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?
To begin with, we should clarify the terms ‘African art’ and ‘African artist’ in the context of the history of art. It has been widely discussed that, while it is accurate to speak of art that comes from Africa, to reduce it all to some kind of homogeneous movement called ‘African Art’, would risk ignoring the vast and rich diversity of cultures and cultural influences on the continent. Speaking specifically about contemporary art from the continent, we can agree that it is definitely emerging as an art market category rather than a specific movement. There are good reasons for this – the art market is always looking for new opportunities to leverage. In recent years it was the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), now it looks like it is Africa’s turn and, to be crass, the market recognizes that the works of most artists from Africa are relatively underexplored and underpriced, making them an attractive ‘investment opportunity’.
Despite some common elements in the practices of contemporary artists working in Africa today, surveyed as a whole, the field is overwhelmingly eclectic. It is too easy to focus on common threads like use of found objects or the autodidact nature of many art practices. Moreover, such superficial linkages can be easily applied to find common ground between many other contemporary artists from the developed and developing world.
We often have these discussions with First Floor Gallery Harare artists as well as with other local and visiting artists, and invariably the consensus tends to be that most artists want to be known and to develop their art careers as individuals and not subject to a label or a market niche. Being African and Zimbabwean in our case is intrinsic to who they are and what they do – no one can take that away from them. They feel they do not need to do anything extra to be or to show that they are Zimbabwean or African.
In some ways these identity labels are more ‘useful’ to people on the outside looking in. Most of the artists we work with are ‘born free’ (i.e. born post-independence) and the issues they deal with in their work are a response to their daily lives. Zimbabwe is a country with a 97.3% majority black population. This means issues of racial identity and colonial history are more implicit than explicit and the foreground is taken up with urgent contemporary concerns in the economy, politics, the environment and the friction between being contemporary and respecting tradition.
For instance Wycliffe Mundopa, through sheer force of his life experience and personality, is becoming an important feminist artist. His work speaks powerfully to the pain and conflicts of the lives of Zimbabwean women. Here we see the clash of traditional roles and the imperatives of survival, the hypocrisies of modernity and the perverse beauty of love for sale. Conversely, Moffat Takadiwa, in his found object conceptualism, has become a poet of Zimbabwe’s cultural and environmental frictions – the inundation of cheap Asian products and the growing piles of rubbish, which nonetheless are also lacunae for creativity and ingenuity through re-purposing. All this is Africa today; authentic, highly personal stories and meditations, which make up a composite portrait, with no one artist having neither the means nor the responsibility for representing the whole.
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?
First and foremost, we need to emphasise that South Africa does not encompass or represent the entire ‘South’ in Africa. This perception has left the other countries of the region – Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and Namibia etc. − out of the picture. Increasing engagement of artists from these countries with each other and with the international art world is already a shift in perceptions, working to dissolve the divisions by providing a fertile middle ground. Speaking about South Africa in particular, as outsiders, we can comment that the past decade has seen a shift in the way South African art positions itself, with a reflection of its cultural diversity. We no longer think only of William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas when we think about South African art, we speak of Wim Botha, Zanele Muholi, Nicholas Hlobo etc.
Bridging the divide between North and South in Africa is an important and interesting question. In many ways, the divide was sponsored by colonial history and the language divide between Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone Africa, which goes beyond the North and South. There are also regional alliances, trading blocs and natural proximity, which support cooperation of neighbouring countries. Funding programmes also tend to target regions and thereby sponsor divisions (e.g. for some reason North Africa falls in with Middle East (MENA) in many funding and curatorial concerns and at institutional level). So the question has to be addressed there. By the same token, in our experience, artists themselves don’t feel the same divides and are increasingly building connections through projects and residencies, which defy these distinctions. We hope that these kinds of artificial and irrelevant divisions can be erased by artists/art practices on the ground, and institutions will just have to follow suit.
Is a new trans national ‘African art dialogue’ needed to foreground the various conversations, challenges and successes from other African centres of culture and thinking?
To address this question, we need to look at what is it that we hope any new discourse to be. If we want valid and accurate representation for African artists as part of the international art world – collections, exhibitions, institutions etc. – challenging the Euro-centric model of art history, then this is a worthy quest. However it is a quest we share with artists from all over the global South. So in this context the South-South conversation is very important. Too often we in Africa think that our situation is unique and miss out on synergistic opportunities to connect with colleagues and peers from around the world. Too often also the conversations about African art take place in Europe and in the context of African diaspora and we have to ask the question, “Why that is still the case?”
