In ·1he Heart of Darkness’ Olu Oguibe Prehisto,y. History. Posthistory. It is evidence o f the arrogance o l Occidental culture an d

In ·1he Heart of Darkness’

Olu Oguibe

Prehisto,y. History. Posthistory. It is evidence o f the arrogance o l Occidental culture an d discourse

lhat even the concept of history should be turned into a colony whose borders. \raliditie-s, structures

an d configurations. even life tenure. ara solely and enti rely d ecided by the West. lhisway his tory is

constructedas a validating pr ivilege. which it is the West’s to grant. like United Nations’ reco gnition.

to sections. nations. moments. discourses. cultures, phenomena. realities. peoples. In the past

fiftyy,,ar s. as Occid ental i ndividualism h as grown with industrial hyperrealily, it has become m ore

and more the pri•;ilege of individual dis:ourses and schools of thought lo grant. deny. concede.
and retract the right to history. Time and history. we are inst.–ucted. are no longer given. Indeed.

history is to be distinguished from History. and the tatter reserved for rree-market civilisation,

,,,,hich, dependir>g on the school of thought. would e ith erdieor triumph with it. Though they

both share a belief in consolidating systematisation a.s a condition of historicism. Francis

Fu kuyama in the 1980s. and Arnol d Gehlen in th e immediate i,osl-Nazi period differ on the

speaficil ies of the question.Wnile on the one hand Fukuyarna betievesthat the triumpho f f ree

mar~et systematisation over regulated economies marks the end of History.’ Gehlen and the

subsequent school of post-Nazi pessimism posited that the triumph of liberal democracy

aver Fascism marked the end of Historyand t he beginning of PoS!-his toire.

In both cases. what comes oot very clearly. desplie the differences that define and

preoccupy th e di scourse on t he fate ofHistory. is theconsignment of the rest ol h um anity outside

the Old and NewWest into inconsequence- Fe r Gehlen . who had a better an d stronger sense of

history and intellectual integrity than Fukuyama can claim, the entirety cf humanitywas victim to

a universal syncretisrn that subverts the e5Sence of history. For Fuku~1ama. thisuniversality is to

be taken for granted.a lthou gh the major ityofhumanity i s indeed, factuallyand h istorically

speakin g. h ardly subject to l iberal democracy. To a great extent. Humanity. forFuku1-ama and

marry others. is synonymous vvith the Group of $e\!en and Eastern Europe. Under Reaganism­

Thatcherism even lhe spatial definitionof historyseverely retrac1s to the Pre-Columbian.

The contest forHistory iscentral lo lh e struggle for a redefin ition and eventual decimation of

centrism and its engendering discourse.VJithout restituting History to other than just the Ocetdent.

or more accurately, recognising th e u nr…,rsa!ity of the concept of Historywhile perhaps leaving

its specific configurations to individual cultures, it is untenable and unrealistic to place such other

temporal and id eological concepts as Modernism. Moderni~J. Contemparameity, Oevelopmenl ,

in the a rena. IfTime is a colony, then nothing is free.

Premodem ism. Mo dernism. Postmodernism . Forth eWest erase Premooernis m. For lhe rest

replace with Primitivism. It is tempting to dwellon the denialof modernitytoA.frica orcuttures


322 Reading t”e Contemporary

other ti-an theWer,t. The underlying necessity to consign the res, of huma1ity to ant ,qu,;y and

atrophy so as to cast the West in the jght ofprogress and c :vil1satton has been sufficientlyexplored

by scholars. Hnot for the conti …,uing ar.d pervading powers an d impl ications ofwhat Edward Said

hasc’esc~b£d as structures of reference, it would be mpl’oper to spend l meo– the q …estion. It is

impor’..a nt to undetstand th~tv,l\·te counter-ceritrist dis~o-rse has a responsib;lity to explore and
expose thesestructures. thete is an element of conce-ssionism in tc:hering all Ciscourse to the role

and place of the outsiee.To perpetvally c:oun:er a centre ·s to recognise il. In otherwords, d sc:::>urse

