Guest Author of Nov/Dec 2013: Yvette Mutumba and Julia Grosse
Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba are the founders of the online magazine and portal Contemporary And. Platform for International Art from African Perspectives. As already suggested by its name, C& doesn’t simply gather information, interviews and critical essays on African art or African initiatives. But it is rather a space where movements the international contemporary art realm are examined from various African angles.
In the following essay the authors present their view on the recent “Hype about Africa” taking into account the art market’s growing interest towards art from the continent and the diaspora but also the increasing numbers of Africa-related exhibitions and events, let alone Angola’s Golden Lion at the last Venice Biennale. Grosse and Mutumba show the difficulties embedded in this phenomenon and question the meaning of a locution such as “African Art” today. They address with criticism the risk to immobilize Africa to its geographical position and therefore render it a monolith category. While complicating “Africa” as a form of cultural, political and critical notion, the authors invite the readers to consider the multiple faces of African Art and the many independent initiatives that are pullulating on the vast continent. We are very thankful to Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba for sharing their text with us and we hope the essay could be the starting point to further explore this open and controversial issue.
Hype about Africa
“Africa is the future”, visitors of this year’s Venice Biennale whispered nervously shortly after the announcement of Angola as the winner of the Golden Lion. The future, or rather “the next big thing” after the hype about China, India or South America? Looking around in the art world, it certainly feels like everyone would like to get a small piece of this “future”. Two weeks after Angola’s Golden Lion the South African Kemang Wa Lehulere won the prestigious Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel, shortly before it was announced that the Ghanaian-British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was nominated for the Turner Prize. The Tate Modern has set up their “African Art Program” with an associated acquisition committee, whose latest purchase was The Museum of Contemporary African Art by Benin artist Meschac Gaba. At the same time Tate Modern presented the first exhibition dedicated to one perspective of Modernism in Africa by showing a major retrospective by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi. Earlier this year the Office for Contemporary Art Norway showed WORD! WORD? WORD! Issa Samb and the Undecipherable Form, the first solo exhibition in Europe by the distinguished Senegalese artist Issa Samb. The U.S. museums with collections of classical and traditional art from Africa started acquiring contemporary works, examples are the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The list of current exhibitions, art events dedicated to contemporary artists based in Africa or in the Diaspora outside the continent could go on and on.
Also the art market increasingly considers current positions from Africa and the Diaspora: Since 2010 the London auction house Bonhams listed with its annual “Africa” auction rising sales results. In the same year, the auction house Phillips scored with works by artists with African backgrounds a relatively spectacular total proceeds of $ 1,401,038 .
International galleries increasingly include artists with African backgrounds into their programs. New York based Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, which represents established stars such as Olafur Eliasson and Ernesto Neto, most recently took on Meschac Gaba. And Victoria Miro Gallery in London recently announced their new representation of the African-American Kara Walker. It’s a phenomenon, which has an obvious effect on the art market also in terms of art fairs: Paris Photo 2011 showed contemporary photography from Africa and the Diaspora. Art Dubai’s 2013 “Marker” section presented art from West Africa, and most recently the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London set the tone for a stronger presence of art works from African perspectives. Apart from galleries from the continent and those in Europe who predominantly represent artists with an African background, an elaborate complementary program with panel discussions of the movers and shakers of the “African Art Scene” addressed the topics galleries, collectors and museums of contemporary positions on the continent and abroad are dealing with. For the first time, based at Sumerset House, London and parallel to Frieze art fair, 1:54 managed to draw the attention of international collectors to the productions of artists from Africa and the Diaspora.
Apart from collectors, who focus on Africa, such as Arthur Walther, there are many collectors of contemporary art, who also collect works by artists from Africa and the Diaspora. But here the important and positive aspect is that they do not necessarily buy the works simply because the producers are of African descent, but because they find their practice interesting and important. In this context it is also crucial to note that there is a growing interest in the contemporary art scene on the African continent in Asia.
This surely is related to the intensifying business relations between Asian and African countries. Hence there is a parallel development of an art market, which is not directly related to what is happening here. And it leads to what is actually happening not outside, but on the continent. Here the gallery scene is on the rise: Dedicated commercial addresses establish themselves within their local scene, champion their artists and attract international buyers. South Africa is particularly dominant with spaces such as Momo in Johannesburg and Whatiftheworld in Cape Town as well as Stevenson and Goodman Gallery, which both have spaces in both cities.
In addition, the growing number of successful independent places of visual art and cultural centers are changing the art scene throughout the continent. Until the mid-nineties only a few platforms or facilities operated in Africa such as Espace Doual’Art in Cameroon. Now various addresses impact the scene. Examples are l’ Appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco, the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, Ghana and the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA ) in Lagos, Nigeria. What is particularly interesting and important here is the fact that these places and the people who run them have become part of the international art world. “Thanks to the cooperation of the various African countries themselves, the scene is now more mobile and more vibrant than ever before,” says the director of the CCA Lagos, Bisi Silva, who sat in this year’s jury of the Venice Biennial.
