and Humanities, especially as reflected in education policies and the curriculums of universities.

What is often missed is the obvious paradox that the need to ‘transform’ implies that the valorization of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and universities, as practices and sites of critical thinking, reason and debate is, given their histories, questionable.  It suggests the need to engage with the historical, socio-political and economic complexities, contradictions and paradoxes that are embedded in the genealogies and politics of the arts and humanities. Furthermore, the reimagining of the arts and humanities (along with the attended questions regarding epistemology and pedagogy) need to be broached by engaging a wider analytical canvass that considers a number of crucial considerations and antimonies.

The first is the racialized and exclusionary histories, politics and paradigms of the humanities as disciplines and how these factors informed access, curricula, pedagogy, publication, research productivity, staffing, funding and institutional cultures in South African universities.

Secondly and more important for our purposes, the local conceptualization and practices of the Arts and Humanities occurred in the midst of pre-existing African arts, repertoires, archives and knowledge that had to strategically develop new and alternative public exigencies and existences to counteract the possible erasures pronounced and enacted by colonial modernity. This raises the need to reflect on the vexed relations and articulations between African arts, repertoires, archives and knowledge and the Eurocentric and exclusionary sanctuaries of the Academy that, at their most generous, expected African Arts to occupy the anteroom of history and the university.

Finally, what are the implications of these problematics for critically engaging and reimagining the ideological, epistemological and hermeneutical challenges and futures of the Arts and Humanities?