modern african art
Landmarks in the globalisation of modern African art
Contemporary African art is experiencing a renaissance in the West, moving
beyond the primitivism of 1906 when western artists were influenced by
traditional African art, and which sparked off a trend in the 1930s and
1940s of showing African artworks in the West.
By Natasha Becker found at http://www.sundayindependent.co.za/
February 12, 2006
Representation of African art in the West is a relatively young; it is only
since the 1980s that African art became an area of research in (a very few) art
history departments in the United States, and only in the late 1980s did major
exhibitions tackle the issues of its inclusion.
African art has been a matter of contestation between what might be called the
older academic stream, represented by exhibitions such as Contemporary African
Artists: Changing Tradition, curated by Grace Stanislaus at the Studio Museum in
Harlem in 1990; and theoretical publications such as Third Text, the newer
academic stream represented by Africanist scholar-curators such as Okwui Enwezor,
Olu Oguibe and Salah Hassan; and finally, the more conservative stream of
various western collectors of both traditional and contemporary African art.
Between these various currents, quarrels and disagreements exist about
western-educated and non-educated African artists; those who live abroad and
those who live in Africa; the historic criticism that Africans have levelled
against westerners for exoticised and naive representations of the continent;
and the debates around African identity in a post-colonial age.
Ultimately, this is a struggle over control of representation of art from Africa
in the West.
The most significant of the West's African exhibitions was in 1984 at the Museum
of Modern Art (Moma) in New York, Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art, which
displayed African works in conjunction with European modernist works. The
similarities between the works were interpreted as showing the underlying
spiritual embodiment of all mankind and not the influence of so-called primitive
art on western artists, as had been the case.
The exhibition showed no interest in the so-called primitive works for their own
sake, or the importance of non-western art in invigorating the art of the West
during its modernist phase.
Africanist art scholars castigated the show for using the arts of Africa to
prove the spiritual legitimacy of the colonised. Soon to follow was the
exhibition Magiciens de la terre, directed by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre
Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989. The show was to exhibit western and
non-western works side by side in a more neutral and less imperialistic way than
Moma's primitivism show.
The exhibition focused on the work of the moment, that is the 1980s. Works by 50
western and 50 non-western artists were installed in a loose, disorganised way
that tried to avoid assumptions of hierarchy. The works were not commented on,
but were meant to "speak for themselves".
Many audiences felt they were seeing contemporary African art for the first
time, but the exhibition raised two major problems: first, Africans had a
problem with the fact that the works were chosen by white westerners who came up
with a very different selection of artists than the African experts would have.
The criticism from Africans, therefore, was that the white world was once again
defining its culture by western standards rather than by African.
From the European perspective, the biggest problem was that the works had not
yet been assimilated into the canon of western art and this opened up the
history of western art to criticism.
While there were other exhibitions of modern or contemporary art from Africa
before Magiciens, this exhibition opened up the floodgates for contemporary
African art in the West.
The end of apartheid in South Africa marked our reintroduction into the global
art stream with our admission to the 45th Venice Biennale after about 50 years
of cultural boycott.
Contemporary South African art entered the discourse on the representation of
African art in the West when a new discursive current was being articulated. The
Short Century exhibition addressed art and politics in Africa from 1945 to 1994,
bringing contemporary African art to the notice of western museums and their
The exhibition prompted a provocative review from Holland Cotter in The New York
Times: "Africa, whatever it is, is everywhere. It's far more than just a
continent. It's a global diaspora, and international culture and a metaphor with
In Cotter's view, the exhibition marked the globalisation of contemporary
African art. Indeed, the issue in the exhibition was no longer the binary
opposition of coloniser and the colonised but the way colonialism was but one
part of the dialogue.
Published on the web by Sunday Independent on February 11, 2006.
© Sunday Independent 2006. All rights reserved.
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