A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
"Contemporary African art" in Western spaces
Power of the Written Word Underscores
Perhaps the time has come to have a serious discussion about the representation of "contemporary African art" in Western exhibition spaces, which focuses only on African artists who live and work in the West.
In my review of the Africa 95 exhibitions almost ten years ago, I suggested that curators should be held responsible for their curatorial choices, and that the constant "rediscovery" of "African art" in various periods should stop. Recent exhibitions suggest otherwise.
by Sylvester Ogbechie professor March 8, 2005
Meyer Wolfe, United States ,'Red Eyes' Hall', 1935,lithograph,University Art Museum, UCSB,Ken Trevey Collection
Brian Sewell's review of "Africa Remix" (below) is noxious, but it provides a basis for evaluating how exactly curators of contemporary African art perceive their role in the shaping of a lopsided narrative of contemporary cultural practices related to the continent. Critical practice must explain space, and these proliferating exhibitions of Western based African artists (which repeatedly shows the same limited number of artists) fail miserably in this respect, for they efface Africa from their purview and instead focus attention on artists who meet very narrowly defined Western criteria of what contemporary African art should look like.
A curator at a panel at the recent CAA in Atlanta essentially acknowledged that Western museums will never agree to show contemporary African art which is not produced by an artist already validated by Western discourses. I can attest to this fact through my own recent efforts to produce an exhibition focusing on specific aspects of modern Nigerian art, and the pointed refusal I have been receiving by curators who see this sort of practice as outrageously incompetent. And this in a period when art history in busy incorporating Thomas Kincaid into its pantheon of great American artists.
In my various reviews over the years, I have pointed out the explicit neo-colonial nature of this kind of attitude towards modern African art. The fact that many curators who continue to focus on expatriate artists of African descent who don't even bother to validate their choices shows the raw nature of their power to control and shape the discourse. We know how this power operates, having been subject to it in our dealings with Western institutional forces for quite a long time.
I am thus bothered that Sewell conflates bad curatorial choices with the idea that contemporary African creativity in general is cringeworthy, but he goes beyond this illogic to produce a diatribe against African art in all its ramifications. It is unfortunate that this is where we are today, that a Western critic could comfortably describe Africans as cannibals and savages in order to make a point about his displeasure with an art exhibition.
Sewell is noted for his provocative opinions but at some point we must call his kind of diatribe by its real name--prejudice. He makes a good point that exhibitions of "AFRICAN" art as a collective phenomenon must now cease because they are increasingly ludicrous. Several other critics made the same point in reviews of the Africa 95 exhibitions in London. Sewell then goes on to essentially assert that African art must remain the precolonial art of the continent and that the true African artist would thus be one who is still creating the kinds of works that an Emil Torday of today (some gruesome puns there) would find beautiful, because they reiterate cultural practices that were valid 200 years ago.
I don't see any British artists or critics insisting that British painters must return to Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics since such a person would be seen as anachronistic. At the same time that Sewell praise Torday's choices, he denigrates precolonial African cultures as cannibal ridden contexts of savagery. In his opinion, nothing produced by Africans then or now could rise to the definition of art as known in the Western world. This was the claim of Ernst Gombrich and his cohorts and it still forms the subtext of Western perception of African realities today.
I have worked against the tendency to define contemporary African art solely in relation to African Diaspora practices, which works well for lazy Western curators who are thereby saved the rigors of traveling to Darkest Africa, where, who knows, they run the risk of being eaten by cannibals in Lagos.
We are seeing the reductio ad absurdum of this tendency to circulate the same old names (Shonibare, Ofili, Musa, Etondi-Essamba, Kingelez, Brouabre, Adeagbo, etc) in different biennales, each of them becoming incredibly overexposed in the process. But how in fairness can Sewell describe Shonibare as a no good hack when an untalented artists like Jeremy Deller won the Turner prize with his banal photographs of racist cops in Texas, among other post-September 11 2001 propagandist imagery that much of the Western world is now awash in?
I am reminded of the screed by Donald Kuspit (see "The End of Art") who called for a return to old master sensibilities in painting, and is carrying out a sustained campaign against post-postmodern art in the USA. I see in Kuspit and Sewell a paen to the turning of the age, the clear indications of the waning of Western power in the world and the rise of competing discourses in areas that it had formerly taken for granted.
In the fascist climate of the current era of the current imperium, it is not surprising to see the resurgence of imperial confidence of such nature that a British newspaper (however described) can publish an article with describes African history as one laden with savagery, cannibalism and sheer intellectual indolence. The Belgians alone killed 10 million Africans in the Kongo, among the other millions of dead Africans occasioned by the continued parasitic nature of Western exploitation. Perhaps Sewell should take those developments into consideration when he talks about cannibalism and such.
The complete irony in this whole situation is that all over the Western world, critics recognize that the triumph of capitalism has led to a soulless and sterile cultural landscape. Sewell is ultimately criticizing the demise of Western creativity since Shonibare (despite whatever one thinks of his work) is a pure product of England and I have been making the argument that it may be more productive to start seeing him as a British artist.
