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The Meaning of Contemporary African Art: Networks, Mobility, and Production

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By Moses Serubiri 

Abstract:

The article presents a short history of africa95, the Royal Academy of Arts initiated platform.  Using this exhibition as a case study for the development of a contemporary African art discourse, the paper raises questions about the subjective frameworks informing contemporary African art exhibitions, such as collecting of artworks, historical methodology, accessible networks, mobility, and the expansion of artistic discourses.

1.

In the Spring 1996 issue of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, Olabisi Silva, the Nigerian curator and critic, wrote a review of africa95 stating that John Povey, former editor of African Arts, at the ACASA Triennial of 1989 asked: “What are we going to do about contemporary African art?[1]” It seemed like a strange and bewildering question, which had triggered concern about accessibility and knowledge.  As I had been working as an art critic in Kampala between 2011 and 2014 in the New Vision Daily newspaper and the online START Journal of Arts and Culture in East Africa (2007- ), I found the 1989 debate somewhat isolated from what we often discussed in these pages as Ugandan art or the East African art scene. In this capacity, I had access to a local art system of visual artists, art critics, exhibition organizers, and visual art patrons. The understanding of culture in Kampala in the “Lifestyle” and “Weekend” pages of the New Vision  Daily was interdisciplinary when I worked in the newsroom, and this was the same when I worked with START Journal. There was no over-specialization in any one genre or art form, except when a scholar or art historian was involved. The newspapers focused on reporting on weekend events: live music, dance, theatre, or visual art in these pages. At the festivals, such as the Bayimba International Festival of Music and Arts (2007), or LaBa! Street Art Festival (2007), visual art was not isolated from other art forms. I therefore relied on the writing of art and literature critic David Kaiza, and art historian Dr. Angelo Kakande, in addition to my research to deepen my understanding of visual art practices in the city.

In the 1960s, contemporary art[2] was not the terminology of choice for art and literary critics published in Black Orpheus (Ibadan), Transition (Kampala), and Drum (Johannesburg) (even as these were regionally and internationally distributed publications). Very often the term African Art was used instead – and then further categories like Islamic Art, Rock Art, Religious Murals were used. In an interview with Gregory Maloba[3], the artist talked about artists who aligned with decolonial politics and the changes gripping East Africa in the 1960s. Compared to the current discourses amongst artists from Africa within contemporary art in the 1980s such as identity politics, feminism, decolonization, repatriation, among others, the Ugandan artists in the 1960s struggled with being subsumed by political debates, especially within the realm of struggles to re-define “African Art”. Ugandan and Kenyan artists appeared marginally in the pages of Transition magazine: discussion of art was minimal, compared to space allocated to literary and political debates. More attention was given to literature than art, because novelists would, as was later observed, “shape the vocabulary of social life.”[4]  In 1968, Ulli Beier published a book under the title “Contemporary Art in Africa” while documenting the work of 300 artists based in 25 African countries[5]. The term seemed to carry an international connotation, even as an inter-continental survey.

The disputes at the basis of africa95 come first from disagreements on the ontology of this term, “Contemporary African Art”. africa95 was a multiple-site exhibition that opened in London in 1995, and included shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, Barbican Center, Royal Academy of Arts, as well as several satellite exhibitions and residencies. Ugandan artist Francis X. Nnaggenda was one of the artists in residence. It had a celebratory spirit that seemed to echo the Dak’Art Biennial for Contemporary African Art (1992 and 1994) in its “festival” and city-wide structure. It had two nucleic exhibitions: Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa organized by Clementine Deliss and seven African artist-curators and scholars; and Africa: The Art of a Continent organized by Tom Phillips. Norman Rosenthal, who was  in charge of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts led the project committee. This art educator was resilient in his interest in African Art in the Royal Academy of Arts collection and had dismissed the term Contemporary African Art. It was only after Robert Loder, a collector who co-founded the Triangle Workshops in 1986, joined the organizing committee for africa95 that it seemed that living artists were in consideration for the exhibition (ironically, Loder also dismissed an artist that he referred to as a craftswoman). Clementine Deliss went further than Loder by holding seminars in 1991 with artist-critics like Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian artist, Eddie Chambers, a Black-British critic and curator, and David Koloane, a South African artist and arts organizer, at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