– ourd scourse – should begin tom ove in the d,rect,on o:d smiss1n9. at leas: indiscursive terms.

the conceot of a cen tre, not bymO’Jing 1~. ;sNgLgi nas suggested.: bul by superseding it it is

in th1sconte:.d that a ny meaning futd’.scussion oi modernity and·modernism· in Africa mus.t be

conducted. ;-ot in relation to the idea of an existing centre or a ·modernism· agains1 which we must

aH find our bearings. but in recognmor of the mJh. pticky and :ulture-specificityof mcderr:ism 5

a i d the pluralityof centres. The history ofdevelopm en t i;Ajrk.&n socteties hasmetam~rph os.ed

quite considerably ovef lhe c.ent1.-ne-s, ~:;!r”‘;in9 frQm:heaccounts ofArabscholars and adventurer s

as •.-.,eHas internal records of royalties 2nd ~ing:’oms. to the subversive colon ialist narra1,ves and mega-narratives. Recent times have wnnessed re•:1s1ons i… earlier texts. ano a

gro·.·.•in9 willingness to adrr:it the shortcomings of outsider narraiives. Coontering discourses h2ve

pul ‘”-istory. v:ith allns inconsistencies ard vutnerabili~ies, back in the hands of each o•Nning society.

and shown howca refullyw,, must lread.

In light of theab0’1e. the concept ofan .African culture. O’” an Africar1ty.which1s qurte o ften taken for

granted. isequally problematte. ltseems to ~ e thatw~ cannot discussan African mc.dernilyor

· mode …nism· ..-11thout agreeing first on eithe- the fictivenfss cf ·Atri:-ann.y· or the impe ..etive of

a plural ity of ·modernism s· inAfrica.

Ofcourse. one may well ~e wrong here. Yet it is to be recognised tha’:. like ‘:he entity and idea

called Eu rope. the specificities ofwhich ~ro s’.ill in the making and l~e collective h story ofwhich

dates no earlier~han Napoleon – the idea of Rome and Greece is d ishonest – Africa isa historical

construct rather than a definitrve. t✓. anyhave argued. prominent among them the Afrocenlfist

school the a nt,quityof a Bla c<orAfrican identity, a n a,-gu·-ent that fa lls llatup3n examination.

On me otherhand. hislory reveals the ne:::essity for suchunify ng narratives in the manufoctu re o f

cultures of amrmation a nd res istance. The danger in not recognising the essential fic~iveness of

suchconstl’\;cts. how~v~r. is that a certain lundamentatism. a mega-·ational,sm. 2m 2rgi;,; – a ll

themored angerous for ,ts vagueness – i.•.-hi-eh exo ses, el ides. conh:scates. imposes and distorts.

Some will argue tt–at h is1ory. after al l. is percep~ion, inotner 1Nords. Distortion. But if we were to

accept thtS VJhote~l~and without question. we would have no business tryi”g to ·correct’ history,


unl.ess to correc l is ,re rely w reconfigure . to .::ounter -d1s tort.

‘Ne e lreacy recc9nise the da ngerous pote ntia l ot suc h i1::11ons in the hands of the im-ading

outsid,2r:. The s~ate of pseudc-schclarty i–:terest in ·A1 ncan · tife. culture and art dur ing and

:m m ediatety altercolomalisN”‘ 1ll …s tra tes this. ‘Nhile. in the beginni”‘”g, the total isingconstruct was

employed to underline the pe:ul adyoi the ·Sevagi mi11d and thus justify outsider inter,ention,
it has continued 10 be used injus:,fyirg the , ….a ng ng foce o= thatm ission. From rede mptive

Christ,anity tosalvage anthn::pology. the VVes~has fot.’Tid1t essential to maintain this inve ntion.

Indeed. the needseems greater now·than ever beforeas the collaps e ofcolo nialis m and the nse

of contesting discourses place a nt, ropology. ti”e h andma,d o’ danger.Anthro pology’s

c risis oi rele\~ance. coupled v:1th (;:n,;:racceris tic \ “lestern ca reer oppo rtunism. has n ec.essita ted

the g radua l re -hvention of a s ingular a~du …iqu e- Africanitywcrthyo f the OutsideGaze.

