We can say that the 50-plus countries on the African continent constitute a region in flux, wrestling with globalization and its own self-invention, but defining what Africa is may well be an impossible task. Shying away from loaded propositions of a unified African identity, ARS 11 – the eighth edition in a series of ambitious, large-scale exhibitions organized in Helsinki since 1961 (since 2001 at Kiasma) – invited 63 artists and more than 50 writers to offer perspectives on contemporary African art and the realities from which it emerges.
The organizers have been conscious of the representational discourses surrounding Africa, pointing at the complications and dangers of an exhibition such as this one, which could potentially annihilate Africa’s multiplicity of artistic voices by painting a picture in conveniently broad strokes. An essay by Binyavanga Wainaina reproduced in the catalogue provocatively suggests one way to write about Africa: ‘Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title […] Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.’ Wainaina’s satirical text expresses the frustration of many Africans regarding the ignorant or patronizing forms of cultural consumption to which they are subjected; it also illustrates the difficulty in entering this debate and discourse as an outsider or a non-African.
Unlike the sweeping view of 2004’s ‘Africa Remix’, ARS 11’s approach is less condescending and more aware of the pitfalls it had to negotiate. For example, the inclusion of artists born or living outside Africa (such as Ursula Biemann, Isaac Julien, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Laura Horelli, Alfredo Jaar and Vincent Meessen), whose work has addressed subjects related to Africa, makes it a much more multifaceted exhibition. Meessen’s video installation Vita Nova (2009) foregrounds the show’s deliberately inconclusive approach: the video installation’s subject is the iconic 1955 cover of Paris-Match, depicting an African child saluting in uniform, which Roland Barthes considered in Mythologies (1957). We learn that the boy, Diouf Birane, was born in Senegal, grew up to be a doctor, and died in the 1980s. The infamous photograph was taken while he was a cadet at a Senegalese military academy set up by the French, which had travelled to Paris to participate in a widely televised military spectacle at the Palais des Sports. The story in the video is reported to Issa Kabore, another child featured in that Paris-Match issue, now an older man, who had never seen the cover. Birane becomes somewhat of a colonial ghost, not unlike Barthes’s grandfather, who was a key figure in setting up Côte d’Ivoire as a French colony in the 1880s, and who is introduced in the video via a photograph of his funeral. These interweaving narratives create a complex space between reality and fiction – not unlike perceptions of Africa – which the artist describes as ‘a fiction that I documented’.
Among the works by the more prominent artists included in ARS 11, such as Samuel Fosso and Pieter Hugo, Barthélémy Toguo’s Infinite Theater (1996–9) is the most striking. This large-scale installation is a set design for a nonexistent play documenting the artist’s own experiences travelling around the world – a comment on the absurdity and arbitrariness underlying the concept of nations and their borders.
With its focus on works that treat memory and history as essential to understanding the realities of a place, and its acknowledgment that a continent is necessarily too vast and too diverse to be represented in any single exhibition, ARS 11 is powerful and convincing. One of its most successful aspects is its realistic approach to the difficulties of understanding Africa as a singular entity, and its emphasis on highlighting the diversity of artistic expressions and the multitude of realities on a continent – and in a Postmodern world – increasingly characterized by migration, exile and cultural hybridity.