There are a number of issues that we would like to see reflected in the transnational dialogue on the continent, such as achieving professionalism in our art sectors in the absence of supportive local markets, or a solid educational infrastructure. What models for art organisations do we need to develop that will lead to economic self-sufficiency and internationally important art sectors arising in African countries? How do we overcome the pressures to be dependent, and the ideological domination exerted on art production due to the eminence of NGOs in Africa in the absence of government support? How do we reach for ideological, cultural and economic self-determination having achieved a political one? So the first conversation that needs to happen is to achieve an intellectual and actionable common ground.
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?
Well Africa can definitely be defined as a new dynamic energy in the art world. That is certainly the response that we got, having taken part in 1:54 African Contemporary Art Fair in London last year. Against the ennui, cynicism and conventional detachment from emotion and immediacy of life, which dominates much of Western art, African contemporary art is seen as a breath of fresh air. It is definitely something that people from all walks of life and all cultures respond to and are thrilled by. We need to add that this energy is not lacking in intellectual sophistication. The best works of artists from Africa carry a potent charge of belief in life, without being blind to suffering, without forgetting history and celebrating these things in their own right. This is what makes it so important.
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?
It is premature to dismiss entirely the influence and impact of past oppression and power dynamics on the younger generation of Africans. Addressing history with knowledge is imperative to self-awareness for the new generation and articulation of a vision for the future. Across Africa, we still live in cities built by colonial administrations, operate in legal systems inherited from the colonial past and speak European languages – this is a part of our contemporary culture, which can and does create certain shackles and implicit ideologies, whether one is aware of them or not. Art can be a powerful partner to empowerment and self-determination built on recognising and engaging with this complex reality. Equally embracing art and culture is about relevance and intent; if African pop music is embraced fully by the youth of Africa, there is no reason that visual art shouldn’t be. Artists should re-orient themselves and recognise that their ultimate audience is the local one and build bridges, recognising that they need to put in the hard work and the foundations to enable their audiences to see themselves in the work of contemporary artists.
How can we avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from framing our future discourse?
If we are speaking of damaging precedents in art, then we need to acknowledge the impact and the risk of the dangers of the exoticisation of African art and the ethnographic approach. This was the dominant perception of African art by European collections in the past, and this risk will continue if we don’t recognise that part of the current fashion for African art internationally is a fad. This means recognising and leveraging the opportunities that the current spotlight presents for African artists and professionals, with the understanding that, unless we seek to perform and contribute at the highest international standards, once the fad passes, as inevitably the market moves on to the next new thing, those who were only buoyed by the attention will sink and those of real merit will endure. So our discourse should not be about constructing our position narrowly and provincially, but seeing the contribution of artists from Africa to the history of art.
What new stories of identity are revealed for this Africa through its art?
Artists are vocational prisms of the world they live in and, when given space and the freedom, they can reveal incredible stories and elaborate ideas fomenting in society. The stories we see emerging are a conglomerate, which speaks to a search for a unique identity, self-determination with recognition of tradition and complexity of history, as well as quest to engage with the global community as peers.
What is African art when it is no longer called African art?
Well, before or after art is anything, it is art − a gift to a shared humanity. Categories are useful for reference but not for the contribution of any one artist to the history of art. The most that art of any time and any place can be and has to be is meaningful – and that means that it must be art which makes a difference to lives of people, makes people feel and think about the world they live in and connects with the shared humanity that unites all of us. What we can and should aspire to is for artists from the continent to make art that makes a lasting contribution to humanity.
As Africa emerges, transforms and gains energy, what will African contemporary art represent?
Art, at its best, is always an insightful reflection and a synthesis of social movements and cultural paradigms, transcending the quotidian. African art has the same responsibility to Africa as art of all people and all ages has had at all times.
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?
The first issue to consider on the subject of provocation is whether art can in fact pose an effective provocation to Africa (or anywhere). Art cannot be a provocation unless it is a highly visible actor in the cultural mainstream. So, art sectors around the continent need to be honest about the role they play in society at present and what they need to do about it, if the role is a marginal one.
Contemporary art around the world, despite depth of ideas and meaning, is not at the forefront of social critique, which can be seen as having an impact. Notwithstanding, it is a coercion to suggest that art needs to become social activism in order for it to matter. The role of art is to be art. Propaganda, regardless of its intent, has another role and definition. This is as valid in Africa as it is anywhere else. So, to our mind, what is needed is advocacy in order to achieve a broad-based recognition for the value of art (as art) and artists, before we’re able to speak of provocations meaningfully.