Tne :iewmanufactu–e fr”‘ds ready er ents inscholars. policy makers. non-governmenta l and a id

organisa~1onssee-<1n9 cbjects o: charity. Un:ess there is a sin.gularAfrcanity. distmct qnddoomed.

howiil&e would lh1:yj~st ify :he pi:y tha t m•Js t pu t the, aneac enoon to p? If tne Other has no form,

the One cea s.e s to exist. It is for th s reaso… tha t recent Outsider texts on African cu lture rem ain

only extensions a …d m ile revisio,..sof exis ting fic tions. To un dermine the H:iea of The Africa n is to

exterm:natean entire discurs ive an:l referen tial system and endang er whole agendas.

The his~ory. or h is tor’es . of whatwe severally refe– ~o as ·modern·or ·co nte mpcrar”‘{ “Atncan’

arl •l.ustrates the ab:ve problems a nc dangers. From the po nt at w:uc h 1tbecame ac.cept2ble

to speaK of a ‘history of contc mp=-raryA1nca–1·a rt. an empts a t this h is toryhave run into often

u”lackno·:.1ledged : ight corr.e rs bydJck1ng into tne safety of ea1ier fictions or :A.frica ·. The moSct

o b·.•ious m a- ifes tation of l”‘IS 1s in the seeming racio -geographical de lineation of the “.Africa·.

v-11’11ch. we a re often told. 02.sicall}•reie rs to sub-Sa haran Africa, The obvious intent of this de hnitt0n.

o: cov-se. is to cis ti,·g u•sh the Afr can from tne Arab, a ltno ugh th e spacial bounda·,esSjle<:ified by

the regis ter. ·sub-Sa h aran·. effectively ridicvtc tnis intent. A less a ppa –ent htent. a nd indeed a more

irnportant one, is to clacc tne Arab a notch above the “African· e n thescale of cu ltura l evolution.

It is sufficient not !oque’Stio~ this 1nten: here. but to po,m out tna t the signif)•ing reg ister proves

grossly iMoequ ate. N0t only does it w-olty ignore the impos.s’bilityof ha :-d edges be tween cultu res

and societies i,.. the region i i describes. a nd t he long historyof Arab-Negro interaction. logether

w,th a .I the suctlet ies andundec dabtesof rac,a l t·anslations. in deed the impurity of des,gna:es.

,1 equallyigno’es ii\le rnaldispar ;ieswithin the so-c~Ued ‘Afncan· cultures. To play on tne
surface. it is never quite d ear ‘.•,•h e re eas tAfnca fi ts on t…,s cu.tu—at map ofAfrica . given not only

i:h e territo rial prob.ems of locat1:”lg Somalia oelO\f’J the Saha ra. b.ut atso of eliding Za nzibar”s long

:..istoryof Arabisa ~1on. In a signif cant sense. lhen. the oonstru::t on of a ·s~b-Saharan · Africa n ot

324 Reading tne Contemporary

only ignores geogr0ph1calh consis:cncies bJ t equally i£ accepted discursive p~sittons in

t\’\e \!,Jest that no\ on\)’ recoc;in\se \’t’l.e u ,ump~ o\ \-\\S\ory as\T’\e \ rnµu1 ebu\ \J!”K),et\Ha ‘the: c.cns\ruc.\ \on

We seedouble standards. But tr a t is hardly the most importa;,i po,~t. We also fino ;ha t

essen:ial te r dency 10 ignore indigenous h istorical percept,o-s ~nd cansl ru:ls. The Outside’.

