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A Case for “Site-Activated” Modernism: Elmina Asafo Aesthetics

Asafo post for Abese no. 5 Company. Photograph by author.
Fig. 1. Asafo post for Abese no. 5 Company. Photograph by author.

Those of us who work in traditions considered “global” within US and, to varying degrees, European academies are often pulled in two professional directions. On the one hand, many of us feel rightly accountable to a kind of work most welcome in area studies: granular, situated, concerned with historical depth over what can feel like untenable generalization. On the other, we feel the sting of exclusion from the field’s “big” conversations, and seek broad conceptual discussion of “the literary,” as such. Both impulses—as an Africanist, I think here of toggling between the African Studies Association and the MLA—have value. In the effort to entrench a globally conscientious modernism, though, I find their differences hard to split. Terms like “global modernity” often feel removed from the lives and locales that anchor aesthetic practices beyond a few transnational publishing houses. Neither an historically intertwined (whether network-based or world-systematic) nor a discrete, comparative approach to global modernist method feels quite right, and yet the challenge to find something that does (to modernists, at least) is perennially cast as urgent. Job and book titles aside, I have grown to see Global Northern takes on the “global” even within the “global Anglophone” field as an over-beat drum, stemming as they often do from a form of what Modernism/modernity readers might recognize as “weak theory.” As David Ayers has written in his reponse to the Modernism/modernity special issue on weak theory, there is only so much one can do to inclusivize an exclusive position, which, like a maximally expansive modernism, “simultaneously claims and renounces its universality.”

From this angle, global modernism runs out of steam pretty quickly, looking more and more like exhortations to conscience on which it cannot methodologically follow through. This is probably why so many critics are reluctant to claim the term even as they seem to be seeking ways to reanimate it. (See, for example, Thomas S. Davis and Nathan K. Hensley’s introductory essay “Scale and Form; or, What was Global Modernism?”). There is the familiar problem of “if everything is modernist, then nothing persuasively is,” a critique that has been leveled, for example, at Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms. But there is also the problem of global modernism as a repetitive ground-clearing exercise, a constant and often perfectly valid reprisal of its own claims to legitimacy that just never quite unfurls or digs down into anything more. As Simon Gikandi opined already in 2006, “the relationship between the institution of modernism and these other cultural spaces is not, as was the case in earlier periods of European art, decorative: it is dynamic, dialectical, and constitutive of the field of European and American culture” (421).[1] But how many times and in how many ways can we say that modernism is culturally co-constitutive, come 2019? This is the point at which a globalized modernism of the “places make each other” variety—in its richest form, like Jed Esty’s work between England and its colonies in Unseasonable Youth, or Michael Janis’s lesser-known study of “Africana modernism” in Africa after Modernism—should, if the field is to move, ideally give way to either full-blown world-historical claims or a fleshed-out account of the locales formerly known as “peripheral.”[2] The expanded modernist frame, in other words, often feels neither gratifyingly abstract nor located, even as the works and phenomena it describes may be either. In its effort to think modernism as a complex transnational phenomenon, the field’s “global” turn risks doing neither theory nor emplacement particularly well. And so, somewhat perversely, it ends up suggesting the limits of what I think of as this “squishy” in-between place within which the fact of interconnection is shown over and over. And yet, here’s the rub: this, in turn, has the downside of further entrenching an unproductive sense of division between regionally focused and “theoretical” work within the broader arena of literary studies. I thus find myself right back at my opening gambit.

Perhaps this is simply a good reminder that none of us can do everything, and that no term can, either, even as our profession seems increasingly to want us to try. Or, as Aarthi Vadde has elegantly argued, perhaps it indicates the unusually fraught nature of attempting to make modernism “scale.” “If scalability is defined by smooth expansion in which additional objects fit within a preexisting framework,” Vadde writes, “then modernism has become global without scaling well at all. In fact, it has scaled poorly.” In large part, this is owing to the vast disparity between progress in its highly individualized, European modernist conception and progress as the violent conceptual motor of colonization. Even granted the countervailing cliche of its responsiveness to civilizational fragmentation, Art Berman’s description of modernism as giving artists “the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own” must surely hold as what Vadde calls a “governing principle,” or the word risks losing any power at all.[3] It is easy to see how a key trait of self-propelled advancement, then, becomes a double-edged sword that traps the “global modernist” (so-named or not) within the kind of hedging that Ayers describes. Advance, many have asked, to what? And why assume that fragmentation, which the modernist artist registers to demonstrate mastery, is a universal experience in the first place? Amit Chaudhuri has argued recently that even a basic, presumed commonality—that “modernism is a turn against representation”—has in fact upheld a “mimesis of form” that “confirms a history we already know.” In this case, that history is a Eurocentric vision of trauma.

