Harney, Elizabeth

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Harney, Elizabeth


Education: Harvard University, A.B.; University of Washington, M.A.; University of London, M.Phil., School of Oriental and African Studies, Ph.D.


Office—University of Toronto, Faculty of Arts and Science, 100 St. George St., Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada. E-mail—[email protected].


Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Museum of African Art, International Art Museums Division, curator of contemporary arts, 2000-04; University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, assistant professor of contemporary arts.


(With contributions by Jeff Donaldson, Achamyeleh Debela, and Kinsey Katchka) Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora, Palgrave Macmillan (New York, NY), 2003.

In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-garde in Senegal, 1960-1995, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2004.


Art historian Elizabeth Harney, who for four years served as curator of contemporary art for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, has written two books on Ethiopian art. Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora is the companion volume to an exhibit of the same title at the National Museum of African Art that featured the works of ten Ethiopian-born artists who left their native country for Europe or the United States. Included in the exhibit are the works of Elisabeth Atnafu, Alexander "Skunder" Boghossian, Achamyeleh Debela, Wosene Kosrof, Julie Mehretu, Aida Muluneh, Etiye Dimma Poulsen, Mickaël Bethe-Selassié, Kebedech Tekleab, and Elizabeth Habte Wold.

Of these artists, Boghossian, who died soon after the exhibit opened, was very influential. Having left Ethiopia in the 1950s, he studied in Paris, France, and was inspired by the works of such figures as Pablo Picasso, Patti Klee, and Wilfredo Lam. After a brief return home to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he moved to the United States at the height of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Boghossian, who taught for many years at Howard University and trained a new generation of African and African American artists, was the first contemporary African artist to have his work purchased by the New York Museum of Modern Art. He employed traditional mediums such Ugandan bark cloth in addition to oils and mixed media, and drew on traditional Ethiopian motifs and themes in his work.

The exhibit also featured the work of Mickaël Bethe-Selassié, a self-taught artist who emigrated from Ethiopia to France and is known for vibrant sculptures of papier-mâché; and Aida Muluneh, a graduate of Howard University in film and communications who is known for creating what Black Issues Book Review contributor Ingrid Sturgis called "striking fragmented images" from photographs. Observing that Ethiopian Passages is "perhaps the first attempt to present the work of contemporary Ethiopian artists in a meaningful way," Sturgis explained that "by focusing on a narrow group of artists, the book examines the creativity that springs from the Africanness of the artists, as well as their personal experiences of exile, migration, loss and reinvention."

Harney's In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-garde in Senegal, 1960-1995 examines the legacy of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who served as Senegal's first president from 1960 to 1980 and whose policies strongly promoted Senegalese arts. Senghor, who considered himself primarily a poet rather than a politician, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, where, with other African intellectuals, he developed the concept of "Negritude." This philosophy, which emerged in the context of increasing opposition to European colonial presence in Africa, emphasized a belief in Africans' distinct character, intellect, and culture, which in his view stressed the importance of community and coherence rather than individualism. When Senghor assumed political power after Senegal's independence from France in 1960, he instituted Negritudinist policies aimed at strengthening the sociopolitical position of newly independent African nations.

Senghor believed that artists worked toward nationalist goals; thus, he created government support for artists who used poetry, painting, and textile arts to express the aesthetics of Negritude.

Senghor's policies encouraged the use of traditional African motifs such as masks and figurative sculptures. Through this dynamic, Art Journal critic Michelle Huntingford Craig stated, "painters and weavers simultaneously reached out to an international audience largely unfamiliar with Senegalese history and recast European interpretations of Africa through their reconceptualization of pan-African symbols as markers of Africanness." As Senegal continued to modernize, though, some of the country's thinkers began to challenge Senghor's views. Avant-garde artists, associated with groups such as Laboratoire Agit-Art and Village des Arts, sought to distance themselves from the tenets of Negritude and to create works that highlighted individual agency as well as communality. As Harney notes, many artists who worked in media that Senghor did not favor—including glass painting and mixed-media—also contributed to the growing diversity and sophistication of Senegalese art.

Harney discusses the artists from the so-called École de Dakar, who emerged from the institutions supported by Senghor's administration, including the École des Arts and the Institut National des Arts du Senegal. As Craig noted, this discussion shows that artists from the École de Dakar "actively manipulated Negritude to suit their artistic visions. Their categorization within the École … reflects more on their status within the system of state patronage than on their adherence to the tenets of Senghor's philosophy." As Harney shows, the faculty of the École des Arts was often divided; some artists welcomed Western techniques and influences, while others encouraged their students to avoid them.

In a review for Symploke, Jeanne Garane praised In Senghor's Shadow for its careful explication of the history of Negritude and of Senghor's view of artists as advocates for their nation. Garane also noted that Harney "critiques Western discourse on the visual arts that has ‘aesthetic modernism as the sole property of Western artists…. Artists living within the former third world have never been afforded the status either of contributing members to the modernist canon or of participants in a global modern matrix.’" The book, Garane stated, "answers the call for an understanding of ‘post-Negritude Senegalese arts’ in the context of ‘a complex cultural and aesthetic history that is local in nature but inflected with decades of engagement with international artistic discourses and forms.’"



Art Journal, December 22, 2006, Michelle Huntingford Craig, "Senegalese Modernisms," review of In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995, p. 119.

Black Issues Book Review, September 1, 2003, Ingrid Sturgis, review of Ethiopian Passages: Contemporary Art from the Diaspora.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, May 1, 2004, V. Rovine, review of Ethiopian Passages, p. 1648.

International Journal of African Historical Studies, June 22, 2005, Mark D. Delancey, review of In Senghor's Shadow, p. 569.

Symploke, January 1, 2006, Jeanne Garane, review of In Senghor's Shadow.


University of Toronto, Art Department Web site,http://www.art.utoronto.ca/ (July 17, 2008), author faculty profile.

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