In a sense, the East African arts scene remained isolated from the SOAS seminars, and later the presence of Ugandan and Kenyan artists in africa95 was not favoured by critics. In an interview with the curator Clementine Deliss in 2014, I was told that the only medium of communication she had with Kampala was through fax[6]. Even when she visited Kampala and the Makerere Art Gallery, there were obvious limitations to Deliss’ engagement with the Ugandan and the East African arts scene. Deliss’ curatorial research and Robert Loder’s support towards Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa, shows a bias[7] towards working with artists in Dakar than in Kampala or Nairobi, and hence, the curatorial selection was influenced by such factors as accessibility, the mobility of artists and availability of networks, or diplomatic and cultural institutions.

2.

A network of artists in African cities like Dakar and Johannesburg, with the support of London-based galleries, museums and collectors, made the multi-site exhibition africa95 possible.  However, its focus on a constellation of art schools on the African continent such as Zaria, Makerere, Khartoum, and Addis was as revelatory as it was controversial[8]. The exhibition also provoked serious questions about repatriation and colonialism. Olabisi Silva, in her review in Nka, used the term “cultural terrorism” to describe the inclusion of artefacts from an 1897 pillage of the Royal Palace of Benin.

Africa: The Art of a Continent, a central exhibition of africa95 organized by Tom Phillips of the Royal Academy of Arts, included a stolen pot native to Benin[9]. This concern and others showed the complex political relationship between Nigeria and England, and revealed gaps in the process of decolonization. While I understood the call for repatriation, I took an interest in Silva’s term “curatorial correctness” and how it suggested that curating, in the context of africa95, became necessarily burdened with political meaning. Here the scholarship of African art translated into the display of African artefacts. Yet it was politically insensitive to include stolen artefacts during a pivotal moment of postcolonial debate in the 1990s.

John Picton, the SOAS art history professor, who was part of the committee of africa95 recalled[10] that the project (at its early stages focused on the Collection of the Royal Academy of Arts) evolved from an interest in a 1980s exhibition Treasures of Ancient Nigeria[11], and Susan Vogel was identified as a potential curator. By 1991 when Vogel curated Africa Explores her interest in living African artists and their concerns had deepened. However, Norman Rosenthal, who disliked Africa Explores, later failed to come to a consensus with Vogel about an exhibition of African art, which surveyed an entire continent and included work by contemporary, modern, and traditional art practitioners perhaps discontented with the approach or methodology of such a task.

We could view Seven Stories as a solution to the ontological demands of the task. That is, the Deliss-curated exhibition was first and foremost a discursive forum. The exhibition evolved from seminars with African artists and African diaspora art critics in discussions which influenced the decision to focus both on artist writing as well as foregrounding the artist as curator.

The Seven Stories project attempted a response to earlier projects such as Ulli Beier’s Contemporary Art in Africa and Susan Vogel’s Africa Explores by engaging artists themselves. Though Deliss went further by centering the artist’s voice. Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy and South African artist David Koloane both contributed essays to the catalogue, and organized sections of the exhibition. By selecting their own and other artists’ work, both El Hadji Sy and David Koloane actively shaped the curatorial framework.

View of the exhibition Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, the Senegalese story, at Whitechapel Gallery London, 1995. Photo: Clémentine Deliss.

This liberal and textual approach immediately brought challenges to the exhibition format, which did not translate directly from the page to the Whitechapel Gallery. Olabisi Silva’s review notes the seemingly “buffet style” of exhibition making, in which too much was on offer, decrying this approach as not giving enough attention to the individual artist. This was true of artists such as Souleymane Keita in the Senegalese Story or Ibrahim El Salahi in the Sudanese Story.

A number of solo exhibitions have emerged as a response to the need for a more concise articulation of the practice of individual artists in africa95. Exhibitions, such as that of Issa Samb (curated by Koyo Kouoh, 2014) and El Anatsui (curated by Olabisi Silva, 2014) both bear strong contextual considerations. That of Ibrahim El Salahi (curated by Salah Hassan , 2012) and El Hadji Sy (curated by Deliss, 2015) make strong art historical arguments.