The most compelling case for continuing to use the term “modern” at all to describe African expression is thus, to my mind, still that made by Jean and John Comaroff in defense of the term “multiple modernities,” as they attempt to bridge the actuality of global progress—which is to say, the concentration of how progress is defined in the hands of a few—with progress as a localized and entirely real-feeling aim. In observing what they see as an “empirical fact of ‘multiple modernities’” in the vein of an interconnected, world-systems approach, the Comaroffs forthrightly acknowledge that “many disadvantaged people across the world desire much of what they understand by the modern,” struggling “to fashion their own versions of it, even as they live with its many constraints and contradictions.”[4] This is a poignant proposition, because it suggests an understanding of modernism that is at once global and local without insisting that the correspondence between the two is what makes locality meaningful. And this, in turn, is useful because it allows for a responsible expansion of modernism’s geographical range without limiting one’s archive to those works that are explicitly engaged with High Modernism or its archetypal practitioners. At the same time, modernism loses its punch if its global-cum-local versions are too broadly construed. It should not, for example, simply mean any “striving for advancement,” but should refer to the self-conscious molding of materials to reflect engagement with what “advancement” has historically been seen to signify. Per the art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, “In the hands of [African artists during the colonial and immediate postindependence eras], modernism insinuates the visual expression of the real experiences, illusory visions, and critical imagination of Africa’s modernity,” with modernism conceived “as the outcome of a conscious examination and questioning of . . . issues arising from the implications of the continent’s triple heritage,” with triple here referring to indigenous, Western, and Islamic influences.[5]

I would go one step further than Okeke-Agulu, and suggest that modernism might be less period-specific—and thereby, less bound to the sneaky kind of Western-skewed mimetic norms that Chaudhuri describes—if we are willing to commit to a still more precise catalogue of its attributes. Combining his and the Comaroffs’ theories of African modernity, then, I want to propose a working definition of modernism for the remainder of this piece: it is a self-conscious repurposing of historical “advancement” as a means of entrenching “advancement” as an aesthetic principle. In other words, we might be said to have arrived at a form of “global modernist” expression when progress is thrown off and affirmed at the same time. “Conscious examination and questioning” is thus not quite enough; to imagine a modernism that extends into the present, we need some kind of undergirding ideal that suggests a commitment to the very principles that globality calls into question. This formulation in itself may not be very novel. The questions it foregrounds about how we identify artistic norms and commonalities, though, across vast gaps in background are important. If “global modernism” is not just a modernism that is constitutively global but one that is, per Vadde, scalably so—if we can transpose our understanding of modernism from one place to another without sacrificing the traits that make the term useful—then what kind of method should be in play? Returning to my introduction, I now ask specifically: how should area-specific work interact with conceptual generalities to devise a modernism that feels not too big, not too small, but just right? In the section that follows, I try to answer these questions through an idea of “site-activated modernism” that will be activated, so to speak, by a recent trip to the town of Elmina, Ghana.

