ART AFRICA, issue 08.

L’Afrique a’ l’ honneur

African art has assumed an integral dimension in the Western-centric imaginary. This induction has been a number of years in the making, but what spurred it? Maligned, disregarded, Africa has for centuries been Europe’s other – its unconscious, its nightmare from which, despite all claim to reason, Europe has failed to awaken.

In an essay entitled ‘Haunting the Past, Haunting the Future: China-Africa, and the West,’ Cobus van Staden considers a new world order in  which Africa – now redefined by Chinese investment – turns its back on its colonial donor-father – the West, and Europe in particular.

But is this indeed as simple as it may seem? Can Africa – and the question remains as to whether we can think of the continent as a whole – truly shift its psychic connection to Europe so easily? I think not. For we are not merely speaking of a 500 year colonial history but of a more far-reaching complex of influence in which the African, Arab, and European worlds have been conflated.

This conflation, this connection, is profoundly revealed in a series of exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere in France, in the first half of 2017. Indeed, France, or rather its progressive museums, have laid out a welcoming mat to Africa, a gesture strikingly at odds with the paranoid and isolationist drive which has afflicted the nation’s psyche. Nevertheless, on May 7th Emmanuel Macron won the day, promising a shift away from isolationism towards France’s greater driving principle – inclusivity.

Clearly for those responsible for a series of astonishingly informative celebrations of African art, ancient and modern, it is France’s connection with a greater world that matters. At the Arab World Institute we have the ‘Treasures of Islam in Africa: From Timbuktu to Zanzibar,’ at Galeries Lafayette we have ‘Africa Now,’ while in Paris and in Lille we have ‘Afriques Capitales.’ At the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac we have ‘L’Afrique des Routes,’ while at the Fondation Louis Vuitton we have ‘Art/Africa, le nouvel atelier.’ The Musée Dapper offers a staggering insight into ancient African Masterpieces in dialogue with Soly Cissé’s artworks, while the Art Paris Art Fair at Grand Palais gives us the defining drive behind this massive initiative – ‘L’Afrique a‘ l’ honneur.’

What make this complex of shows – centred on the African continent – so profound is its grasp of millennia, of ages which precede colonisation and which, in the current post-colonial moment, exceeds it. However, if Europe, and France in particular, must cling to the African imaginary, it is not because of some detached reverence, or some neutral grasp of a great unsung value, but because France, more than any other European nation, has refused to cut its ties.

The psychological connection, say, between France and Algeria, is the cornerstone of the notorious butter scene in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. It is there in Camus’s writing as it is there in Derrida’s philosophy which, as it purges its referent, never ceases to acknowledge its shadow and influence. Which is why I’d venture that France, unlike England or Hungary or any other imbecilic provincial nation, will not choose cessation or disconnection. For as Sartre famously declared – there is NO EXIT.

‘L’Afrique de Routes,’ curated by Gaëlle Beaujean, echoes the prevailing theme of this issue – the interconnectedness of goods, languages, ideas, knowledge – a freightage as material as it is psychological, emotional, or conceptual. The exhibition’s focus centres on the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, as well their littoral, North Africa, Southern Europe, Asia Minor, The Gulf, and the Indian Sub-continent. While ‘Afriques Capitales,’ curated by Simon Njami, focuses on Paul Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic’ and the Cape of Good Hope – also known as Cabo Tormentoso – the pivotal point in Europe’s ‘Spice Race.’ If, after Njami, the 1500s to the present could be said to shape the ‘Modern Age’ in global transaction, then this framework and ethos is also central to ‘Africa Now’ at Galeries Lafayette.