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Issue 160

See Change

The increased visibility of art from Africa in the UK

BY Basia Lewandowska Cummings in Opinion | 11 JAN 13

Courtesy: the artist and October Gallery, London

The museum is a mausoleum where African artefacts go to die. So argued Chris Marker and Alain Resnais in their film about art and the spectre of post-colonialism, Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953). Shot mostly at the Musée du Congo Belge in Tervuren, and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, the camera often sits in the place of the objects; visitors gaze into the lens, some flippantly, others moved, but all, according to the filmmakers, ignorant of the complex web of significance from which these objects derive. The voice-over tells us: ‘These statues are mute. They have mouths and don’t speak.’

I was reminded of this film while at Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–2002), which was exhibited at Tate Modern last year. There, through 12 rooms, I walked past a money tree decorated with inflated currencies, busts of Picasso and Brancusi printed onto the hanging bank notes in place of the usual generals; and by the ‘Humanist Space’, a collection of bicycles from Documenta 11 (2002), which were available to visitors to ride for free. Value, gift-giving, charity and the exhibitionary complex – all were turned on their heads. It felt like the installation was in conversation with Marker and Resnais’ film or, more directly, that it stuck a finger up to the ethnographic norm that the film depicts. Here, the ubiquity of African objects in museums and the history of colonialism that they often signify was replaced by mischievous works which questioned globalized cultural signification and its relationship to local culture. In his pastiche of the idea of a ‘Museum of African Art’, Gaba reflects on the lamentable lack of space for his work in Western galleries and institutions, which he felt acutely when he first started making art in the early 1990s.

Gaba’s museum-within-a-museum was acquired by Tate as part of its new initiative to introduce more ‘African art’ into the collection. In an interview published in Kaleidoscope’s ‘Africa Issue’ in 2012 (in itself a thorny topic), the then-newly appointed Curator of International Art at Tate, Elvira Dyangani Ose, commented that: ‘What we are doing is increasing the presence and visibility of African art within the Tate collection […] I’m interested in telling the story of a universal art history.’ Similarly, Tate Modern’s Director, Chris Dercon, has declared: ‘We are becoming aware that there are different forms of modernities.’

Gaba’s Museum questions what it means to exhibit ‘African art’ within a Western context and, more simply, what ‘African art’ actually is. In response to Robert Storr’s introduction of an ‘African Pavilion’ at the 2007 Venice Biennale – which usually exhibits art according to nations, not continents – Kodwo Eshun wrote in this magazine that it revealed the ‘painfully restricted space practitioners are still obliged to inhabit in order to create platforms through which the complexities of African contemporaneity become visible, audible and speakable’. In her Kaleidoscope interview, Ose also focused on this point, declaring indignantly: ‘Africa is not the only conceptual context in which artists there operate.’ These questions persist. Whether the increased visibility of art from Africa has widened the scope for exhibition and critique, and whether Tate’s expanded idea of modernity signifies a meaningful change, remains to be seen.

From London, it does feel as though things are changing. The visibility of art and artists from Africa is improving, and a glut of exhibitions and events in 2013 reflected this: Ibrahim El-Salahi’s visionary modernism at Tate Modern; Wosene Worke Kosrof’s wordplay at the newly opened Gallery of African Art; the talks programme at Tiwani Contemporary; El Anatsui’s giant bottle-top and roofing sheet hanging at the Royal Academy; the list could go on. Elsewhere, the questions around what John Akomfrah dubbed ‘the hubris of overcompensation’ are generating rigorous online debate. The launch of Contemporary &, an online publication supported by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations in Germany, has heralded a hub of coverage of ‘international art from African perspectives’, from well-respected writers and curators. The site promotes independent art spaces, libraries and residency programmes across the continent, and provides a much-needed counterpoint to the slew of recent articles in the Financial Times celebrating the ‘hotness’ of ‘African art’ and its rise as an ‘emergent asset class’. The launch of a new contemporary African art fair in London, 1:54, tested this hype in real commercial terms in October last year.

In light of these changes, Gaba’s symbolic carving of a space into a Western institution via its ironic replication now, thankfully, seems a bit dated. Looking at the work of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Egypt; CCA Lagos in Nigeria; the Raw Material Company in Dakar, Senegal; the Art Bakery in Bonendale, Cameroon; or L’appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco, what emerges is a picture of scenes across the continent attracting international interest, as well as developing local means for art practice. As CCA Lagos director Bisi Silva said in Contemporary &: ‘There has been a phenomenal shift in just under a decade [...] with the intra-continental interaction, the scene is more fluid, more vibrant than ever before.’