“Reading” Posuban Shrines

Elmina, Ghana, lies about 100 miles south of Accra along the Atlantic coast, a three-hour drive if you are lucky, and a full day’s journey if you are not. It is most famously home to Elmina Castle, also known as St. George’s Castle, and originally as São Jorge Da Mina when it was built by the Portuguese as a trading post (mostly for gold) in 1482. The Dutch took control of the castle in 1637, at which point it became the capital of their slave trade until outlawed by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1814. The Castle was then sold to the British in 1872, in whose hands it remained until Ghanaian independence in 1957. Elmina (or in Fante, Edina) by its original name of Amankwakrom, though, predates European settlement by a century and a half, and is now a bustling fishing town with a population hovering just below 35,000. Though beset by development challenges, there is a great deal more to see there than only the two most common tourist destinations of Elmina Castle or, to a lesser degree, the Java Museum, which is dedicated to the “Black Dutchmen” (or Belanda Hitam) who fought for the Netherlands in the East Indies during the nineteenth century. This is not to say that these sites are not important, because they self-evidently are. It is to suggest that their aesthetic-conceptual significance to, in this case, a moveable modernism is limited and by this point well-trod. Elmina Castle is a key symbol of an “Atlantic modernity” that takes transatlantic slavery as its founding event, while the Java Museum might represent an “alternative modernity” that looks eastward or to south-south connections. In both cases, though, aesthetic significance resides in the acknowledged fact of cultural co-constitution. I am hoping, instead, to hew here to the more specific definition of modernism that I have laid out above in order to keep a greater degree of artistic autonomy, as well as local self-sufficiency, intact. I do this by turning to a site that, while inflected by transnational exchange, is not meaningful primarily because it is outward-facing. As Harsha Ram has suggested in his own, highly site-specific work on Georgian modernism, we are belated in attending to artistic practices that are “largely devoid of many of the distinguishing features of capitalist development,” and that foreground “the persistence of . . . noncapitalist social relations in the related evolution of aesthetic modernism.”[6]

To get there will, as befits a “Field Reports” blog, involve some personal interjection and a few initial disclaimers. First, I am not trained as an art historian, and the objects to which I will now direct focus—called posuban shrines—are art. I intend them simply to provoke consideration of when how we read should be informed by a deeper engagement with where. Second, I do not go to Elmina as an entirely neutral researcher (to the extent that one might exist). My late father-in-law, David Eyiku Awotwi or Nana Ekow Eyiku I, was a prominent community leader, and so I willingly own up to a tendency to favor a more “local” kind of object over a broadly recognizable one. I traveled there, in fact, with his 1995 book Ancient Elmina: Historical Sketches as both an historical guide and an entree to conversation with village elders, who in some cases remembered him.[7] (I understand basic Fante, but also traveled with a friend who helped translate.) That said, it is precisely on account of the posuban shrines’ relative unknownness, as well as the “insider” nature of much of Elmina’s cultural life, that they take on such broad significance. Much of the difference between an area-specific mode of research and a more distant theoretical one hinges on the relative importance of “being there.” A sibling to the question of field work as a means of ascertaining knowledge that might not be otherwise available—with all the requisite qualifications as to the power relations often entailed by that practice—an emphasis on “being there” in this case suggests a dynamic quality to the shrines themselves that is essential to understanding their conceptual and aesthetic stakes. Put simply, the posuban shrines are ever-evolving, and require a method that is alert to that fact without succumbing to a diluted and overly general notion of “fluidity” and the like.

To begin with, posuban shrines are not exactly shrines, despite the common description that I replicate here for purposes of familiarity within the field of Ghana studies. While most of them do sometimes serve as sacred sites, they fulfill a variety of other purposes, not least of which is aesthetic. The posuban are built as gathering places and expressive hubs for local asafo groups, which are historically small Fante military companies that, in the absence of war, serve as civic organizations. Asafo company membership is determined by patrilineal inheritance, and groups are organized according to an internal power structure that varies somewhat by region.[8] As described by the art historian Doran H. Ross in his extensive asafo research, companies are “identified by a name and a number, usually followed by the town or village in which it is located.”[9] Ross dates the earliest posuban “outdooring” (public presentation) on the Fante coast to 1883, with construction of the shrines picking up in the 1920s and taking a turn to more figurative art forms after the 1950s. Construction and, crucially, substantial renovation of shrines continues up to the present day, though the form might be said to have peaked in the 1970s. In addition to housing at least one god (often in the form of an animal, such as a tortoise shell) and statues of important figures in the asafo companies’ past, the posuban display company flags; representations of tales and allegories; and religious iconography across both indigenous and Christian traditions.

Statue of Eve at asafo post for Wombir no. 4 Company. Photograph by author.
Fig. 2. Statue of Eve at asafo post for Wombir no. 4 Company. Photograph by author.

