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Issue 139

Speak Now

A long-overdue shift is happening in how contemporary African art – from Dakar and Lagos to Cape Town, Harare and Rabat – is disseminated and discussed

BY Nana Oforiatta-Ayim in Features | 01 MAY 11

Much of what we know of art – how it is taught, exhibited and presented, whether in London or Lagos or Lahore – was first defined by Western critics. When Pablo Picasso drew inspiration from Bambara and Gabon masks after a visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in 1906, it was the West that decided that his works were ‘Modernist’ and that the masks were ‘primitive’. In 1953, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais made their first film, Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), which dealt with African art. In 2005, I was asked to do a new translation of the film from French into English as Marker was unhappy with the one that existed. In the film the directors talk of the ‘botany of death’ that happened when sculptures were taken from their natural settings in Africa to the museum cabinets of the West. The study of African art is not just a study of lines and forms, but also of the histories of silence.

In 2010, I directed the research strand for the exhibition ‘Visionary Africa’ organized by the Palais des Beaux-Art in Brussels. Creative Director David Adjaye asked Senegal-based curator Koyo Kouoh to curate the contemporary section and she, in turn, invited contemporary art centres from various parts of Africa to present their work and methods of curation. Later in the year, Tate Modern’s World Collections Programme invited some of the directors of these centres, as well as directors of national arts institutions, to talk at a symposium in London titled ‘Curating in Africa’. All of which indicates a shift happening in how contemporary African art is seen. It has been on the cover of the FT Weekend Magazine, it is auctioned at Bonhams, bought by Tate and there are more and more new galleries, such as Jack Bell Gallery in London which opened at the beginning of 2010, that specialize in it. When Zimbabwe rather than Africa has its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as it does this year, we no longer have to shout so loudly that Africa is not a country. This change is not just happening in London, Venice, Paris and New York, where The Museum of African Art has joined the Museum Mile, but in Mumbai and Tokyo.

Hassan Darsi, Family Portraits Expedition No. 5, From 'Le Bout Du Monde Curatorial Project', 2004. Documentation. Courtesy: L'appartement 22, Cairo. Photograph: Abdellah Karroum. 

Practitioners from Africa are now sharing and interpreting the stories and images of the arts in their respective countries. Many of them came to London and Paris to study and have returned to their home countries, committing to the change they talked and theorized about and demanding that the world also come to them. Last year, for example, Raphael Chikukwa, Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, Zimbabwe, initiated the programme ‘Harare Conversation’ and invited American artist Simone Leigh, as well as Eungie Joo, curator of education at New York’s New Museum, and Victoria Noorthoorn, curator of the 11th Lyon Biennale (2011), to talk to local art students and the arts community. In Nigeria, Bisi Silva, Curator of the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Lagos, brought the portable exhibition on cartography and mapping that Johanna Løgstrup had curated in Copenhagen to the cca in March 2009 and invited curators from Tate to see for themselves what was happening in the Nigerian capital. Tate Modern curator Kerryn Greenberg and cca Lagos curator Jude Anogwih have since taken part in a curatorial residency exchange meeting with arts practioners on both sides and are curating an exhibition that will take place both in London and Lagos later this year.

And misconceptions about Africa’s cultural contributions persist. One would think that comments such as colonial historian A.P. Newton’s from 1923 that Africa had no history before the coming of the Europeans, or G.W.F. Hegel’s that Africa had no historical part in the world, and thus showed no movement or development, are things of the past. As recently as July, 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood in front of a large group of scholars and intellectuals at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and declared that ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history […] they have never really launched themselves into the future’, and that ‘the African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words […] In this realm of fancy [...] there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.’ For good measure, he added that Africa’s problem was its ‘nostalgia for a lost golden age that had never existed’. (But then how could it have when, according to Sarkozy, we were stuck on the eternal hamster wheel of a non-progressive present?) In the face of this kind of ignorance there is no choice but to speak.

Silence is no longer an option. When Senegalese independent curator N’Goné Fall heard what Sarkozy had said, the project, ‘Contact Zone’, that Samuel Sidibé, Director of the National Museum of Mali, Bamako, had invited her, Bisi Silva and Rachida Triki to curate in 2007, took on a wider resonance. The three curators from Senegal, Nigeria and Tunisia invited artists, including Egyptian Khaled Hafez, Beninois Dominique Zinpe and Ghanaian Kofi Setordji to investigate their historical connections to the Malian empire and the trajectories of forced or voluntary exile, of revolution, of independence, of moving boundaries. In these contexts, art becomes another language through which one’s reality is mediated to the world. Silence is not an option when your government does not speak for you or when a country such as Cameroon has no art schools or museums; or when in South Africa hierarchies of apartheid and exclusion privileged only a minority to officially partake in art; or when in Ethiopia, the communist military junta which overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974 also undid his work as patron of the arts, turned the art school into a socialist realist propaganda machine and jailed or killed all dissident voices. There are, of course, also histories of government support in Africa. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe and its art school have fostered their own idiom of Shona sculpture and the talents of artists of international renown such as Sam Songo and Kingsley Sambo. In Senegal, when Leopold Senghor became the country’s first poet-president in 1960 he wrote protection of art into the government’s constitution, resulting in an active arts scene and in the internationally renowned Dakar Biennale that first started in 1990. And when governments fail to provide enough funding and infrastructure, individuals and organizations step in to fill the gaps. Rather than artists being banned, like in Plato’s ideal Republic, a lack of government initiative often allows them to become the co-creators of their relatively new countries, revealing and responding to the natural flow of the cities they inhabit. In Cameroon, Marilyn Douala-Bell is director of Doual’art, a contemporary arts centre and research laboratory that works with the urban council and universities in order to provide data the city does not have. Doual’art has commissioned artist Bili Bidjocka, who is from Douala but now lives in France, to map natural sources of water and create public sculptures and installations for the government. Last year Doual’art – through its triennial of public art, Salon Urbain de Douala (sud) – used the water that runs through the city as a starting point for artists to reflect on the environment. Kenyan artist Ato Malinda performed the myth ubiquitous along the coasts of West Africa of the siren Mami Wata and her shifting manifestations and French artist Lucas Grandin created the installation Le Jardin sonore de Bonamouti (The Sound Garden of Bonamouti), in which the water that dropped on plants turned into percussive instruments. Art becomes a way of understanding and navigating one’s surroundings.

