A year after the release of his 1971 film Emitaï, a fictionalized account of France’s coercive drafting of Senegalese villagers to fight in World War II, Ousmane Sembène, the dockworker-turned-writer and filmmaker, toured the US in an effort to raise funds for future projects. On a stopover in Madison, Wisconsin, Sembène showed his new film and fielded questions. ‘My movies have more followers than the political parties and the Catholic and Muslim religions combined,’ he joked, unaware that his next two films, the metropolitan satire Xala (1975) and village epic Ceddo (1977), would be censored and banned respectively.
Sembène wasn’t all bragga‑docio. He told his American audience: ‘African society is in a state of degeneracy, reflected also in our imitative art.’ Black metropolitan elites, he offered, were aping Europeans and Americans, buying what he described as ‘airport art’ – blackened-wood sculptures made by urban artists. In his view, ‘true art’ resided in the ‘villages and rural communities, preserved in the ceremony and religion’. There is a strand of thought in the collection and curation of contemporary African art that has exhaustively played out Sembène’s binary between village and city, which really is just shorthand for larger concepts of centre and periphery.
Born in Ziguinchor, a town on the Casamance River in southern Senegal, Sembène understood the village to be both fact and metaphor. It was real in the sense that the agrarian villages portrayed in Emitaï and Ceddo were welded together by particular hierarchies and customs, intangibles that Sembène understood from his own riverside upbringing. Once transplanted to Marseilles, however, where he arrived as a stowaway in 1947, Sembène came to understand the non-literal meaning of the word ‘village’ when he found a room in an impoverished immigrant community, which he dubbed ‘The Village’ in his early fictional writing.
Marseilles aside, London’s Brixton neighbourhood, Berlin’s Neukölln and parts of Brooklyn in New York are good examples of these metaphorical villages. Benjamin Buchloh – during his frank conversations with the curator Jean-Hubert Martin in the lead-up to the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, that now-mythical exegesis on town and country at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989 – described them as ‘minority cultures’ based in ‘hegemonic Western societies’. Brooklyn’s currency as an artist village was recently the subject of an exhibition at Stevenson in Cape Town. Although it made no mention of the term ‘urban village’, ‘Kings County’ appropriated the conceit as a means to showcase work by four current and former Brooklyn residents: Nigerian-born painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Botswana-born painter Meleko Mokgosi, Ugandan-American photographic artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Kenyan collagist Wangechi Mutu.
But the village metaphor offers more than simply a means to map the exclusionary geographies that characterizeEuropean and American cities. Curators have long vaunted the African village as a place of ‘true art’, to borrow from Sembène. The First International Congress of African Culture, held in 1962 at the National Gallery in Salisbury, Rhodesia, was an early precursor to ‘Magiciens’. Alfred Barr, Tristan Tzara and ethno-musicologist Hugh Tracey all travelled to the event, which, at the time, was the largest-ever showcase of traditional and contemporary African and European art on the continent. Ricky Burnett’s ‘Tributaries’ – a kind of South Africa-specific ‘Magiciens’, held in 1985 at Museum Africa, Johannesburg – showed the work of rural black artists alongside their black and white urban compatriots. William Kentridge, then recently returned from studying mime in Paris, exhibited his charcoal drawings; he remembers the work of unheralded sculptors Jackson Hlungwani and Nelson Makuba as ‘astonishing revelations’. Burnett’s discoveries, made on extended road trips and informed by his anti-apartheid ardour, prompted great market and scholarly interest in Hlungwani, whose wooden sculptures functioned as set pieces in the New Jerusalem church he headed up.
A common thread links all three exhibitions: a shared belief in the sacral aspects of art production by their organizers, as well as an unbridled faith in the liberal-humanist paradigm of looking. For his part, Martin was sanguine about the limits of what he was doing: ‘This is an exhibition, not a discourse,’ he told Buchloh, ‘yet I know that exhibitions cannot claim innocence’. The activist curatorial practices of Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami, amongst others, have been a corrective to ongoing assumptions about the village as locus of ‘true’ African art, in particular by highlighting the mobile, urbane and transcontinental character of contemporary African art. But this doesn’t negate Sembène’s thoughts. The city is no more real or authentic than the village. Both exist; each is true.