When I first encountered the central Elmina posuban in person, on a trip originally intended to track down family graves in the town’s Dutch Cemetery (which dates from 1806), “modernism” is the word that immediately struck me. The three shrines on which I’ll focus here are all multi-floor, boldly colorful structures with a clear art deco sensibility: they are squat, angular buildings with flat roofs, adorned with geometric motifs (latticework and squares, for instance) and wrap-around porches. Even a brief tour, furthermore, reveals the international sources of the shrines’ aesthetic. They are originally modeled on European forts, from which the hallmark company flags are also derived. “The Fante, in providing services for European traders, adopted flags and used them in various ways,” explains Kwame Amoah Labi, “in war and conflicts, in formation marching and as a focus for salutation.”[10] The roof of the first posuban I toured (Company Abese No. 5) (fig. 1) features a ship flanked by white sailors (Dutch, I was told), and at another, it was easy to spot statues of Adam and Eve (Company Wombir No. 4) (fig. 2). On the level of immediate perception alone, then—the sort of thing that would be evident from a photograph—the posuban shrines of Elmina are as auspicious a period-specific global modernist find as one might imagine. From one view (to my mind, a reductive one), they are mere addenda to the “global capitalist modernity” that Elmina as a whole, and specifically its castle, signally represents, offering insight into successive waves of colonial aesthetics’ repurposing.

I want to draw out how they might speak to an ongoing modernist practice, though, that does not collapse their significance into historicized global exchange even as it acknowledges their range of colonial reference. A modernism, that is, at once more located and more artistically expansive. To do this requires an emplaced methodology, which in my own case took the form of a local tour guide who grew more eager to share the town’s history when I explained my reasons for being there. It is of course impossible to say how forthcoming he might have been otherwise; perhaps anyone could have shown up and been privy to the same insight. But at the very least, this experience suggests a give-and-take between site-based and broadly generalizable aesthetic attributes. Right below the Dutch sailors was a statue of a tree and an elephant, which, at first glance, might be significant to an Akan art historian (posuban are often designed around trees), but easily overlooked by someone more attuned to the art deco features (fig. 3). The tree statue was built in memorial of a real tree said to be so strong it could withstand an elephant’s charge, a backstory accessible only through local remembrance.

Elephant and tree statue at Abese no. 5 Company asafo post. Photograph by author.
Fig. 3. Elephant and tree statue at Abese no. 5 Company asafo post. Photograph by author.

And yet it is a crucial gateway to understanding the expressive impulses beyond just recording historical movement. In the transformation of a real tree into a fake one with an elephant around it to express a simile, the shrine presents not just evidence of the past, but a willingness to render the real through the figural. This is modernism in motion, not as an artifact of exchange. Though tangential to this reading, it is worth noting the contrast between the multilevel access required to read the shrine (a real tree turns into a widespread simile which in turn takes the form an elephant statue), and the implied universal accessibility of the grim dungeon tours that are the main draw of the more clearly significant Elmina Castle. It is one thing to have an aesthetic of experience, and another to insist on experience as the gateway to “seeing” an aesthetic. This distinction was driven home to me outside the posuban of Wombir no. 5 Company, where I was told to look quickly at a small, slightly concealed statue that looked like a horned deer. “What do you see?” my guide asked, and I gave him my unexciting answer. He laughed, presumably at its predictability, and then asked me to look again. At this point he drew my attention to the fact that the statue had only one horn, thereby marking it not as a real animal, but a god. It was meant to be this way, a playful illusion at quick glance that takes on sacred meaning only through prolonged introduction.

The more one knows about the posuban, the more self-sufficiently modernist do they begin to seem. In addition to the fragmentary nature of how Fante traditions are conveyed—what Labi calls the “intangible” heritage of things like proverbs, represented “through combining, mixing or contrasting symbols”—the asafo actively outmaneuver history (“Intangible Heritage,” 51). To elaborate this point, I turn again to Ross’s work, in which he tracks the evolution of posuban shrines from 1974 to 2006 (“Come and Try,” 13). After being told “We need to modernize” in the early 1980s by numerous asafo elders in his own study archive, in reference to displays of the British royal arms, Ross goes on to document posuban builders’ manipulation of dates reaching far into the past (24). “The ongoing renovation, updating, or even complete replacement of posuban often complicate our understanding of the history of the form,” he writes (29). In addition to repainting for events and the addition of new components, some posuban are given new, false inscription dates “in an effort to proclaim the preeminence of [one] company over its rivals” (29). While Ross understandably refers to such revisionism as “problematic,” there is an alternative interpretive possibility here. In competitive displays of modernization that dispense with historical accuracy, the shrines compel attention to what history is doing, aesthetically, instead of to what aesthetics reveal about history. They can thus be read in a more free-ranging spirit, refusing anchor in personal intention or anthropological data to come alive as moving, open-ended works of art. At the same time, one could not recognize this call to read advancement as a present attribute without having done the sort of on-site work to which Ross, in this example, has committed years of his life. Site-based research becomes the key to a more robust aestheticization, in a method that moves nimbly between close observation and conceptual acrobatics.