•.-,,h ether represented byOccident,;l sc,olarsh p orc1as;:ioric Negro discourse • .::iuickly establishes

delineations “”.-ithoutaci<no\•..tedging t1e poss1:1htyt…,at these rray , at be shared b>• those i.vhose

historiesare J: the centre oi discourse

On s econd thol..ght. w hat weseeare not double standards at alt but a cons is’.en t reterem

For. v~tien \ l!.’e examine the continualconstruc:t;on of ~urope, d screpa–ic1es ar-2 equally

a pparent. Tne m ost interes ti …g examplesare t”‘le ready adm1ssi:nof Israel into Europe and the

struggle to exctuce Turkey. In 01herwcrds. in the end. the useof the designate. ·sub-Saharan·

1n the defin ·tion oi the ·African· is orlJ’a cheap ruse masking 01- er. lessmnoce’1t refe rents.

The issue is not only race. but historyas well.History as vassal
Needless to sey. whrte peoole in South Africa. Asia ns :n Uganda. as we.Ias othe· dias ponc

popul-aticns andcommunities. fa ll outside of this defnition. In the specific case oi Scuth Africa.

the semer m inority, like the E:u…opeans in Aust ralia. hes been able1n ;.he past h atf century to

negotiate ,ts way back into ::urope.CLlturat Africa, t”‘erefore. is no lo-gercoota,ned by tha t

tame com posile, ·sub-Sa”aran•• which nowneedsa fu:i:herqJallfler; ·excluding wh·te (Southt

Africans· .Again. howlNOuld tne Ou!si:e JUSt ty its C0’1descens·on t0Afri=a1s, o- its employment

o; lheAfrican· in the satisfaction of its need fer the exotic. ifArabs. v,1th their ‘tong h,story· of

civ1tisati<in. or w hite ISouthIA~r,ca’1S w ere to bepart of the: construct?

On thepohttcal front. hov.;ever. arg uments have, been strcnger on :nc, s ioecf an all-em::rac1:-g

Afncanity that supersedes disparities a”lddiffere’1ces and aspires to·.va:-ds the construct on.

noi invention, of a newanc cred.ble A:ricanity. This is the poS1t1on ot Nkrumah·sPar-Africanism .

and remains th : t;round argument of the Pan-African …,,ove~en:. Culturally. lhe argume-t is to

r ecognise a pt,.,.rality of .Afr1canit ies butaspire towards ;heactive forrnJla tio11 of a singular African

“ide-ntrty·. somevihat along the tinesof Pan-Eurooea·1ismand the construct on of the West.

Fo r theAfrican cultural historian . the problems h ere are p.enti;. For instance. based on 1he above

constructionof Africa. t is incrc~singly ~ sh•onabte- rn begin the history of ·modem · ors o-Called

conie mpor.,ryart in Africa from lhe turn of th.a last century. tha t ,s. from the N gerian pain ter. Aina
Onabo lu. On the other hand. ear lier prac1i1ionersof modern· a rt exisl in the Ma9hreb and Eg)’pt.

and s trains of·modernism· are d isce–nible n the art of wh ite Sauth Africa-s from tnan

Onabolu. Also. if ·African· is a race-spec,ficqualifi r.::ation. ft wou.d b:e properto re~emb2r that


325 In ‘The Hearto’Oa·kness’

artis:s. of Negro de-scent were practising in the contem~rary styles ot their 11me 1n Europe and

America much eartrer than the turn of the century Where then ooes on e locale the b reak with lhe

past that the ,dea ofa · modernism· insinuates’ In discussing ·modern· Africanart. does one

ccnt1nue to exclude half the continent? Is it realistic. otherwise. to discuss a modern cuh.ure that

defies exis1ing invented boundaries! Are there grcunds in thepresent. that did not exist in the past,

to justify a urify·ngdiscourse. or is it safer to pu~sue a pluralityof di scourses?Along what specific

lines must such discourses run? Or shall we merely conclude. l1-<e Anthony Appiah, on the

fictivenes.s of a singu~r cultural identi:y?


