AA STORY Post African Futures

Curator’s Insight: Tegan Bristow on ‘Post African Futures’ at Goodman Gallery JHB

Post African Futures’ (held at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg from 21 May to 20 June 2015) was an exhibition curated by Tegan Bristow that critically engaged with the position of technology within contemporary African culture, investigating a resistance to technological globalisation.
 
This article forms part of a new ART AFRICA feature, known as ‘Curator’s Insight,’ which provides a comprehensive look into the curatorial processes and thinking behind significant exhibitions across the globe. You will also be able to access this exclusive content in the October Digital Issue (FREE app download here for Apple and here for Android).
 

AA STORY Post African FuturesCLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Installation image, ‘Post African Futures’ / Curated by Tegan Bristow / 2015; Kapwani Kiwanga, Ifa Organ , 2013, Organ paper. Edition of 5; Jean Katambayi Mukendi Migration, 2015, paper, cardboard and copper wire; Muchiri Njenga, Kitchwateli 1, 2015 Mixed media. Edition of 1; NTU, Swaartnet, 2015 Mixed media. All images courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
 
I first used the title ‘Post African Futures’for a panel at the Fak’ugesi Digital Africa Conference in 2014. The aim of th conference was to initiate critical discourse about contemporary African cultures of technology and formed an extension of the research I am conducting in my PhD. My research began as a survey focusing on South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria – a survey that revealed rich and complex relationships between technology and culture that serve a number of critical positions. The most prominent was a pointed focus on identification and differentiation within neo-liberal globalisation. Here, artists and technologists are using the concerns about technology as a way to talk about how African cultures are actually against what they are perceived to be in globalised media. This act is a multi-faceted critique of both globalised media practices and a romanticised Pan-Africanism.
 
This field research led to extended engagements with a number of artists who are producing artwork in response to this line of thought. The majority of the works engage with the digital and technological not only as content but as medium, allowing the technological to become a metaphorical and metaphysical conduit.  These artists are using the  capacity of ‘the digital’ to represent and explore the unseen.  While the all the works are highly contemporary and sometimes even technological in language, what is present in the foundations of these practices is an exploration of the socio-cultural, the traditional and the performed rather than just passive visual culture. These practices allow for an additional critique of Western knowledge systems and a resistance to a Euro-American cultural predomination.  
 
The artworks presented in the exhibition are culturally innovative in their approach to technology. It is significant to point out that this ‘innovation’ is not a romantic indigenisation of technology but rather a type of cultural border thinking; a live conversation with the world from a variety of contemporary African perspectives and socio-cultural engagements.
 
The title, ‘Post African Futures,’ was chosen in this context because it presents a challenge to a number of notions. The first of these notions is Afro Futurism, a label too readily given to African creative practices that address technology, science or science fiction. Many African artists have been broadly labeled as ‘Afro Futurists,’ yet their articulations are very particular to the politics and economics of their own countries, cities or regions. Afro Futurism as an umbrella term is reductive and does not allow for an understanding of nuance. ‘Post African Futures’invites critical reflection on what is misunderstood and taken as given in cultures of technology in Africa. From the perspective of technology, ‘Post African Futures’ challenges an obsession with ‘future’ and ‘innovation,’ which more often than not bypasses the presence of cultural transformation in the present.
 
The format of the exhibition included online work, installation, print, performance, “post future” artifacts, video installations and screenings. The following artists and groups presented work: CUSS Group (SA), Tabita Rezaire (SA), NTU (SA), Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum (SA), Thenjiwe Nkosi (SA), Emeka Ogbho (Nigeria), Haythem Zakaria (Tunisia), Jean Katambayi Mukendi (DRC), Sam Hopkins (Kenya), Muchiri Njenga (Kenya), Jepchumba (Kenya), Brooklyn J Pakathi (SA), Wanuri Kahui (Kenya), Dineo Sheshe Bopape (SA), Kapwani Kiwanga (FR), Brother Moves On (SA), Just A Band (Kenya), Okmalumkoolkat (SA).
 
30277Inventory29977-1020Tabita Rezaire, Sorry for real, 2015. Holographic projection. Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery.
 
