Visions of Liberian modernism

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2022-05-06

Authors

Knuckles, Nectar

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Abstract

Liberia is a site of the African diaspora, and yet cultural nationalism cultivated in dignity for the mobility and breadth of African heritage has never emerged in the republic. From its founding days, Liberia has been the home of sixteen indigenous groups, as well as three groups belonging to Africa’s diaspora: African Americans, repatriated Africans, and Afro-Caribbeans. Though Black Atlantic exchanges between Liberia’s diasporic groups could have produced a complex modern art movement in the country in the nineteenth century, African American pioneers were detrimentally resistant to encouraging the assimilation of Liberia’s cultures. Liberian leadership—which has primarily been held by those of African American descent—has consistently remained resistant to acknowledging the country’s various ethnic groups with equity and pride. This resistance is rooted in African American settler colonialism’s encouragement of a modernity in Liberia that oriented Blackness around whiteness, rather than as a quality intrinsic to being of African descent. As a result, Liberia’s ethnic groups have existed within a caste system that has deterred access to a cultural nationalism that makes use of cultural development in Liberia as a tool to build the nation and mobilize a Liberian modernism that articulates the various expressions of African heritage.

While the conditions that often produce artistic modernism—notably multicultural exchanges—have always been present in Liberia, these conditions alone, without being united through cultural nationalism, did not compel the emergence of Liberian modernism in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The historic fragility of cultural nationalism in Liberia has in recent decades been detrimental to the country’s visual landscape and has continued to deprive the practices of Liberian artists with the support necessary to establish Liberian modernism in the country. Although Liberian modernism has yet to form, its qualities have been envisioned. This thesis determines how this vision has shifted over Liberia’s history, and how Liberian modernism might finally begin to materialize in the post-war country.

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