Writing Art History Since 2002

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ARTsouthAFRICA 13.1 is the ‘Interview Issue.’ In it, we engage in conversation with a number of carefully selected artists, curators, writers and organisations who we know are truly committed to transformation, to changing perceptions about contemporary African art practice, and promoting the integration of communities that might otherwise not be exposed to the wealth of talent from the continent and the ways in which art can change lives. We published a number of excerpts and now present the full interview with Maria Varnava, director at the Tiwani Contemporary in London.

Maria Varnava. Photograph by Philippa Gedge Photography web
Photograph by Philippa Gedge Photography.
Is there such a thing as ‘African Art’?

I do not have a problem per se with the term ‘African Art’, but I do prefer to talk about work in terms of art from Africa. When the general term ‘African Art’ is used, it makes it seem as though this art is one monolithic “thing” and it perpetuates ideas of what this ‘African Art’ should look like, i.e. “other”, tribal, ethnic, with feathers, masks and so on. Art from Africa has always been diverse, exciting and more. These are terms I would apply to all contemporary art. What I would like to see is a move away from preconceived ideas that exist about arts from Africa. I would like solely to focus on the strength of the work and how artists are pushing the boundaries of their mediums and the themes with which they work. Ultimately, these are contemporary artists whose work should be part of global dialogues and collections.

Does the label “African Art” enable or limit artists from the continent?

I feel that to a great extent the label does not limit nor enable artists from the continent. I feel, as with all artists, the strength of the work and the way the work engages with contemporary practices is what enables or limits artists.

What qualifies an artist to call him or herself an “African artist?”

This is very personal and it depends from person to person as to how one identifies oneself. To give you a personal example, I am of Greek Cypriot heritage and grew up in Lagos. As such, the way I choose to label myself is Greek Nigerian.  If we continue the argument for artists and art, often artists do not want to be labeled as African artists as they see themselves as contemporary art practitioners. Additionally, others can argue that the label/identity discussion has progressed to a point at which artists defy categories as such. For example, an artist from Africa can be in an African Art auction and can also be in a Contemporary Art sale. Artists and their practices blur boundaries.

There is a perception amongst some on the continent that South African contemporary art is more ‘Western’ than ‘African’. How do we bridge the divide geographically and culturally, between the north and the south?

Firstly, we have to be mindful of the following questions: What does it mean for one to be classed as more Western and the other more African? Is it implied that one is better than the other? Does this mean that one should work towards matching the other? In any case, I feel that West Africa, in particular Nigeria, as well as South Africa, have a more developed structure and art market on the ground. Subsequently, artists from those regions tend to have more visibility and have more opportunity to be seen in a commercial context, which might, in the end, affect the development of their practice and the saleability of their work. Additionally, both these regions have a history of institutions and art schools that add to their respective dynamic art scenes. Education is always a factor in bridging divides, addressing multiple issues on a number of levels. And art itself, of course, also has its role to play in the process of bridging divides.

Is a new trans national ‘African art dialogue’ needed to foreground the various conversations, challenges and successes from other African centers of culture and thinking?

A trans-national, pan-African art dialogue is necessary, and already well underway. I can think of the very strong example in the Invisible Borders project: “Since 2009, Invisible Borders Trans-African Organization has organized road trips from Lagos to other parts of the African continent. It forms a central premise in the Organization’s attempt to promote an idea of trans-African exchange, within and on the margins of the contemporary art world. For each iteration, up to 10 artists are invited to participate, artists who work in different mediums. Beginning as a photography initiative, the project has embraced other disciplines, notably literature, film, and performance art. While on the road, the participating artists and the organization make a point of sharing real-time photographs, factual and reflective blogposts, as well as video diaries”. http://invisible-borders.com/

How can we avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from framing our future discourse?

By artists focusing on their work and practice.

Who is the new African art hero?

