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 South African artist Athi Patra- Ruga’s full interview. 

Photograph: Misha Taylor, courtesy of the artist. 
 Is there such a thing as ‘African art’ and does the label “African Art” enable or limit artists from the continent?
What qualifies an artist to call himself or herself an ‘African artist?’ Are the issues of labels and identity still valid?
Athi:Indeed it is a luxury, albeit a frustrating one sometimes, to be asked to continuously define what this idea is as it can come from a innocent geographic placing of the work and artist. However in my experience this idea of ‘African Art/ist’ always carries some undertone cast upon my abilities. The term can be easily used to substitute ‘Negro/Black Art’ and ultimately the blanket use of this term can be reductive in reality.
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?
I am quite relieved to say that this is a perception that I have not zoomed into. I have grown up in an age where the Internet has made it possible to learn about other areas of art practice from the continent and the world. As a result, a certain empathy for medium and execution has made Western/African/South African boundaries something ethereal and, I dare say, redundant.
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?
It is imperative to have a continual dialogue about what ‘African Art’ is. Is it the stuff of my imagination that this is necessary? I am always eternally grateful to see African art in European museums, but is it rational for the content of African art stories to have to always revolve around us giving Identity 101 classes to the so-called West? Is it not time to start having the conversation about technical execution and the dissemination of such important art making from Africa to the West? Do we have to fly overseas to see and be taught about these African art techniques in European museums?
If Africa can leave behind its idea of Africa as a geography, or as a post colonial reaction, or as being defined by blackness, can it then be defined rather as a new dynamic energy?
The beauty of ‘African Art’, its objects and its history, is that it is a constant reminder of our collective history; from remembering and engaging with the pillaging of art by the West to the reductive terms that are used decades later to create a convenient place for art from Africa. What if Africa took it upon itself to leave behind or negate the fact that art needs a place?
There is a new generation of Africans whose minds are not shackled by a past of oppression or power dynamics. How do we engage and inspire them to embrace art and culture?
Keep in mind the fact that this ‘new generation’ of African is the result of the fluid, century-old drive and actions of artists and thinkers not shackled by past oppression or power ramblings. I’ve noticed that there has been a ‘new’ something every decade. I find that this conversation needs to continue, without the stasis and interruptions that are the result of always calling movements and iterations ‘new’. To answer the last part: just leave them alone. They have long been embracing a culture of the arts… undeterred by being a product of ‘newness’.
How can we avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from framing our future discourse?
Every framework comes with, I feel, some moral questions that beg to be answered. The framework here is so-called ‘African Art’, which already raises many questions as to what we should drop and what we should continue with… that requires some pigeonholing. One must take it upon themselves to shift focus on how we enter into this subject. Instead of relying on narratives and framework, we should explore the techniques and styles. What you will find is that there is not one language or expression that simply defines Africa.
What new stories of identity are revealed for this Africa through its art?
The economy of identity, when approaching art from Africa, has to augment stylistic and technical signifiers in order for us to find new ways in which to identify ourselves in the story.
What is African art when it is no longer called ‘African Art’?
A stillborn art industry; the stories that serve as reminders to the world (about what Africa is) would just, presumably, assimilate into Western or Eastern art. This would be very convenient for the West, all that justifiable amnesia! That would be scary…
As Africa emerges, transforms and gains energy, what will African contemporary art represent?
With the perpetual emergence of African art, we have seen museums and other public institutions dedicating their energy to acquiring, showing and creating networks for a new understanding of African art in terms that are acceptable to its agent − the artist.
What are the deepest provocations that art should pose for Africa today? And how do you think these will influence Africa 15 years from now?
I am not pleased with the effect academia has had on my peers, both pre and post grad, as they are not raising questions about economical equity (to what extent is the African artist an acknowledged industry player), work ethic, and how we can work with government and education to create new ways in which art is taught. A young artist is probably exposedto more imagery in their own visual vernacular than they are through traditional art school, and is fed up with the didactic system; they want to jump right in! We need alternative education, mentorships and business education, NOW.
As the old ideas of North and South – East and West deconstruct, what approaches will be reflected through its art practice and discourse?
Well, ‘Western Art’ will have to start engaging in discourse such as we are in this conversation. Why, for starters, has Western art not named itself either American or European? Western art will also need to ask itself why it’s so obsessed with identity stories from the African umbrella, rather than with the highly emboldening effect of developing sensitivity towards how art is made.
Born in Umtata in 1984 and with eight solo shows under his belt , Athi uses performance, video, tapestry, and photography to explore notions of utopia and dystopia, material and memory. Ruga was recently included in the Phaidon book ‘Younger Than Jesus,’ a directory of over 500 of the world’s best artists under the age of 33.
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