But also temporal projects are on the rise. Apart from by now widely established events such as Dak’Art in Dakar, Senegal or The Bamako Encounters / Les Rencontres de Bamako, Biennale Africaine de la Photographie in Bamako, Mali, the smaller, but not less interesting already third Biennial of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, just finished as did the first Biennial for Performance Art on the continent: the AfriPerforma in Harare, Zimbabwe. These projects are complemented by a number of funding bodies, which foster the visual arts. Examples are the African Artist’s Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, the Ugandan Arts Trust in Kampala, Uganda, Art in Social Structures in Accra, Ghana, Bag Factory in Johannesburg, South Africa or Kuona Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Via networks such as Arterial Network or Triangle Network artists can catch up on current funding opportunities. But apart from that, there are of course the same possibilities as for any other, non Africa-based artists: Nigerian Otobong Nkanga currently holds a DAAD artist scholarship, and Johannesburg-based photographer Thabiso Sekgala is the first scholarship holder of the KFW Foundation.
So Africa is “everywhere”, Africa is ” the future”… But what does “African art” actually mean? It is difficult to use the term “African art” without further analysis of how this notion is often used as a label, homogenizing the extremely complex artistic production on the African continent, which has a long and multi-layered art history. In relation to the art market one should separate between the so-called tribal art market with traditional art from Africa and contemporary art. Tribal art surely has been boosting within the past couple of years due to a still constantly growing amount of collectors and due to the fact, that exceptional pieces become increasingly rare.
In terms of contemporary art from African perspectives a concept artist in Johannesburg certainly deals with completely different topics than the young performance artist in Addis Ababa or the renowned painter in Khartoum. As part of the global art scene artists are therefore not simply “African” and due to international studio visits, residencies and collaborations that redundant geographical positioning increasingly takes a back seat. Ibrahim El-Salahi for example has been living in Oxford for years, Meschac Gaba is based in Rotterdam and is at the same time committed to the development of the young art scene in Benin. The Turner Prize-nominated Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a truly Londoner, Venice-winner Edson Chagas studied in Wales, lives in Luanda and has an Italian gallery. And yet their origin is still attributed to them as their main characteristic: “This artist is African and …”. Platforms such as Contemporary And (C&), the recently established online-magazine for contemporary art from African perspectives, want to establish exactly the other perspective meaning that all these artists are foremost “contemporary and …” Congolese, black, female, conceptual, vanguard….
However, the label “contemporary African art” is still often treated as a trend of the art world , the “flavor of the moment”, almost as if contemporary art from the continent just popped up a few months ago. One often hears the word “acceptance” when describing the current über-interest in contemporary art from African cities: “Finally African art has been accepted as part of the international art circus…” But of course that term is difficult as it implies that artistic production needs to be acknowledged by a “Western” art scene before there is put some validity on it. There is extremely much happening on the continent, with great young curators, artists and critics, who are establishing important spaces and voices, and the “Western” art scene needs to realize, that these have the same quality and impact on the developments of contemporary art in general.
Within the international art world, the so-called “global turn” in 1989 already initiated complex and intense debates on contemporary art from Africa and the Diaspora. Since then the interest of the “Western” art business in contemporary art on the “ periphery” has increased. As we know the global turn also led to a shifting of art centers – New York, London, Berlin are no longer the only and main locations. What is happening in Johannesburg, Gwangju, Sharjah or Hong Kong is as important. “Blockbuster shows” such as The Short Century ( 2001-02) , documenta 11 (2002 ) or Africa Remix ( 2004-6 ) as well as various Biennials have paved the way for an increased presence of artistic positions from African perspectives around the turn of the millennium . And yet this art production is not a phenomenon of the last ten to fifteen years, but a continuation of very heterogeneous Modernisms, which have produced seminal artistic voices since the beginning of the 20th century. They include Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Ernest Mancoba, Skunder Boghossian, Gerard Sekoto, Gebre Kristos Desta, Uzo Egonu or Ibrahim El – Salahi.
Yes, there is an increasing incorporation of artists with an African background in projects, which are not presented as “African” or “non-Western” art at all. However the reality is still that although there is an extremely rich and longstanding production of contemporary art on the continent and in the Diaspora it is still rather underrepresented in shows, galleries and on platforms dealing with global art. Which means that there is still a way to go until we have a situation where it suddenly becomes needless to discuss the issue of this text for example, where art from Africa and the Diaspora will no longer be a specific case but a normal part of international art developments.
Within the current hype about Africa C& wants to act as a long-term decelerator. C& aims to provide a comprehensive view of the cultural production on the continent and in the Diaspora, beyond preconceived ideas on the question of what is ” African art.” The decision to have such a platform running online has to do with the goal of becoming theoretically read by anyone who can go online. From Nairobi to Nuremberg, from Addis Ababa to Atlanta. Because if all the art fairs and biennials are over, there will still be places like C& with the reports on the artists, art spaces and institutions on the continent and the rest of the world.