We have many African heroes. Bisi Silva is one of them for me. Bisi, apart from being an accomplished writer and curator, is also the Founder and Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos. CCA Lagos provides a platform for young and emerging artists to engage with contemporary media and develop their practice. It has also set up one of the fastest growing independent art libraries in West Africa. Considering that art education in Nigeria is quite conservative, insistent on exploring mainly sculpture and painting and engaging with limited themes and issues, CCA Lagos is playing an active role in providing a space that enables artists to explore a variety of media and subject matter. The centre’s exhibitions, talks, seminars, workshops and events reach out to local and international audiences, arising from the need to build local support structures for art production and the development of critical thought, and to provide a supportive framework that encourages and advances the individual research and production of participants. For example, CCA Lagos runs an innovative project, taking place once a year for 30 days, that attempts to fill a gap in the education system in Nigeria and many African countries that tend to ignore the critical methodologies and histories that underpin artistic practice. The focus is primarily on methodology, critical thinking, and the implementation of conceptual ideas. It was launched in 2010, and this year took place at the Dakar Biennale. Bisi Silva is key in her support of a diversity of voices and her sharing of knowledge and experience and, as such, Tiwani Contemporary is privileged to have her as its Curatorial Advisor.

Is there anything else you would like to add that hasn’t been covered in these questions?

Thank you so very much for the opportunity for an interview. I really appreciate the opportunity to engage with your South African readers and to present the work of Tiwani Contemporary to a South African audience. I view myself simply as a gallerist, and I see Tiwani Contemporary as an enabler, an independent space of dialogue that supports young, emerging and established artists from Africa and the diaspora. Issues around the politics of representation cannot be ignored, but I relinquish this as the dominant critical framework for discussing our work and that of the artists we support. We are interested in providing a platform for our artists to produce, show and sell their work. We are interested in growing with our artists and being actively involved in how their careers and practice develop. We are interested in the documentation and dissemination of artists’ work and practices to provide visibility on a global scale. As such, Tiwani is like any other serious, dedicated, committed contemporary gallery that has a clear remit and is part of an international global dialogue.

As a gallerist, how do you choose which artists to exhibit? Which have been some of your most important exhibitions for Tiwani to date? Are there any forthcoming exhibitions you would like to discuss?

Every gallery has its own way of choosing which artists to exhibit. Artists that capture my attention are those who are pushing the boundaries of their chosen practice, have a new way of reacting to our contemporary realities and communicate their subject matter in a non-literal yet effective way. Additionally, artists’ levels of articulacy regarding their practice and their ability to talk critically about their work are also points taken into consideration. In a commercial gallery, you often have to think of the salability of the work, but from my experience that is not necessarily the best way to choose artists in the long term; the strength of the work is much more important and much more lasting in terms both of the development of the gallery and of the artist’s career. I find that work that is commercially driven is often diluted and does not survive the test of time. As such, the choice of artists at the gallery is both a personal and collective one; how an artist’s work and practice speaks to me along with conversations about how “convincing”, “new/exciting” or critically engaged that artist might be.

Each of the exhibitions we have held at the gallery so far has been important, and each for a different reason. The first show we had, ‘The Tie That Binds Us’, was important because it launched the gallery. As the first exhibition we held, it stood, perhaps, as a statement of the gallery’s intentions and long-term commitment. ‘The Tie That Binds Us’ presented the work of five artists; Mary Evans, Lawson Oyekan, Emeka Ogboh, Adolphus Opara and Ben Osaghae. Although this group of artists shares a common Nigerian heritage, their artistic practices are extremely diverse.  Using a variety of media and techniques, including painting, photography, paper-cutting, sound and video art, their works engaged affectingly with multiple social and cultural issues. The themes raised in the works shown included: questions of history; memory as it manifests across both time and geographical boundaries; and ideas that foreground on one hand, nature as a source of healing and, on the other, the environment as a victim of man’s destructive character.

For our forthcoming show, we are extremely honoured to be presenting a retrospective of Rotimi Fani- Kayode’s key works produced between 1986 and 1989. Rotimi Fani-Kayode was a seminal figure in 1980s black British and African contemporary art. He was an exceptional photographer who made an invaluable contribution to the discussion around “outsider” experience, whether this be in relation to place, sexuality or culture. The exhibition has been curated by Mark Sealy and Renée Mussai from Autograph ABP, of which Fani-Kayode was Co-Founder and first Chair. It is timed to mark the 25th anniversary of his death and confirms the lasting relevance of his work. The show will run 19 September 2014 – 1 November 2014.

Maria Varnava is the owner and director of Tiwani Contemporary, London. Established in 2011, Tiwani Contemporary exhibits and represents international emerging and established artists, focusing on Africa and its diaspora. Tiwani Contemporary works in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA Lagos) on both its exhibition and public programmes.

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