Ato Malinda, On fait Ensemble (We Do Together), 2010. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

Yet there is still the challenge of reaching out to audiences to whom the white cube or museum context might seem foreign. Frustrated by the lack of arts forums in Morocco, curator Abdellah Karroum opened L’appartement 22 in his small flat in Rabat in as an experimental space for exhibitions, debate and residencies. It often reaches out beyond the confines of its walls. In 2003, for example, photographer Hassan Darsi created an ‘ambulant photography studio’. He set up a tent, a backdrop and his equipment at a different place an the souk or market each Sunday taking family portraits, giving one picture to the subjects and keeping one for himself and exhibiting the results both at the market and at L’appartement 22. In Cape Town Riason Naidoo, Director of the Iziko South African National Gallery, has tried to break out of the linear narrative of curation and reflect back to the country its complexities by exhibiting multiple histories. In his first major exhibition at the Gallery last year, ‘1910–2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective’, Naidoo included collections of Zulu and Ndebele beadwork alongside the resistance art of George Hallett, and Zanele Muholi’s controversial contemporary photographs of lesbians. Also included were early 20th-century academic artists, such as Maggie Laubser, alongside various artists who were not officially allowed to study art at universities under apartheid, and who trained at informal institutions like the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, a community centre that became an arts centre in 1952 under the direction of Cecil Skotnes, and produced artists including Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae.

Informal training is still the reality in places like Cameroon, where Doual’art invites more experienced artists such as Ato Malinda to work with younger artists in order to give them otherwise non-existent opportunities to learn. In cities such as Lagos – which has a thriving arts scene, with private art galleries, an auction house and healthy patronage – 25 institutions offer fine and applied art courses. Despite this, the education system still largely hinges on the colonial model of sculpting and painting rural scenes and idealized women. cca, in contrast, focuses on lens-based media in order to allow artists to diversify their platforms. It has also created a visual art library, publications, workshops and portfolio reviews to provide contexts and theories not available at the academies.

The history of art is still usually taught using the methods and concepts of the Western art history. But recent conferences, such as ‘Other Views’ at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in January 2011 and ‘The Now Museum: Contemporary Art, Curating Histories, Alternative Models’ at the New Museum in New York in March 2011 show that the world is changing and how we see and understand art is changing with it. An article on contemporary African arts appears in frieze rather than only in African Arts; a symposium on curating in Africa is held at Tate Modern and at cca Lagos rather than at The Africa Centre in London. Other ways of seeing are shifting from the margins to the mainstream and are redefining our notions of ourselves and of each other.

Already some curators such as Meskerem Assegued, who runs the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, are incorporating some of their country’s historical philosophical forms and meanings into their practice. For the art event ‘Giziawi #1’ in 2002 – Giziawi translates from Amharic as temporary or ephemeral – Assegued invited 50 local and international artists, the Adunya dance company, and the Mulatu Astatke jazz band and drummers. The artists painted the dancers bodies and canvases; after three days the dancers washed the paint off their bodies with buckets of water and the artists cut the canvases from the frames and after showing them to the audience, burnt them.

The idea of the work of art as part of a process – as moving and living rather than static and fixed – pervades many of the histories of both visual and performing arts in different African contexts. For example, the value of the 19th-century Nigerian Gelede masquerade mask displayed in The British Museum was in its animation. The philosophies implied in the Ayan – the poetry told through the language of the drums of the Akan of Ghana – are of creation-in-process, of the layering of different forms, of visual arts, language and music, of ellipsis rather than elucidations. The understanding of what gave forms their meaning and value in their original context, the witnessing of the challenges, struggles and achievements of individuals and organizations on the continent today, expand all our understanding of how different peoples meet, interpret and explain the world. The statues are no longer dead in their cases. Our histories are no longer mute. The hierarchy of value is being replaced by an equality of curiosity and exchange. •

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim is a writer and filmmaker based in Accra, Ghana, where she runs the cultural research platform, ANO.