Of course, the reason why everyone still calls Shonibare an African artist is that the Western imagination refuses to consider the possibility of black people ever becoming bona fide members of Western culture, and in the case of England, this refusal negates the fact that black peoples have lived in Europe for at least two thousand years.
In the recent film "Hotel Rwanda" a UN soldier character played by Nick Nolte describes Western perception of Africans in very plain terms. He tells the lead character (Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle) "We think you are shit, dung, filth. That is why we don't care what happens to you." I thought the movie achieved its moral high ground during this scene, because it clearly points to the fact that no matter how educated or aspiring an African might be, the Western world will always think of black people as inferior. In this age of supposed enlightenment, it is strangely amusing to see someone as comfortable in his prejudice as Sewell is. The more things change, the more they apparently stay the same.
I have Incorporated a press (AACHRON EDITIONS) to produce scholarly books evaluating artists and contexts of practice of modern and contemporary African art who live and work in Africa. I am sure that if the curators of the omnibus exhibition in London had presented established African artists whose works investigate issues of intellectual and cultural identity in specific national or cultural spaces, they would have had a whole lot of different issues to confront. However, Western museums have pointedly refused to engage the works of Africa-based African artists and continue to investigate "African contemporary art" in Paris, New York, Osaka, while refusing to look at what is happening in Lagos, Accra and Kinshasa. The irrationality of this situation is evident were one to apply it to, say, Irish contemporary art. Chicago is awash in Americans of Irish ancestry (they even dye the Chicago river green on St. Patrick's day) but no one goes to Chicago to study contemporary Iris! h art.
In his long struggle (1937-1990) to escape effacement by the Western media and art history, the premier African modernist, Ben Enwonwu asserted that African artists must be prepared to tell their own stories as a reflection of the struggle of their age, and their right to free expression. It is increasingly obvious that he was very prescient in his views.
There are however two issues at stake here.
One is the need to produce a series of books (monographs if you will) on key figures and contexts of African modernism thus providing the proper foundation for critical and theoretical analysis. The second is to challenge the art historical implications of the kind of power wielded by curators of African contemporary art, who are in the process of inscribing a very essentialist and prejudicial narrative of African contemporary practice based on an irrational focus on the idea that for art to be legit, it must conform to western prescriptions.
Both issues are of great importance but the second creates the greater problem, since it is involved in creating a canonical archive of erroneous interpretations of African culture, which will, if not checked, misdirect subsequent scholarship in the field.
Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie professor at
History of Art & Architecture
NOTE: This text was first published on http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~artsweb/
and is published on this site with the author's authorization.
An online tour of 'Africa Remix' is available on the web at: http://universes-in-universe.de/specials/africa-remix/english.htm
other text on this site related on Africa Remix
Out of Africa
Reviewed by Brian Sewell at Evening Standard (18 February 2005)
Imagine an exhibition in the Hayward Gallery devoted to contemporary European art of the whole continent, from Lapland to Malta and Portugal to Moldova. With so many cultural inheritances represented within so many nations, the exercise would be a monumental folly, the sheer quantity rendering the encyclopaedic approach impossible and all other approaches so intellectually distorting as to make them unacceptable.
No sane man would embark on such a project, yet for Africa, three times the size of Europe, with far greater racial, religious and cultural divisions and diversities and an older cultural history - it was, when all is said and done, in Africa that man first stood on his hind legs - just such an exhibition has been contrived and is now to be seen on the South Bank.
Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, is part of Africa 05, a distinctly political poly-art beano that, quite by chance, of course, coincides with the interest in that continent currently expressed by our political masters, no doubt to their advantage in the imminent election.
With Mandela rivalling the Pope as the world's greatest living saint (and held in far higher esteem by the powers that be in London), I hardly dare be skeptical, but my first impression of the exhibition remained after a second and third perambulation - that not much of it qualifies as art in any contemporary European sense, and that what little does is so European in its sad inadequacy that it hardly qualifies as African.
This wretched assembly of post tribal artefacts, exhausted materials re-used, and what would easily pass for the apprentice rubbish of the European art school, has about it the air of a state-run trade fair.
One is expected to be polite because the place of origin is poor and for this we blame ourselves to some extent, to make allowances because its artists are even poorer in resources and materials than the Italian artists of (self-imposed) Arte Povera, and, in the spirit of generosity, do business of some kind; the critic must abandon criticism and concede to the paid genius of publicity who described this exhibition as "eye-popping" and the curators who insist that here we witness "breathtaking diversity" and "the wealth of creativity that abounds in Africa today".
Creativity, however, ain't necessarily art. If this is Africa's bid to dominate the world of international biennales, to be given special issues of Modern Painters, Apollo and the Burlington Magazine, to be mocked by David Lee's Jackdaw for the Art Bollocks that it generates or, more worthily, to be recognized as a driving force in the onward march of art history, then it has failed.
The painting is stale, corny, one-trick-pony stuff, and very little here in the Western idioms of video and photography reaches the cutting-edge of which the Arts Council constantly prates but never manages to define.
