After having to cancel their first art fair and refund all the exhibitors in the wake of the horrific November 13th attacks in Paris 2015, Also Known As Africa (AKAA) has made a massive comeback, as witnessed at the inaugural event this last week. Prior to its opening, ART AFRICA spoke to fair director Victoria Mann to find out more about the curatorial framework for the event and how, with the help of Elisabeth Lalouschek (Artistic Director & Director of Art Sales at October Gallery) and Simon Njami (Artistic Director of the Dak’Art Biennale 2016), they managed to bounce back.
ART AFRICA: AKAA (Also Known As Africa) was intended to open for the first time in December last year, but the event had to be postponed in the wake of the November 13th attacks that occurred in Paris. How have these events impacted the fair and what have you taken from them going forward?
Victoria Mann: Cancelling the fair last year was a hard decision to make, and we fully assumed the consequences of this cancellation by refunding all of our exhibitors. Unfortunately no insurance covers this kind of situation. As you may imagine this was a financial blow to us. Nevertheless we managed to bounce back this year, with an obligation to be very cautious about our budget. We carefully concentrated our resources on the fair itself to ensure a high standard quality for our exhibitors as well as our conference and talks programme. Today, only three weeks away from the launch of our “second” first edition, I feel confident to say that in spite of the hardship brought about by the cancellation, it was the right decision and AKAA has grown stronger from it.
There have been some recent changes to the AKAA team, most notably with the inclusion of Elisabeth Lalouschek (Artistic Director & Director of Art Sales at October Gallery) and Simon Njami (Artistic Director of the Dak’Art Biennale 2016) to the selection committee. How has their inclusion impacted the selection process?
It’s a real privilege to work with Simon Njami and Elisabeth Lalouscheck. By joining AKAA’s selection committee they have definitely helped us establish ourselves as a committed and rigorous event, and their endorsement contributed to AKAA’s successful comeback this year. It was great to see our four members of the selection committee do more than just say yes or no to applications, but offer real guidance to some young galleries, who are just starting to participate in international fairs.
The initial question posed by AKAA was “What does it mean to be an African today?” Is this question still fundamental or has the curatorial framework shifted somewhat over the course of the year?
Every message and question evolves as we continue to work on something and grow with it. I think that perhaps our message today, though it still comes from the same place, is not so much a question of definition but rather, “What is each artist’s Africa today?” During AKAA, the concept of Africa functions as a theme. Everyone involved is invited to respond, whether through the art exhibited, the talks and conference programme, or through spontaneous conversations and exchanges between collectors, visitors, exhibitors, and artists.
In our initial interview you spoke about the fair as an opportunity to engage an art scene in Paris that has traditionally and narrowly ‘understood’ Africa as being “whatever the prevailing Western narrative has imposed on it.” How has AKAA positioned itself in order to challenge these conventions?
The contemporary art scene from Africa has truly blossomed in Paris over the past year. After ‘Beauté Congo’ we have seen many institutions partaking in this movement. This included an exhibition of Seydou Keïta’s at the Grand Palais; ‘Museum ON/OFF,’ presenting works by Meschac Gaba and Otobong Nkanga at the Centre Pompidou; the Prix Marcel Duchamps, for which three of the four shortlisted artists – Barthélémy Toguo, Kader Attia and Yto Barrada – are from the continent; and the upcoming exhibit of South African art at the Foundation Louis this coming spring.
It is very exciting for AKAA to be an active part of what’s happening. At AKAA this year you will see a diverse and international panel of galleries and artists presenting the art scene of today’s Africa. Curated by Salimata Diop, our cultural programme intends to challenge past and/or still existing preconceived notions about Africa and its contemporary art scene and discuss with the artists, their creative process, and their own notion of the contemporary moment. There are a number of exciting Special Projects taking place over the course of the fair, from Les Recontres AKAA to the Bandjoun Station and The Design Space, amongst others. Please tell us more about these programmes?
We are very excited about our programme for les Rencontres this year, which will offer a very rich and diverse panel of conversations and debates. Our special projects are very important to us. Our purpose is to promote the development of cultural initiatives that contribute to heightening the profile of artists in Africa and beyond its borders. It is an invitation for the public to meet daring new projects presented through the eyes of those who put them into play.
There was an open call made online to further fund the Special Projects. Did you find this approach successful, and what advice would you give to other practitioners hoping to build similar platforms, both within the continent and further afield?
Indeed, last year we launched a crowdfunding campaign on KissKissBankBank to help finance our Special Projects. It was a great experience. Not only were we successful with our campaign, but it also was a great way to promote this aspect of the fair and to get people excited about these special projects. Though we offered to refund all KissKissBankers last year after the cancellation of the fair, every single one chose to let us keep the funds that will of course be used this year for the exact same purpose.
Being the first African contemporary art fair in Paris, AKAA will no doubt re-inforce the commercial demand for African art and help to build and strengthen relationships within art ecologies the world over. Is there a possibility of one-day seeing AKAA travel, or is it important to establish a base in Paris?
Both. Of course it is our ambition to see AKAA abroad, and it would be a great testament of success, but before we dream of other destinations our goal is to establish a durable base in Paris. As mentioned earlier, the contemporary art scene from Africa seems to be creating the buzz right now in Paris, but it is crucial that initiatives like AKAA become strong and durable to insure a steady growth for this market on the Parisian art scene.
The increase in significant exhibitions dedicated to African art in Paris, as well as the emergence of many new galleries with a keen interest in African art, indicates that there is already a strong collector base there. How does AKAA intend to broaden this foundation going forward?
Last year’s events have humbled us, so let’s first and foremost concentrate on delivering a beautiful first edition. We will then make sure that the following editions keep growing stronger and will never diminish in quality and/or excitement, with renewed presentations of established and emerging artists for individual buyers and institutions to bring into their collections.
Also Known As Africa (AKAA) was held between the 11th – 13th November 2016 in Paris.