Artists in many ways are independent arbiters of their cultures and societies and it is not for us to tell them what the issues are for them to reflect on but quite the reverse. We ought to be wary of speaking about Africa homogeneously or outside of a globalised context. When we consider the work of artists around the continent there is such a diversity of voices, ideas and issues, not just in individual practices but also within each artist’s particular practice and even within discrete works. This complexity is what makes art inspirational and gives it the ability to relate to people beyond narrow contexts. This dynamic unpredictability and capacity to make us see the world differently, beyond the constraints of convention, is the biggest and the best provocation that art has posed to the world throughout history, and one it is still posing today and will in the future.
As the old ideas of North and South – East and West deconstruct, what approaches will be reflected through its art practice and discourse?
Before old ideas of North and South and East and West, there were even older concerns of the here-and-now of shared humanity, perhaps on a different scale, but nonetheless. Ironically, it is our personal human issues that unite us as humans beyond any kind of geography; the questions we pose to ourselves as humans about what makes our lives meaningful, what do we fear, what do we love? These questions are shared and have always been shared. The answers may differ from place to place, but the concerns of humans and concerns of artists are the same. It is in this context that art from Africa or anywhere else will find its global audience. We are also in a world where cross-pollination is a reality and the conception that our cultures can be so different so as to be mutually incomprehensible is untenable. Young artists in Africa and around the world are a mesh of cultural influences and identities. We consume goods, wear clothes, and eat foods that no longer intrinsically correspond to the places we live. We are immersed in a world of information generated from around the planet. We share ideas with people we are separated from by time, distance and language. This is the new culture that is evolving around the world, and artists are responding and will respond to it as their reality and that of their societies. This can only be expected. If we could predict what kind of art will be made, we would be God. Speaking for ourselves, we cannot even predict what kind of art we will see the next time we step into the studios of artists that we know incredibly well, and this is the most valuable thing about art – its ability to surprise, captivate and inspire.
Are the current voices and media of today’s ‘art establishment’ still relevant? Are they able to capture the current zeitgeist? How should we be engaging the new generation to inject a sense of edginess into our discourse?
In our view, the most important role that the establishment can play in supporting the future of art on the continent is to engender home-facing advocacy in order to establish an infrastructure that can support a sustainable art sector. This means we need to be articulating the case for art to ensure government support, establishment of international standard of education in the arts, as well as engagement with broad-based media to ensure popular support for visual art on the continent. In Africa, we are not in the situation of capturing zeitgeist, which does not resonate with tangible outcomes. These outcomes include opportunities to engage on equal terms with the international art community and to expect a future, where they can have viable careers, living on the continent and making work that is not just yet another African export product. Recognition of a globalised reality for the new generation of artists means an understanding that, in many ways, they live in a world where they can share more ideas and concerns with their peers around the world than with those of the previous generation in their country. Attempts to keep African artists ‘African’, beholden to a package of issues that are deemed ideologically correct and approaches to practice which ensure their work looks African, flies in the face of reality of daily life in Africa and the artists who live here.
Responding to the realities rather than ideologies of artists’ lives is what keeps us relevant, important and ‘edgy’.
Who is the new African art hero?
Recent years have delivered a number of heroes. In terms of research and intellectual fortitude, there are icons like Salah Hassan, who has nurtured a generation of art historians and curators with a passion for art on the continent. Okwui Enwezor, who has reached the acme of curatorial achievement having been appointed the director of Visual Section of the Venice Biennale 2015, is another. Speaking from the artist’s perspective, the heroes they seek are fellow artists who have achieved recognition, without having to leave the continent and defend their right to speak authentically to a unique personal vision, without anyone questioning their ‘Africanness’. In this sense, El Anatsui is such a hero. His power is in being beyond the pressures of political correctness and beyond fashion, which can sometimes bear heavily on younger artists. He is also the role model for a life-long commitment to art rather than expectations of quick success and instant riches, which are infecting the world of contemporary art internationally and on the continent.
Marcus Gora and Valerie Kabov are on the Board of Trustees for the First Floor Gallery Harare, Zimbabwe’s first independant international contemporary art gallery. Founded in December 2009, the gallery is dedicated to supporting career development of the emerging generation of contemporary Zimbabwean artists, both locally and internationally.
First Floor Gallery Harare will be at 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in London from 16-19 October, and this interview forms a part of their build-up towards the fair.