This, of course, makes the point that someone made the choice of what and who should be included and what and who should not, but he or she or they may well have had pretty poor qualifications to make these judgments, perhaps had an axe to grind, and not one of them could have had the necessarily intimate grasp of what is happening in the visual arts throughout the whole of Africa.
Where, I wondered, after looking at woebegone inferior sculpture in veins in which she is mightily successful, is the work of Sokari Douglas Camp, the Nigerian artist whose Masquerade sculptures at t he Museum of Mankind enthralled and exalted all who saw them there in the context of ancestral West African art? With her absence I suspect that a narrow and exclusive French post-colonial view underlies the selection - indeed, the Francophone curator writes of other exhibitions as evidence of a split between English-speaking, French-speaking and Arabic-speaking visions.
He writes, too, of scandal and chaos, peevishly, as though Africa and African artists are not responsible for themselves, and appears to lay the blame on what he calls the "Judeo (sic) Christian religion". I have long thought that Christian missionaries in Africa, no matter what their denomination, all well-intentioned in their trousered way, were responsible for a great evil in Africa when they denied the African the comforts of animism, tyranny, mutual slavery and even cannibalism that were the established props of then comparatively small African societies.
In the 19th-century tussle for spheres of influence, Christianity in all its proscriptive forms went hand-in-hand with snatching political and commercial advantage, but I doubt if it had much effect on African art, for such a thing in any Western sense did not exist. There was no tradition of easel painting, mural decoration, or the possession of works of art for aesthetic pleasure; there were instead a myriad examples of ancestral craft and fetish repeated generation after generation, and for these we in the West had greater respect than the societies that gave rise to them - which is the reason for their presence in Western museums and private collections (not as art but ethnography) and their immediate reappearance on the international art market whenever ethnic collections have, since the Sixties upheavals in the Belgian Congo, been returned to their places of origin (witness the dispersal and recovery of African objects at the museum in Tervuren).
There is a thesis subject in the change in perception during the 20th century as the masks and figures that influenced Picasso and his ilk ceased to be ethnographical objects and became what the market now describes as ethnic art. The contemporary art in this exhibition is so feeble precisely because it is so little rooted in any native tradition; it adopts Western forms, techniques and devices because it has no models of its own and Western models are so readily available; and it is exhibited in the West because it would be politically incorrect not to play with it the silly Western game of recognising as art everything that is made by man, no matter where. As in the West, success and exposure are not controlled by quality; there, as here, it is the patchy business of being noticed by a curator able to exercise patronage.
In this case the exhibition is bedeviled by having to be pan-African and it is not surprising to see its panjandrums make the same mistakes as those who mounted the Royal Academy's Africa: Art of a Continent in 1996, bundling the Arabic traditions of Mediterranean countries with those of Sub-Saharan Africa, east with west and north with south, though they were separated (and still are) by such distance and hazardous terrain as separate continents.
The RA's exhibition was, nevertheless, genuinely African in that it was largely pre-colonial and pre-Christian (Ethiopia was omitted); the Hayward's is not and in its postcolonialism illustrates a vain scramble by African artists to be seen as part of a Western world, for that way lies esteem and the wealth that accompanies it. They do it very poorly.
Some of the exhibits may be interpreted as political protest, the world vomiting on America, a random collection of posters, papers, incoherent and illiterate propaganda and bits and pieces not unlike those of the current resident protester in Parliament Square, and Yinka Shonibare's absurd Victorian Philanthropist's Parlour (did this shallow-minded, insignificant and repetitive clown really merit a place on the Turner Prize short list?), but as with the art, so with the protest - neither has clear point or purpose.
What is Hassan Musa, a Sudanese living in France, trying to say with the Great American Nude in which he turns Osama bin Laden into a bare-bottomed odalisque by Boucher waiting to be sodomised. As a newspaper cartoon in The Independent it might work, but as art on a large scale it is both trite and transitory, its fleeting point hardly worth the making.
The only exhibits to make a significant point are three large prints by the Durban photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa; these are of laborers in the field, each single figure an image of pathetic resignation exquisitely staged to communicate his numbing drudgery, a slave without shackles, but a slave in all but name. Plus ca change ... Surely this is where the African artist has a duty, not in self-advantage on the fringes of the Western art market?
This is a thoroughly depressing exhibition. We are presented with, largely, a bunch of no-hopers whose work is on view because, and only because, they are African. "Look, look," they say, "we can do it too." And so they can, but it is not worth the doing, for in following the West they mimic it in witless parody, or ape in modern materials and terms what little they know of a genuine African past, or embark on tasks that can only be completed with the obsessive industry of the deranged. Had we in the West not swamped the continent with our colonial ambitions, our Christianity, our medicine, our commercial and industrial greed, had we left Africa to be still the Dark Continent and work out its own purposes, I have no doubt that an Emil Torday of today could have bought new ethnic objects as beautiful as those he acquired for the British Museum a century ago. We should come away from this exhibition blaming not the Africans for the deficiencies of what we've seen, but ourselves, paraphrasing Kipling's melancholy question: "What have we done, what have we done?"
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