‘Fusion: African Artists at the Venice Biennale’ Thomas McEvilley
The Museum for African Art, New York, USA
With the increasing interest in art practices beyond the closed circuits of the European and American tracks, a sudden flood of information, exposure and market speculation around African artists is beginning to seep into the tight-knit foundations of contemporary art’s centre stage. When in 1990 the Studio Museum of Harlem showed five artists from Africa at the Venice Biennale, the general response was muted. Although Grace Stanislaus had selected some of the strongest and most experimental artists in Africa today (Tapfuma Gutsa from Zimbabwe; Bruce Onobrakpeya from Nigeria), the choice of works appeared tame and conventional. Moreover, it did not fit in with that new exoticism championed at the time by the Paris show ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ which sought an African art - as an Indian art - free from European modernist reflection.
Three years later Susan Vogel, director of the newly inaugurated Museum for African Art in New York shows five artists from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire at the Venice Biennale of 1993. Accompanying the exhibition is a catalogue including five interviews and an essay by Thomas McEvilley. Both the presentation and the publication are slick and fill an important gap in information around contemporary art in Africa today which the Museum, once primarily dedicated to exposing ‘tribal art’, is now actively promoting.
McEvilley, who has never professed to be an expert in African art, is interested in the effects of postmodernism on practising artists from Africa today. Seen from the West’s point of view, he claims their presence at the Venice Biennale in 1993 is a phenomenon at the ‘heart of the post-Modern moment’. The five artists from West Africa whom he interviews refuse to be limited to an essentialist notion of an ‘African’ culture or art: they too are citizens of the world. This postmodern phase of identity is a reaction to the underpinnings of modernism which McEvilley describes loosely as ‘the ideology behind European colonialism and imperialism’.
Mustapha Dimé, the Senegalese sculptor who won first prize at Africa’s own ‘Dakar Biennale’ in 1992, talks to McEvilley about his entry into artistic practise in Senegal and the problems of religious caste and political representation sometimes affecting the access and visibility of artists. Dimé still lives in Senegal on Gorée, the ex-slave trading island off Dakar. At the peak of its only hill, he has built a studio with a vertiginous looking down over the rocks and sea below. His sculptures made of drift wood, segments of old canoes and junk metal are like the floating figures of history both transatlantic and nomadic within their own space. Like the painter Tamessir Dia, of mixed Senegalese, Malian and Ivoirian heritage, or Ouattara who currently lives in New York, métissage or hybridisation is an inherent part of Dimé‘s language as an artist. This position is visible not only in the sculpture he creates but, more importantly perhaps, in his resistance to being categorised.
In the five interviews with the Senegalese and Ivoirian artists, McEvilley is sensitive to the derailment of common ground. He is the last to claim intimate knowledge of the African context and his questions to the artists presuppose modest familiarity with the environment in which they all work whether this be Dakar or Abidjan. This limitation is a useful mechanism for encouraging new audiences to approach contemporary art from Africa, even if at times it risks creating a see-saw of polarities between ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘borrowed’ and ‘digested’.
McEvilley succeeds best when unpacking the juncture of models so characteristic of postmodern identity and chiselling away at the validity of European-American received ideas. He asks: ‘can we - descendants of both colonisers and colonised - acknowledge the colonial karmic debt yet build from it into some more, generous, less volatile geopolitical fusion…?’ With a new mapping of art worlds, a new set of relations is being forged between artists and markets, but more importantly, a new configuration of ideas is taking place within the work itself. It is from this basis that exhibitions and publications can now take into account the voice of artists from Africa, the presentation of their work, its interaction with specialist artistic communities and the unmistakably global context that it opens out.