ART AFRICA: The Goodman gallery invited you to curate ‘Post African Futures’ as an extension of your ongoing research project. How is this expressed visually, and how does it contribute to your research?
 
Tegan Bristow: In my early attempts to search for references on the uses and positioning of technology and culture – specifically in Southern and East Africa – I very quickly realised that understanding the trajectories and positions of contemporary globalised technology practices in relation to African cultures (those which are interactive with a socio-cultural context) would require an understanding of the wider social relations, economics, politics, and ideologies that impact their use and engagement.
 
Part of my research process therefore was a series of interviews with both artists active in the field and local technologists.  Most of the artists on the ‘Post African Futures’ exhibition had been subject to these interviews and had consequently become part of this growing conversation around my research and its particular positioning. All of the artists, those that I had worked with previously and those introduced to me by the Goodman Gallery, presented work that spoke to the topic of being African within a globalised technology culture.
 
The exhibition contributes to the research by presenting the critical positions of the artists as part of a growing discourse and concern for the subject.
 
In attempting to answer questions posed by ‘Post African Futures,’ the exhibition is not limited to the gallery space but rather expands outward and manifests itself in mobile video, a musical performance in Troyville and the interactive digital platform, Future Lab Africa. Why do you think it’s necessary to have multiple components and locations? How do these interactive platforms contribute towards the exhibition?
 
One of the most important aspects of cultural engagement with technology, particularly communications technology, is that it goes beyond the definition of ‘art’ to also address culture as a location in which a critical encounter can occur.
 
Communication is the foundation of cultural practice in South African, Kenyan and Nigerian cultures; culture is a performed, discussed and shared event. The consequence of contemporary technology (which is dominated by communications) is that it positively extends and augments these already existing cultural practices. It also offers an opportunity for critique that is heard more widely than ever before.  It was important to me that the exhibition reflected this. 
 
Sam Hopkins, for instance, who created the mobile video works Carol, Lucy and Moroko, is concerned with the fine line between fiction and reality in the narratives of ordinary people. He also wanted exhibition visitors to experience these stories outside of the framing of the gallery in more ‘ordinary’ places; at home, on the sidewalk, at work. These are often more complex and definitely more associative locations. It is for this reason that Hopkins made a cell number available that you had to SMS in order to get the videos. The piece also speaks to South African-styled street level marketing that entices people into traditional healing, religious groups or community events, further referencing a socially constructed narrative for Africans.
 
The musical performance – The Afterlife of Mr Gold featuring The Brother Moves On, Just a Band and OkMalumKoolKat – played a more formal role in linking traditional narratives and ritual performance practices with contemporary music culture. It was the closing event for the exhibition and a celebration of ways of performing contemporary culture outside of the art gallery as a shared and participatory event. 
 
Future Lab Africa is a little different to both of the above and responds to the lack of information structures around contemporary African art and digital art. It acts as a project through which all the exhibited artists’ thinking on ’Post African Futures’ and their processes are made accessible to a larger audience and for a longer period of time. Jepchumba, an artist on the show who also runs africandigitalart.com, instigated the project; she initially didn’t want to show work on the exhibition and proposed the development of Future Lab Africa instead. She felt it was important that the positions on ‘Post African Futures’ be part of an on-going discussion around contemporary digital and technology art practices.
 
How would you describe an “African digital aesthetic”?
 
This is a hard question to answer, as it holds in it the old discussion and problem of identifying something under a singular definition of ‘Africa.’  James Ferguson in Global Shadows states that, “Africa is a category that is historically and socially constructed, but also a category that is ‘real,’ that is imposed by force, that has a mandatory quality.” We should definitely talk about this and what the implications are for an ‘African digital aesthetic,’ but I will leave that for another time.
 
What I discovered in my own research and interviews and through working with different artists is that there are distinct aesthetic mechanisms in use; those in Nairobi, for instance, are different to those in Johannesburg and Lagos.  These mechanisms are largely to do with the visual, economic and social histories and cultures of the different urban centres. In Johannesburg there is a strong trend towards using ‘glitch’ and visual dissonance as a critical reference, while in Nairobi, where there isn’t a strong contemporary art scene, there is a trend towards working with African knowledge systems and narrative.
 
