The Fetish A(r)t Work: African Objects in the Making of European Art History 1500–1900 

CONVENED BY anne lafont (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, EHESS, Paris)

october 19–20, 2023

This conference convenes scholars across the humanities who examine the making and “invention” of African art in European discourse. The presentations will delve into diverse writings on African objects and interrogate various orientations which transformed these objects from ritual artifacts and fetishes to works on the art market and held in private collections and public museums. Discussion will be grounded in the texts and practices of the early modern period (1500 to 1900), encompassing sources as varied as global art history, natural history, travel literature, ship inventories, African geography, comparative religion texts, sales and private collection catalogs, as well as technical treatises.

In short, we will ask: How did encounters with African objects generate the redefinition of art for the discipline? A central thesis of this conference is that encounters with African art, objects, and ritual were central to the formation of the discipline and writing of art history. While this topic has been addressed in the twentieth century, we believe that this history has a longer genealogy, and we aim to unfold the multivalent ways in which African objects and beliefs structured concepts of art, aesthetics, economics, and value. This conference will thus be an opportunity to integrate known encounters between the African object and Western episteme, but also, on a fundamental level, to explore the plasticity of a discipline in the process of inventing itself at the time of colonial expansion.

The conference will not be recorded or live-streamed.


Anne Lafont (convener), professor, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris, France

Michelle Apotsos, associate professor of art, chair of the Art History Department, and co-chair of the Art Department, Williams College.

Alexander Bevilacqua, associate professor of history, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Yaëlle Biro, independent scholar and curator, Paris, France

Justin M. Brown, Samuel H. Kress Predoctoral Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Washington, DC

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, assistant professor, The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University

Joshua I. Cohen, associate professor of art history, City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, New York 

Roberto Conduru, endowed distinguished professor of art history, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

Cécile Fromont, professor of history of art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Gabriele Genge, professor, Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, Universität Duisburg-Essen, Germany

Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor and Chair of English, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, curator, Musée de la Musique (Philharmonie de Paris), France

Erica Moiah James, art historian, curator, and assistant professor, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

Christophe Koné, associate professor of German, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts and the director of the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences

Daniel H. Leonard, assistant professor, College of Liberal Arts, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Risham Majeed, associate professor of art, art history, and architecture, Ithaca College, South Hill, New York

Lionel Manga, writer and cultural critic, Douala, Cameroon

Matthew Francis Rarey, associate professor of African and Black Atlantic art history, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

For any questions, please contact [email protected].