Art/articulations: Art and the formation of Social Space in African Cities

Project management

Till Förster

Persons involved

Franziska Jenni; Fiona Siegenthaler; Frederik Unseld


Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)


Start: 01. Feb 2015
End 31. Jan 2018


Art practices in African cities are as diverse as urban life itself. They foster the articulation of distinct social and cultural imaginaries, addressing plural audiences. Research in African art, however, tends to either emphasize art production with a long local or regional history or art that is embedded in and speaks to the contemporary international artworld, targeting a transnational or global rather than a local audience. This division results in two separate bodies of research; anthropological and art historical. This project aims at overcoming these shortcomings by adopting a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach addressing multiple art practices and the formation of social spaces as one.
Art as practice is unavoidably embedded in a social context and creates a social space. Whether this space is more local or more international or bridges the two is an open question that only empirical research can answer. Some artists embrace an activist position; others demonstrate social sensibility while still others see their art as an aesthetic intervention in public and private spaces. All these art practices may reflect social realities and in turn shape the formation of social and cultural spaces: Urban images are perceived, conceived, and lived through art and social spaces created through artistic practice. The dialectic relationship between artistic articulation and social space transgresses dichotomies such as private-public or local-global. At an empirical level, this project hence aims at understanding aesthetic practice and processes of artistic articulations as part of the creation and transformation of social spaces in urban Africa. Its central question is:


  • How does art as a part of expressive culture inform the formation of social space?

This question will be examined from three complementary perspectives: 1.) How do artists aesthetically articulate images of the social within these spaces? 2.) How do these images and practices inform social imaginaries, and how do the latter inform those of the artists? 3.) What are the dialectics between social imaginaries and imageries, and their visual and performative forms of expression?

Our empirical approach is based on an understanding of art as social agency that unfolds in urban lifeworlds and that shapes and is shaped by the urban. Methodologically, this project thus focuses on artists, their art practices, their audiences, and the interrelation between physical sites and virtual spheres as social as well as political spaces. We will address the interaction of individual artists, artists’ associations and art practices with specific social actors, representing different social strata and groups. Therefore, we also need to examine art practices that apparently do not take place in public places but address urbanites in other, sometimes secluded social and political spaces.

Based on long-term field research, the research team will engage in a comparison of four African cities: Kampala (Uganda, Siegenthaler), Kisumu (Kenya, PhD student to be announced shortly) in East Africa and Bamako (Mali, PhD student to be announced shortly) and Korhogo (Côte d’Ivoire, Förster) in West Africa. The researchers start from existing contacts to artists and associations and will enlarge the scope of their inquiries as defined by specific milestones. The comparative approach will generate general knowledge about the production of social space through art in Africa and theoretical insights in how the formation of social space is related to imageries and imaginaries of the social.

The project is also a network of exchange and cooperation with African artists and art institutions, including the Research Group on Visual Culture at the Institute of Social Anthropology Basel and university departments of art and anthropology at the Universities of Cocody, Bouaké, Kampala and Eldoret.

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