Joshua Cohen



Conversation with Joshua Cohen and Janeil Engelstad, Spring 2011


Janeil Engelstad (JE): The idea for this work grew out of a passion for Guinean dance, to which you were introduced, if I remember right from an earlier conversation we had, as a teenager growing up in Denver?


Joshua Cohen (JC): Yes, my mom took my sister and me to a performance of West African dance. We didn’t want to go because we thought that anything our mom was going to take us to would be boring, but it ended up being a life-changing moment for both of us.  I started studying percussion with the man who was the head of the troupe, Bob Hall, and my sister started taking class with the lead dancer, Tracy Kitea.  By the end of high school we were both performing and we have remained interested in West African dance and particularly the music and dance of Guinea.


JE: When did you move from being someone who performs this music to someone who studies it academically?


JC: While at Vassar College in upstate New York, I studied with Mamadouba ‘Mohamed’ Camara, a master musician from Guinea. It was through him that I began to understand the history of the modernization of traditional arts in Guinea under Sékou Touré (1958 – 1984). I also learned about the street culture of the ballets and what it was like to be an artist during the years that Sékou Touré was president.  Mohamed is the one who set me on this course.


JE: Can you tell me about the partnership between you and your sister? What your roles are, if they are defined, and what you each bring to this project?


JC: Well, first of all, my sister Adrienne spent three years living in Guinea and speaks fluent Susu. She studied dance while she was in Guinea (as well as before, and since), so she brings to the project a nuanced understanding of contemporary Guinean dance and the way that Guinean artists talk about dance. And since she’s now getting her Ph.D., she also approaches the project from the perspective of an anthropologist.  As a scholar of African arts, her training as overlaps with mine but is different.  She focuses more on contemporary cultural practice, with emphasis on social contexts and working directly with people. I come to the project as an art historian who has also studied Guinean music. I am looking at the history of the ballet, the history of Guinea, and also the histories of the particular ethnic forms that made their way into the ballets, as well as the meaning behind performance objects, especially masks.


For me, the mask is a nexus of meaning within the traditional arts, and this project grew out of my going to museums and seeing how traditional objects are displayed with little information on social contexts. This is especially true with masks. Most of the time, museum audiences have no idea about the larger meaning of the pieces unless they’re already informed about that when they walk into the gallery.


JE: I sense a frustration, if that is the right word, that you feel when you see a major institution taking these objects out of context and presenting them as something other than how they were originally intended to be viewed or used?


JC: The standard mode for exhibiting African traditional objects is what you could call “spotlight and pedestal.” There is an object on a pedestal, a spotlight, and a label next to the piece that often provides a vague date, such 19th – 20th century, which is a span of 200 years.  The label might also identify or name the object as mask or sculpture, give the dimensions, the ethnic group if it is known, the country of origin and maybe the materials. There is rarely, if at all, the name of the artist. Sometimes the label might say, “anonymous artist.”  The way I see it, these labels tell us little that is substantial or useful, because there is no historical specificity, and because, for most Westerners, there is no immediate meaning associated with the name of an ethnic group.  Historically and culturally, very little is conveyed through that small label.  It leaves us with pure form.


The argument is sometimes made that you do not need to know the cultural context because art is universal and objects speak to people on a universal, human level. On some level I agree with that, but with performance-based objects such as masks, the aesthetic experience in the museum is framed by Western rather than African conventions. While I do enjoy seeing these objects in a museum, I usually feel tired and ready to go after about an hour.  Meanwhile, I know how invigorated I feel from seeing performance on the streets of Conakry and in the US, sometimes for hours on end. From this I started to think about how these two experiences could be reconciled.


JE: It is so true. When I feel the energy of a performance, I am so inspired and energized. There is a mind, body, and spirit connection. At a museum that has traditional art, I have an intellectual and sometimes spiritual and uplifting experience, but I often I leave drained from looking at all of this material that has been itemized, categorized and presented in a framework that is very narrow. 


JC: Exactly.


JE: What you are doing with this project brings to mind the work that different groups and countries from around the world are doing to have their objects, their cultural heritage, returned to them. The Guinean people have lost something with these objects being taken away from their place and we, the Western audience, are not experiencing the full richness of these objects, let alone understanding the history and context of these objects. I wonder if that is something that also concerns you or the people of Guinea?


JC: Well, it would be incorrect to call this a major concern in Guinea, where people more often are thinking more about day-to-day things such as when the electricity will be turned on. Meanwhile, young artists in Guinea are concerned with their work. They’re interested in being known both as innovators and as keepers and modernizers of a profound cultural heritage.  Some of the older artists, many of whom are now living abroad, know of the connections between the contemporary urban forms and the older rural forms, including danced masks and headdresses. One of the reasons for this generational difference is Sékou Touré’s arts program, which effectively modernized, nationalized, and secularized ethnic cultural forms. Sometimes masks were staged, but just as often they were publicly defaced or sent to museums or collectors in Guinea or abroad. So, it’s a complicated history, and while the question of repatriation is worth discussing, we are focusing on honoring and clarify the traditions, while also making clear that the traditions have changed over the past 100 years, and they will continue to change. Our concern is to present the complex histories surrounding these forms, and to primarily involve Guinean artists in that conversation.


Getting the artists involved means collaborative representation, which I think is beginning to gain momentum among curators. Collaborating with artists also helps break down the false dichotomy between tradition and modernity, showing how traditions persist in contemporary form. One of the continuing challenges of being a curator, I suppose, is how to convey a broad range of information to audiences, and I think that one of the ways that this can be achieved is through performance. It is a way of communicating some ideas that cannot be put into words.


JE: Performance, whether live or recorded, also engages audiences in places or with objects that they might not otherwise be engaged.


JC: Yes, it is way of communicating with immediacy and on a number of different levels. I think it offers a more complete experience than simply exhibiting an object on a pedestal. And it places the work in the hands of Guinean artists, which is the ultimate goal.