These are not strict divisions however, and the more influence there is between groups (with shows like ‘Post African Futures’), the more these becomes shared. It would seem that most aesthetic practice within the field tends towards identifying the positions of a young creative generation that is critically examining their position within globalised culture. This is either through an act of African identification using digital means or a critique of the influences and possible futures of neo-liberalism and Euro-American globalisation, which are essentially supported by the systems of globalised and digital media.
 
The title of the exhibition seeks to challenge and engage with a number of ideas, specifically the interaction between technology and culture from an African perspective and the term ‘Afro Futurism’ as a container for work that addresses this perspective. What role does technology play in challenging the “myth of Afro Futurism”?
 
Art practice in ‘Africa’ that deals with or uses technology as a medium is unfortunately and too quickly labelled “Afro Futurism” – it’s a weird misconception born out of the Euro-American contemporary art scene which, although interested in African art, finds it hard to fully understand its nuances and complexity. Afro Futurism is an easy definition, but one that is reductive and unsympathetic to what young Africans are actually doing. If technology had a role in challenging the “myth of Afro Futurism,” it would be in enabling a conversation that makes visible these practices, and also challenges where and how knowledge about Africa is formed.
 
The exhibition addresses a number of different themes, including spiritual and social consciousness, an examination of specific political narratives and the critical global engagement therein, as well as addressing the dichotomy between the traditional and the contemporary with regards to the use of technology. How are these themes reflected in the work?
 
One of the pleasures of working on a curated exhibition is that I had the opportunity to invite a number of very different artists. As mentioned before, each artist had crossed my research path at some point, so my invitations were certainly not random and definitely part of a larger conversation. These conversations often included discussions on the ability of technology art, particularly the material/immaterial qualities of technology (virtuality, complex mathematics, particle systems etc.), to metaphorically engage mysticism and metaphysical concerns. This invariably led to a conversation about African cultures and the importance of the metaphysical within them. Not only as spiritual engagement but one that allows history to flow from past to the present. It also speaks to a particular knowing and consciousness of being in the world, something many feel that Western culture has left behind.
 
Dineo Sheshe Bopape’s video work is I am sky references this in a very material way –  it is a beautiful piece that shows the surface of the video as a sort of transcended membrane, it breaks and is reconstructed as her image becomes immersed in the universe beyond, before returning momentarily to the ‘real surface’. For me this is a metaphor for the possibilities that lie in technology, communicating beyond our basic material forms.
 
In relation to this, Haythem Zakaria is a Tunisian artist who works with digital media and algorithmic forms to create screen-based and interactive visuals that speak to spirituality and Islamic Sufism. He presented a print work that speaks to revelation as a process; of understanding by seeing the hidden as it is presented in front of you. It is interesting to me that a large part of the political narratives against globalisation resonate with an identification of what it means to be African in this way of thinking.
 
The work, NervousConditioner.Life.001.NTU by the NTU collective was possibly the most politicised work on the exhibition, next to Tabita Rezaire’s Sorry for Real (both produced for the show). The piece questions the ownership of globalised information systems and asks questions about where internet servers exist and how these servers and the information on them does or doesn’t represent Africa. The artwork is an installation that replicates the presentation of a tech expo; the NTU banner, a server box and a connected computer that holds the first instances of a highly protected discussion group that looks at addressing these ideas. The artists were very particular about the placement of these objects, a trinity of well-balanced forms, a gesture of healing and a shift in consciousness.
 
These are just three artworks that speak to a metaphysically associated encounter with the technological. Not all the works on the exhibition did, but there is certainly an interrogation of either the implications of the traditional in the technological or a strong questioning of technology as system of knowledge and consciousness. And, in one way or another, all the works are a strong response to a disassociating globalisation of culture.
 
Tegan Bristow is a Johannesburg-based interactive media artist and lecturer and head of Interactive Digital Media at the Digital Arts Division of the University of the Witwatersrand. She is currently completing her PhD on Technology, Art and Culture Practices in Africa. As an artist, Bristow has exhibited widely and recently curated an extensive exhibition of African technology art with the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, titled ‘Post African Futures.’