Africa, Kampala and the Irony of Progress
By Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi
A new biennale committed to the promotion and dissemination of African art is born in Kampala, East Africa. Coming about two decades into the life of the Dakar Biennale, the Kampala Biennale is naturally positioned as a platform on which the east can return the Dakar gaze while engaging the west and all of Africa in an instrumental and fruitful dialogue. Like the Dakar initiative, the Kampala Biennale takes off on the wings of private efforts, on the positively aggressive exertions of some individual artists and curators committed to exploring the untapped humanist resources on the continent. Judging from the impression it has made in art circles in and outside Africa as well as in the cyber world, the new biennale’s birth is a happy occasion. Like all happy and successful births, it presents its founding fathers with new challenges. It is my hope that it is weaned sooner or later and that it survives the difficult teething period, so that it can take its place on the world art stage and contribute to the progress of renascent Africa in an increasingly globalised world.
To this extent, the biennale’s theme “Progressive Africa” is at once a mirror and a clarion call. It enables the organisers and participants to take a critical look at the past and face up to the future with renewed hope and enthusiasm. In other words, it straddles the past, present, and future in its philosophic and metaphoric essences. It promises an objective basis on which art in the continent can be appraised and appreciated against the dominance and arrogance of politics and politicians. It enables participating artists to interrogate and problematise the connection between art, history and politics and to explore its socio-economic manifestations as creative resources in their works. I am not sure if all the about 100 works selected for this maiden exhibition vividly reflect the spirit of the theme of the biennale. Where some fail to do so in the graphic form and core contents of the works of art, they reconnect with the theme metaphorically as totems of the human condition and art situation in postcolonial Africa. Happily, nothing can be more accurate in gauging the progress or otherwise of a place or people than the prevailing condition of living. If indeed the biennale’s theme approximates a mirror on one hand as I said earlier, what is reflected in that mirror in line with the nature and content of the works exhibited here is a bitter-sweet melange. If it truly reflects Africa and the politics of progress, the image resonates with the imagery of a colossus at once nurtured and hounded by its own children.
What we see in the mirror held up by the Kampala Biennale is, thus, the turbulent history of a continent tormented by the realities of post-colonialism and the forces of neo-colonialism both in political and religious guises. Looking back at the Berlin conference of 1884-85, the inhuman commerce of slavery and the imperialist colonial project, it is a long way from home for Africa. Yet progress remains a bitter irony as chronic underdevelopment of the continent by its fire-eating leaders assumes the new and bizarre meaning of development. War, hunger, poverty and terror remain the cheapest things of all. As socio-political institutions and often travestied democracies crumble and fail across the continent, religion, of a postmodern fundamentalist ilk, sired in the heart of the West and the Middle East, offer prospects of, and new hopes and aspirations for, another world that often threatens the equilibrium of the only world we have known and loved. Thus, the end of history stares us in the face, not as a natural course of Africa’s history and destiny, but as a child of cumulative abuse of human and social capital and the inversion of common values in these parts. On the African art scene, the same scenario plays out. The work condition of the artists remains discouraging and largely colonised. With few or no institutions to support and sustain the continent’s creative enterprise, the soul of contemporary African art is held captive by the West. The most important conferences about African art are held in America and Europe; the most successful artists of the continent are those sanctioned and promoted by EuroAmerican institutions. Another irony of progress!
The irony harbours both challenges and hope. Challenges for the political leaders and artists of Africa to wake up to the new possibilities inherent in the soft power of culture as a new tool for self determination and neocolonialisation, and hope in the sense that Western patronage continues to put African art on the world stage. Chinua Achebe has warned, that the man who allows the harmattan to lick his lips for him rather than lick them himself runs the risk of also having history told through the mouth of strangers. For according to the novelist, the story is greater than the struggle; the story is our escort, and this is very important in a world where Western cultural domination has become our collective albatross. This is perhaps where we can locate the relevance of the Kampala project as it emerges to contribute to the story of Africa from an eastern perspective. There is no doubt that the biennale can go very far since art endures longer than politics and religion. Where the flames of politics and religious fundamentalism stop, the petals of art can blossom and stir up the ripples of forgotten laughter and faded promise. After all, artists have been described as the legislators of mankind. The work of art is a reflection of society and has the capacity to confront us with some self-evident truths.
Like in all maiden outings, the steps of the first Kampala Biennale are tentative. Yet its future looks very bright. This does not call for celebration but reminds us that there is work to be done, not only to consolidate a successful birth and first outing, but to also ensure that the biennale survives the teething stage I described earlier and becomes a real professional festival which artists across Africa can all look forward to every two years with a feeling of excitement and a sense of pride.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, is a painter, critic and ethno-aesthetician. He is an Associate Professor of Fine Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka and serves as the International Secretary for the The Pan-African Circle of Artists.