Sesera! o: har pcoblems and cuesti:ns h,nge ,n the ab0ve. H, afte r all.we reject the

·sub-Saharan· qualifier. \·,•e effectfvelysubvert a host of otherqualifiers and c•aradigmatic
premises. The ·peculiarities· anc particularitiesa!~ributed to ·sub-Saharan· art. ‘.•,-hich1n tt..rn

sustain temporal end formalistic categorisations. become umenable. Suchco;we,1ience; ot
Cutsider schola–shipas the· probtem$ of :ransfi,on· from the ·traditionar or the Airica,f

Otherisat ion is unavoidable, and fo r every One, the Other
is the ‘Heart of Darkness·. The West is as much the Heart
of Dar kness to the Rest as the latter is to the West.

to the modern. or the question of Airica·5 “identity crisis· and concern over the endangerment of

·authentic· African culture. all prove ver1problematic indeed. If Africa 1snot so~e easilydefinable

speciesorcategory that yrelds to anthropology’s class1hcat1o~sand labels, neither are its

C\llwral manifestaiicns.
·rransi1ion· from ·2:ntiquit}’ to :he modern ceases to amaze and exoticise or evol<.e voyeuristic

admiral1on orpily beca a,11iquity ceases w exist. The s1,,,.pposed disiress ofAfrican$ ::~ughl

i:l ano-ma n·s land between Europe and their ·authcn~ic· selves becomes a lot more d ifficult iO

locateorexplicate. E:hnog-aphic categones usuallyapplied with ease to sequester African·

culture in:o (emporal boxes a re no longer easy to adm inister: What. for-instance. i.·.-ould we qualify

as 0 lrans1t1onar a rt in Egyp.: that we can net loca:e in Spain?What is ctie f’1 t-driven art •nithin the

m nonty communifyo f Africa? Hov.• easi:yv,outdwe lament the ·corrosive influences·

o/ Europe on the Somali of the Northern coast?

That is to p ull one leg from the stool. In strki discursive te rms. o~ course. n one of the categones.

delineations and constructs menticned above has an>’ relevanceeven within the con:ext of a
delimi:ed ·Africa·, especially S1nce none o:them is ever apphed in the description and study of


326 Reading the Contcrpo rary

Europe or the \l’!/esl.Atr•can scholar= ccuto have bo….ght inlo arl)•of th em . and indeed stilt do. bu:

Lhat,s hardlythe ,ssue.The toint. instead. .s tha: such constructsthat sequeste”‘specific.societies

.and C\ll:urcs and not others. Cl”‘””tanatc from less i nnoc•2nt struc:ures ofreference. the ori:efs of

v,1h ich arc toc-eate foi ls for the Occident. Sowe ::-an spea-< about ·tra ns1tio,..,ar art ir Africa, and

never ,n fa;rope We may s reak of ·Township·a rt inAfnca. oral ilmesof ·po pula- art . a nd these

would co nnote mfferenl f:rmsand manifestations from those in Euffipe. ‘Ne may qua.ify n eart;~a

century ofartforms in Africa as ·conternpcrar-{ v,t1lile anpt,,i-g the sarr-e term to only a single strain

of c1..1rrenta–t anddiscou…se nEuroi::e. ·wemay rake rodernis~ in Europe for grantee and”‘ave
.greac d;fficulty in finding-the same in Africa. The assim·lation cf Ou tside ,.. cu ltu re into European art

is con sidered the mos~si;,nii·c.ant revolutiO’\ of its time v…-h le the, same1s bemoaned1n N ‘ricaas a

s ign cf the d is. ntegration and corrosi~n of the native byc)VLsano–. Or. on tne other hand. Afncans

are to be p.atted on!h~head for m;:king a ·successfu l tr-;-nsit on· into rr,od2–nit,’. ‘Nhy, \”,-hoev2r

thought they could emerge unscathed!

i odiscuss the·procler-is of modernity ano modernis r-1 ,n Ahca is s mp,y to tuy into1he

existing structures cf referen c-e that noton.:{ ceculiarise m oderni:y in A;rica but also forb~de

c risis.Vt!h2t needs be d-::me is lo re;ect lhal pecul ansetion en d all those strJct ures a nd ideatio-al

construc ts lha t und erlre rt.