This continues a trend of curatorial engagement with West African and Southern African artists, leaving out North African, Central African, and East African artists. East African Artists in Seven Stories such as Tanzania’s Sam Ntiro, or Uganda’s Pilkington Ssengendo have yet to be the subject of retrospective exhibitions. The exhibition seemed to map out a group of artists that had a rich body of work, without exploring further their individual ideas or ideological and political concerns.

 

3.

It is important to note that the africa95 platform was supported by international structures that made their local and international networks available to the curators. These included at an early stage, Robert Loder’s Triangle Workshops, which mostly had taken place in Southern Africa. Clementine Deliss had already gained contacts in Dakar since having done prior research in Senegal (Deliss reviewed the 1992 Dak’art Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Third Text[12]). The Tenq workshop in Dakar of 1993 was named so by El Hadji Sy, and followed the Triangle Workshop model, with other leading artists contributing such as David Koloane and Yinka Shonibare. Tenq became a nucleic form for the africa95 platform. It is not clear to what extent Tenq borrowed from the 1991 SOAS seminars. The international artists who jetted into Dakar produced artwork within a collegial environment, sharing knowledge, and activating a network.

What has made it difficult for artists and researchers to form an inter-continental perspective on artistic practices in African cities has more to do with limitations of accessibility. That is, in the mode of  academic knowledge, institutional networks within the continental regions, or primary curatorial research in the various art fields. Tenq seemed possible because of the mapped out logistical and knowledge-based support through the Triangle Workshops (now Network), the local infrastructure accessible to El Hadji Sy who led the Tenq workshop, as well as the support of the Arts Council England and the committee of the africa95.

Africa95 festival, Africa: Art of a Continent exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts. Design of the exhibition cases with Eva Jiricna Architects, London 1995. Photo: Aivars Architects Ltd

The conception of “contemporary African art” in the context of africa95 was negotiated through platforms such as the 1991 SOAS African artist seminars, Tenq and the Dak’art Biennale of Contemporary Art in 1992. The support of knowledge and funding networks, and larger interconnections between artists in Dakar and London subsequently shaped africa95. In London, galleries (Whitechapel, Barbican Art Center), museums, universities (Royal Academy of Arts, School of Oriental and African Studies), culture offices (Arts Council England), and diplomatic missions (British Council and European Development Fund)  were all involved in the realization of the africa95 platform. The support of diplomatic and government institutions also heavily shaped the platform, providing a layer of cultural diplomacy and negotiating within the field of international contemporary art.

Another matter of concern in the formation of africa95 – as in many discussions on contemporary art from Africa – is the difference between “the self-taught artist and the academic artist”. Exhibitions such as Primitivism in the 20th Century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (Museum of Modern Art, 1984), and Magiciens de la Terre (Centre Pompidou, 1989), attempted to show “authentic African art”[13]. Counter-discourses opposing a simplistic view of artists “untouched” by Western education, produced a range of exhibitions including Susan Vogel’s show Africa Explores in 1991. In organizing Seven Stories, Deliss was going against the idea that African art was authentic if it met certain aesthetic criteria, such as that seen in the works of Esther Mahlangu and Cyprien Tokoudagba at the Centre Pompidou in 1989.

Seven Stories involved African artists as thinkers and intellectuals, not only makers of art objects. In the work of El Hadji Sy and the Laboratoire Agit’Art, Clementine Deliss recalled the “concept of theatre of the French visionary Antonin Artaud … (whose) gestural language of the stage corresponds closely to the Laboratoire sense of immediacy as (El Hadji Sy) writes, ‘we shall not perform any written plays, but shall attempt to create productions directly on stage around subjects, events or known works. The very nature and arrangement of the room require spectacle, and there is no subject, however vast, that can be denied to us.”[14] The flows and affinities which were particular to the Laboratoire group’s involvement in Situationist and avant-garde approaches were not very well received[15] partly due to the translation of an outdoor spatial configuration to the limiting gallery space at the Whitechapel. The problems of curating “happenings” inside the gallery space emerged within the Senegalese story, whose installation looked like the remnants of a performance set design.

 

5.

