The Warp of a Nation:

The Exhibition and Circulation of Nigerien Art, 1920-Present

Cornell University, 2012

Supervisor: Professor Cheryl Finley

Dissertation Abstract

Art education and exposition of the colonial and immediate post-independence eras continue to influence how art in Niger is made, exchanged, and displayed. One form of contemporary Nigerien art that mostly clearly demonstrates this is weaving, and other relevant media include leatherwork, metalwork, embroidery, and fashion design.  This dissertation includes the recording of aesthetic and business expertise of artisans, the documentation of various ways of navigating the global marketplace, and analysis of the historical resonances in contemporary Nigerien arts exposition and trade. Of particular importance are the nature of the decisions that lead to aesthetic change, and what meanings are ascribed to old and new motifs. To be sure, art pedagogies, business structures, and museum spaces have impacted Nigerien artisans' aesthetic and business choices in specific ways. In turn, artisans' work affects the institutions and networks in which they operate.

The Musée National Boubou Hama du Niger, founded in 1959, offers a compelling example of the appropriation of a European institutional form that was then transformed and given new meaning by Africans. The movements of artisans and the objects they make underscore the global history of this museum, and make the interpretation of these travels key to the understanding of its art and the artisans it houses.

The first chapter foregrounds an analysis of the Musée National Boubou Hama du Niger.  In Chapter Two, I focus on the work of weavers in Niger from the 1950s until the 1980s. In Chapter Three, I seek out artisans’ perspectives and artworks’ social lives in a history of the educational and exhibitionary projects of the Afrique Occidentale Française government in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that left lasting effects on formal and non-formal artisanal education in Niger. Chapter Four traces the changes in aesthetics, organizations, and education that artisans have instigated, encountered, and altered from the 1970s to the present. Chapter Five historically and globally contextualizes contemporary Nigerien fashion, especially that related to the biannual Festival Internationale de la Mode Africaine. The dissertation concludes with a call for broad access to arts education that uses Freirian pedagogy to teach rigorous hand skills and related conceptual content in Niger.