In Remembrance of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir (1939-2019)

Professor Kasfir (right) during the Kampala Art Biennale Symposium 2014 at Makerere University (image by Fiona Siegenthaler)

Serubiri Moses and Margaret Nagawa

Professor Sidney Littlefield Kasfir was an art historian born in York, Maine, USA in 1939 and breathed her last on the 29th of December 2019 in Maralal, Samburu County, Kenya. We, in Uganda, artists, art historians, and curators mourn the passing of a friend, mentor and educator who championed art with her generous spirit, deep and far-reaching knowledge, love of people, and joyous disposition.

Sidney moved to Kampala, Uganda with her husband Nelson Kasfir. She quickly made the acquaintance of notable intellectuals and artists such as Rajat Neogy, founder of Transition journal, sculptor Francis Nnaggenda and Barbara Brown, founder of Nommo Gallery. These leading figures in the arts shaped her role and tenure as gallery director of the Nommo Gallery. Barbara named the gallery ‘nommo’ following similar approaches in Nigeria, where the wave of ‘cultural return’ saw artists, writers, and politicians advocate for a pre-colonial Africa. In so doing Barbara made explicit the gallery’s ties to African history. The Dogon word nommo means “the generative power of the spoken word, the force that gives life to everything. It is present everywhere, and it brings into existence all that is seen and unseen.”[1] While it is objectionable to name a major Ugandan art gallery after a Dogon word, the motive was sound in its resonances with transition.

Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, and the question of a transition from colonial protectorate to an independent state was crucial. In this chaotic attempt to forge a unique identity from colonial Britain, the struggle for a New Uganda was heard on theatre stages as much as in the Legislative Council. This changing of the old guard ushered a wave of artistic experimentation in visual arts, musical and theatrical expressions, with voices such as Okot p’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, David Cook, Theresa Musoke and Elvania Zirimu markedly audible in Uganda.

Neogy’s Transition, read internationally and widely respected, published the visual art and criticism of many artists including Theresa Musoke and Ibrahim Noor. Thus, her exhibition program at Nommo not only complimented Transition, but brought new and challenging scholarship to the field of East African art, hitherto shaped almost exclusively by British artist Margaret Trowell (1904–1985). Sidney would later go on to pursue doctorate studies in African Art at SOAS with John Picton as her advisor, after which she would teach at Emory University for 23 years.

In a 2014 symposium lecture in Kampala, Sidney noted that Nommo Gallery was located on Kampala road, before moving to a bungalow on Nakasero Hill, donated by Milton Obote, then president of Uganda. The commercial gallery mounted small group and solo exhibitions which included the works of Nnaggenda, Jak Katarikawe, and Richard Ndabugoye among others. It was during this time that Sidney developed an interest in the scholarship of African art, publishing the notable 1969 article, “Nnaggenda: Experimental Ugandan Artist”[2] in African Arts.

After living in the country for four years, Sidney left Uganda just before the military coup that defeated the Obote government in 1971. In her article, “Lacuna: Uganda in a Globalizing Cultural Field,”[3] Sidney made the comparison between Nigeria, with its short-lived period of war, and Uganda whose wars lasted decades. “But the major difference was that the civil war which engulfed Nsukka, horrific as it was, was over in three years (1967-70). In Uganda, this was just the beginning, and the chaos and bloodshed wore on for twenty years from 1966 to 1986. It was ended only by a successful guerrilla war waged from 1981 to 1985 in the Luwero Triangle in Buganda, only miles from Kampala. No group of artists could hold out against such odds for so long,” she wrote.

She criticized the curatorial field by highlighting what she called the ‘major league’ position of  ‘diaspora curators’ and their blockbuster shows of African art, shaping its reception outside the continent. This is a criticism that a few others, notably the Nigerian curator and critic Olabisi Silva shared. In contrast, Sidney Kasfir’s art history monograph[4] on “contemporary African art” focuses on the local and the history of galleries and art scenes on the continent, going beyond East Africa to include West African and Southern African artists.

In the twilight of her career, Sidney’s unwavering commitment to a broad range of artistic expressions, particularly those outside the confines of art-school sanctioned disciplines, was strengthened. Her art historical writing shows this breadth of interest in her research on self-taught artists working in Kenya, at Shine Tani’s Banana Hill art studio and gallery; Jua Kali artists and the political impact of colonial and post-colonial events on Samburu spear designs; as well as Ugandan artists Xenson Samson Ssenkaaba and Maria Naita’s installations and sculptures. Her research vision and intellectual leadership helped create rich possibilities in thematic and methodological approaches for art historians.

Furthermore, Sidney, the professor of art history who trained a generation of African art historians including Chika Okeke-Agulu and Ugochukwu Smooth, continually worked with art historians in Uganda in the craft of research and writing. Sidney divided her time between the United States where she taught at Emory University; and Kenya with her husband Kirati Lenaronkoito and family in Maralal, Samburu County. Kirati was always with her on her research visits to Uganda. Since most art writers in Uganda straddle the worlds of making and writing about art, Sidney dedicated time to discussing their research in studio practice and writing, while sharing her research through presentations at Makerere Art School and to the Uganda Artists Association. Although she was already an accomplished author, Sidney actively sought feedback from colleagues in Uganda on her writing.

Furthermore, Sidney co-edited Start Journal of Arts and Culture in East Africa ( where she was always available to edit short or lengthy submissions, offering feedback in her unwavering belief in improvement. Also, she was an advisor on the ongoing collaborative research project entitled, “African Art History and the Formation of a Modern Aesthetic” between University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Makerere University, Uganda and the Iwalewa Haus at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.

We must all push on, but it will be a while before we fill the emptiness that Sidney’s death has left. May her soul rest in peace.

[1] Adisa A. Alkebulan. “Nommo” in Molefi Kete Ashanti, Ama Mazama ed. Encyclopedia of African Religion.

[2] Sidney L. Kasfir. “Nnaggenda: Experimental Ugandan Artist.” African Arts (1969): 8-88.

[3] — “Lacuna: Uganda in a Globalizing Cultural Field.” A Companion to Modern African Art (2013): 507-527.

[4]—. Contemporary African Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Margaret Nagawa

Margaret Nagawa Margaret Nagawa is a graduate student in Art History at Emory University, Atlanta, USA. She has been the Editor in Chief of StartJournal from 2016 - 2019.

Moses Serubiri

Serubiri Moses is co-curator of the 5th edition of Greater New York, a survey of contemporary art at MoMA PS1.