The africa95 platform reveals the expansion of a discourse of contemporary African art with an international network and knowledge base. Precedents for africa95, in this context, include Susan Vogel’s important exhibitions of living African artists in Africa Explores and Fusion: African Artists at the Venice Biennale. However, these are not the only laboratories for contemporary African art thinking, as other platforms such as the First Johannesburg Biennale (1995), and the 1994 Dak’Art Biennale should be considered alongside africa95 as exhibitions that contributed to this contemporary African art discourse. Criticism[16] about parts of africa95 centered on the lack of sufficient knowledge to contextualize the various artistic practices in any real political moment. An “art movement” historical methodology was employed, showing glaring holes in research, as in the case of Uganda, where as I mentioned earlier an interdisciplinary approach would have been more suitable. An “art movement” methodology made it seem as if every artist participating in the Seven Stories exhibition was part of a movement. It once again introduced what appeared to be unnecessary or unwanted ontological categories, when more emphasis could be put on the artwork and the context of the artistic practice itself.

I return to an earlier point about accessibility and knowledge in relation to “contemporary African art” or artistic practice in the regional arts scenes in Africa. What was the meaning of curating contemporary art from Africa in 1995? It meant that Northern-hemisphere curators had limited accessibility to African artists. It meant that their knowledge of Africa-based artistic practices was limited. The consummation with Situationist theories, and post-colonialism (a focus on the 1960s), made the immediate history of Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s relatively absent. This decade is extensively examined in Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi’s upcoming exhibition Feedback: Africa, Art and the Eighties. Where were reflections about the various guerrilla movements that defined politics in 1980s Uganda, Ghana and Zimbabwe? For example, while the perspective of the fall of Communism in 1989 was well discussed in Europe, what was the African perspective on the same subject?

Was the information about how artists and cultural producers articulated their own sense of environment in Africa available to the curators? The curatorial was thus limited to the available networks and contacts of artists, art schools, and collectors. Furthermore, limited communication with places further afield of the accessible art destinations of Dakar and Johannesburg, such as Kampala, revealed further weaknesses in contextual knowledge.

Then, the organizing and thinking on contemporary African art was linked to collectors such as Robert Loder, Jean Pigozzi (“Big City”: an africa95 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery featured Pigozzi collected artworks) and the Royal Academy of Art collection. This has its own sense of limitation, especially when considering the monopoly on a subjective framework for African art defined by a few collections. It is evident that without these collections, there wouldn’t be much of an exhibition. A counter model is the commissioning of new works as opposed to relying on already built collections; a focus on commissions would rely less on the already difficult point of the monopoly of collections, and that of ownership of art; and it would provide artists with more agency in the process. Furthermore, issues of contestation over ownership emerged when paintings belonging to artists (but stored in the Makerere Art Gallery) were taken to London and by the account of many these artworks were never returned. The exhibition includes works by Pilkington Ssengendo, Kefa Sempangi, and Ignatius Serulyo among others[17]. This is a trend that connects the Makerere paintings in Seven Stories (the Ugandan) to the Benin pot in Africa: The Art of A Continent, as art object whose ownership was under contestation. In a footnote, Deliss read the works through a dark lens, avoiding the interdisciplinary and multicultural basis of Ugandan artists, by making allusions to medieval painting: “Interestingly, Antonin Artaud’s discussion of Flemish painting corresponds closely with the visions proposed in the Ugandan paintings. He writes: ‘The nightmares of Flemish painting make an impression on us because of the juxtaposition to the real world of what has become a caricature of this world. They present us with phantoms which we might have encountered in our dreams. They have their source in those semi-conscious states which give rise to abortive gestures and absurd slips of tongue.’” [18]

Regarding the further development of a contemporary African art discourse, we have witnessed exhibitions such as the Second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2002), both curated by Okwui Enwezor, and the presence of South African and Nigerian artists in the art market, as well as books such as Sidney Littlefield Kasfir’s Contemporary African Art (1999), in addition to retrospective exhibitions mentioned earlier. Additionally, there are art spaces like Raw Material Company in Dakar, Senegal; Doual’art in Douala, Cameroon; Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos; Center for Historical Re-enactments in Johannesburg; Townhouse in Cairo, which have all worked towards activating the discourse of contemporary African art. Yet, curatorial practice remains anchored in the network of collectors as well as in predominantly Europe and U.S. based institutions and markets.

In conclusion, africa95 activated existing art-based networks on the continent and in the United Kingdom, while contributing significantly to discourse on African art (modern and what was already known as contemporary in the 1980s) through its seminars and well-researched catalog. It showed or revealed several gaps within such existing networks, while also relying heavily on the authority of institutional and private collections, as well as donor funding from diplomatic as well as cultural institutions.