Discarded statues lying outside Abese no. 5 Company asafo post. Photograph by author.
Fig. 4. Discarded statues lying outside Abese no. 5 Company asafo post. Photograph by author.

To wrap up, let me briefly attempt to match this key with the Elmina posuban featuring the sailors and the elephant (that belonging to Company Absese no. 5). In addition to the street-facing statues and rooftop display, I was drawn to a pile of old figures in an alley right next to the shrine (fig. 4). Strewn amidst rubble and trash, they formed a fallen army of headless bodies, severed limbs, and metal coils. Initially mishearing my asafo company guide, I thought at first that the scene had been built as a deliberate homage to past asafo leaders; as a cemetery, of sorts, divested of personalizing features to memorialize a collective past. As it turned out, I was overthinking things. In fact the current company members just did not know what to do with their body-shaped rubbish, and so had started tossing their past next to their present. And yet there it would remain, unignorable, well into the future, transforming the shrine from a record of the past into a whimsical present testament to death’s aesthetic power. The scene called to mind Ian Baucom’s chapter on ruins from Out of Place, in which he argues that V. S. Naipaul “has fallen in love with decay itself.”[11]

Ruins, of course, have a long pedigree in modernist studies, and their accidental presence seemed somehow to “finish” the appearance of the shrine as historical artifact and artistically wide-open agent of a modernizing impulse. Cast-off statues came by happenstance to enliven the ones still in use. These ancestors that were not—but might have been—suggest a mode of modernist reading that moves from having both feet planted on firm ground to making an informed imaginative leap. As such features of the shrines come and go over the years (a bright red gate, say, or one that begins to serve as a play place for young children), ever-closer attention will be the key to wresting modernism and modernity from their expansion to nowhere.



My thanks to Teko Akwetey for his help with translation in Elmina; Doug Mao for his encouragement; and Kwamina Awotwi for his (our) fascinating family.

[1] See Simon Gikandi, “Preface: Modernism in the World,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 419–424. Gikandi is referring to what is commonly called “High Modernism” and its resonance in postcolonial literature. He summarizes the “three narratives involved in the transnational reach of modernism” as 1) “how modernism, as a transnational phenomenon, invites a reconfiguration of the time and space of modernity”; 2) the rerouting of modernity through a set of texts that might intiailly appear to be marginal to its economy”; and 3) “the political agency of modernism” as it contemplates “the matrixes that had created the Atlantic world as a space of identity and difference” (422, 423, 423).

[2] An example of the first sort of work from my own field, broadly construed, might be Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017; original French, 2013). An example of the second might be a number of the books published in the James Currey imprint’s “African Articulations” series, including Terri Ochiagha’s Achebe and Friends at Umuahia (Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2015).

[3] Art Berman, Preface to Modernism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 5.

[4] Jean and John L. Comaroff, “Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa,” Anthropological Forum 22, no. 2 (2012): 113–131, 120.

[5] See Chika Okeke-Agulu, “The Challenge of the Modern: An Introduction,” African Arts 39, no.1 (2006): 14–15.

[6] See Harsha Ram, “The Scale of Global Modernisms: Imperial, National, Regional, Local,” PMLA 131, no.5 (2016): 1372­–85, 1375.

[7] See Nana Ekow Eyiku, Ancient Elmina: Historical Sketches; this was self-published for the benefit of the Save Elmina Trust Fund in Accra, Ghana, 1995.

[8] For a fuller explanation of asafo offices and their variation, see Ansu Datta’s essay “The Fante Asafo: A Re-Examination,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 42, no. 4 (1972): 305–315.

[9] Doran H. Ross, “‘Come and Try’: Towards a History of Fante Military Shrine,” African Arts 40, no. 3 (2007): 12–35, 12.

[10] Kwame Amoah Labi, “Reading the Intangible Heritage in Akan Art,” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 4 (2009): 41–57, 50.

[11] See Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 182. See also Ruins of Modernity, ed. Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).