To reiect the exot icisaCon ofAfrica is :odestroy an entice world -view. carefullyano pains takingly

fabricated over several centuries. This ,s the imperative foran:..-meaningfu l app~ ciattonof

cultore in Africa today. and it .,•,culd be Lnreatistic to expeel it ea.sit-/ from thos:who in•:ented th e

old Africa for U-1e1r corwen1ence. hdis11)1′:S<es an existingdiscou•·se ar d signifies a reclaiming

process :hat l ea\rf?s his.tor)’and the dLScu rs ~,e :c–ritcryto tnose vlr:o nave th e ori-,itegcd kno)Nleclge

and u ndersta nding oi the,rsoaeues 😮 tor-ulate theirown disco…rse. This is not to su ggest an

e x::::lus1on1st polmc.but rn reassert .,.,.,ha41s taken for gon:ed oy ;:he West and term.rate the

nd1culous notion of tne ·,ntimate outsicer spea-u ng for- the n ative II recognises thai there is

always an ongoh g Ciscou1·se and the com e-nptation er life a··d i1s socioculturalmanifestalior,s

is not dependent on seli-appo:nted o_ts iders.

Othcr isation is unavoidable , and for evc r,rOne. the Oth:r is :ne ·.-leert a; Darkness·. The \~/es: is

as much the Heart ot Danmess to the Rest as the ta:ter is to the VI/est. Invention and con:emptation

of theOther1sa cominuous proce-ss evident in .luresand societies. 8uth c::intemotatm g the

Other . 1t 1s necessary to 2xnib1t mod9’Sf./ al’\d-:dm t rel::tiv.? han::ic.ap since th2 penphe–al locabnn

cf the conteinpla10r precludesa complete urderstaoding. n is neluciab,lily s theOa·kness.

Modernityasa cc neept is notu nique. Every new ep::ch is “”1oclern u ntil it is superseded b;·

another. and this is comron 10all socie;ies. Modernitye:ually;nvolves. qv;te inescapably,

327 ,n ,t,e Hean of Dar~ness·

the app–opriatio1 and ass mila:ion oi n~vel elements Often 1hesear~ from the -outside. In the pas:i

millennium the West has salvage.:: and scr-ounged from cul tures far removeo 1rom the boundaries

that it so desperate.~,. s-:H:ks to s-imulate T-enotion o’ ll’atlition. also. is not peculia r to any soci:et~·

or people. nor is :heccntest between the cast and the prese’”lt. To coni1gure theseas peculial’

and curious is to be simple-minded. It ,s interes:ing. m,cessary, ·,en. to study and understand the
deta ilsoieacn society”smoder n1ty, ye,\any such studymust be fre-e rrom the..•eilsof Darknes.s “iO

claim prime l~gitirracy.To valorise one·s m odem 1rywtule :1en;-ing the unperative of transition in an

Other is to de~ig· ate and disparage.
The V./est rnay requ· re an 1:ir i_ginary backv-1cods. ine-Heart oi Osrk””CSS. against wtuch to gaLge

its progress. Contemporaryc!t:scourse hardly proves to the contrar)’. Ho\ve-ver. such Darkness is

0″1l}’ asimul2.crum. onl;rd Vlsicn through our o,.·,-n dark g!.asses. In re91ity. there is a lways plenty

oi light in t~e Heart of Darkress.

Fral’IC s f=ukuy.:im.:;. l”L: Er :le’ H1:t;,1y . in Tne J\’3!.’~–3!

Jnicresr l,1ash1ri1onc=: !::.;mmer-196;>1. ;,t-:.i- :xp:rde:j

and r”Cl)~::,1ish~:fas 1h~ ; ~:1of’-‘isi:,!’fi!fl’3 n>eLas.t Ma,-;
l”-=-··•Yor.-:: Freecress. 1q921

2′ S:>e \!gu-.;1. wo-…oflg ,~eCer.’.N:: The S•n.,gy’e iorC :J:L–,;t

Freniom .Londc”l: H~i- n,;,Jnn. i~Y3,.

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