 

Endnotes:

Beier, Ulli. Contemporary Art in Africa. London: Pall Mall Press, 1968.

Deliss, Cle?mentine, and Jane Havell. Seven stories about modern art in africa. London: Whitechapel, 1995.

Deliss, Clémentine. “Brothers in Arms: Laboratoire AGIT’art and Tenq in Dakar in the 1990s.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 36 (2014): 4-19. doi:10.1086/678335.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. Contemporary African art. London: Thames et Hudson, 2014.

Peters-Klaphake, Katrin. “Overview on the very recent history of exhibitions and festivals in Kampala in the current decade.” Talk in African Modernism Symposium. 2016

Picton, John. “Africa95 and the Royal Academy.” African Arts 29, no. 3 (1996): 22. doi:10.2307/3337340.

Silva, O. “Africa 95: CULTURAL CELEBRATION OR COLONIALISM?” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 1996, no. 4 (1996): 30-35.

Moses Serubiri is a writer and curator. He is currently an MA Candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York, USA.

 

[1] Silva, O. “Africa 95: CULTURAL CELEBRATION OR COLONIALISM?” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 1996, no. 4 (1996): 30-35.

[2] Makerere students and alumni Ibrahim Noor and Elimo Njau wrote articles in Transition Magazine during the early 1960s in which both cite the term “African Art.”

[3] Maloba, Gregory. “Interviewed by Jonathan Kingdon and Rajat Neogy.” Transition 3: 20-23.

[4] Gikandi, Simon. “The African Example.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 14-16. Duke University Press, 2011.

[5]  Beier, U. 1968, Contemporary art in Africa, Pall Mall Press, London

[6] In the interview with Clementine Deliss, the curator mentioned connecting with the Makerere Art Gallery, and the British Council. She didn’t explicitly talk about who received the faxes in the interview, or which art professionals sent responses. In the case of Uganda, there is evidence that no Ugandan artists were invited to co-curate the Ugandan selection in the Uganda and Kenya Story of Seven Stories.

[7] Dakar is the location of the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art, which started in 1992, and was seen to be a contemporary of the Havana Biennale as both were understood as being “Global South” art biennales, and due to this attracted many critics and curators, among them, Clementine Deliss, Octavia Zaya, as well as the Triangle Network founder Robert Loder.

[8] In Uganda, for example, while Makerere School of Fine Art was the foremost institution of art education for many decades, it did not characterize the entirety of Uganda’s visual arts nor its performance arts.

[9] In 1996, John Picton wrote about this pot in African Arts: “Meanwhile the Academy formed a committee to advise on the writing of the catalogue of its exhibition, comprising John Mack and other British Museum colleagues, Thurstan Shaw (who later withdrew after discovering that they were planning to show an Igbo-Ukwu pottery vessel stolen from the University of Ibadan, an artifact he himself had excavated), and me.” Picton, John. “africa95 And the Royal Academy.” African Arts, vol. 29, no. 3, 1996, pp. 22–23

[10] Ibid. pp. 22-23

[11] Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, a loan exhibition from the Nigerian National Museum, was organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and made possible by grants from the Mobil Companies Nigeria, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

[12] Deliss, Clementine. “The Dakar Biennale 92: When Internationalism Falls Apart” in Third Text. Vol 27. No. 23. 1993.

[13] Authenticity was often equated with self-taught as referenced in: Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. “African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow.” African Arts 25, no. 2 (1992): 41-97

[14] Deliss, Clementine. “7+7=1: Seven stories, seven stages, one exhibition” in Seven stories about modern art in africa. Edited by C. Deliss and J. Havell. 19-27. London: Whitechapel, 1995.

[15] Silva, O. “Africa 95: CULTURAL CELEBRATION OR COLONIALISM?” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 1996, no. 4 (1996): 30-35.

[16] Ibid.

[17] These artworks were accessed through Pilkington Ssengendo who was the Dean of the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art in 1994 and 1995.

[18] The potency of oral sources and oral traditions, as well as the use of euphemisms, was lost on the curator, who did not consider how these sources have influenced aesthetics and political strategies in Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s.

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