Joshua Cohen

About Location

Headress, 19th - 20th century, Baga peoples; Guinea, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to UNESCO’s program for intangible heritage, globalization poses a threat to indigenous cultural traditions.  The situation is complex, however, as processes of economic globalization in some cases support ethnic traditions by popularizing them on an international scale, without necessarily safeguarding their quality or future.  Meanwhile, museums “preserve” countless indigenous cultural objects without keeping their aesthetic or social bases intact.


Today, following colonialism and the independence era, Guinean traditional arts have achieved global status, but at a price.  Not only are material and performing arts both categorized according to Western orders of knowledge, but also, with declining government arts patronage following Structural Adjustment Programs of the 1980s, Guinean artists are increasingly subject to Western-dominated markets and systems of value. 


In what stands as a legacy of colonialism—a neo-colonial predicament paralleling the infamous “brain drain” syndrome—scores of Guinea’s top performing artists have moved abroad to live and work.  But not all are able to remain active in their profession abroad, and those that do work mostly generate income through teaching. On the global market, Guinean artists typically find themselves in competition with one another, while geographic dispersal aggravates disunion with top artists no longer available to train younger generations in Guinea. For the material arts, the international art world has recently developed a taste for contemporary African artworks designed for gallery display, but contemporary carvers and sculptors of traditional objects continue to be labeled as tourist artists or forgers.


The Republic of Guinea occupies a central place in the history of modern African performing arts. Beginning in the 1950s, Les Ballets Africans—the first internationally successful African performance company—emerged in Paris under Guinean direction. Following Guinean independence in 1958, Les Ballets Africans became the National Ballet of Guinea, the top ensemble in a nationwide, socialist-inspired arts system founded by the country’s first president, Sékou Touré, to integrate the country’s many ethnic cultures and foster national pride.  Guinea’s national arts system spawned some of modern Africa’s best-trained and most widely recognized performing artists, and it provided a model for parallel national systems throughout West Africa.