The Interview Issue: Ijeoma L. Uche-Okeke

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 Ijeoma L. Uche-Ukeke, arts project manager, editor at OMENKA Magazine Johannesburg, and Regional Network Development Manager at VANSA.

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Image courtesy of VANSA
Is there such a thing as ‘African Art’?

I would say that there is. In my view, it would be art made by artists from the African continent, inspired by the rich cultures and traditions of the various regions, as well as by global trends and contemporary cultures within the continent. This question is not a simple one with a simple answer, I think that it is a multi-layered question that addresses issues of identity, belonging and the understanding of what it is to be an ‘African’ in the 21st century.

Does the label ‘African Art’ enable or limit artists from the continent?

I would like to say that it is not limiting, but that is not really the case.  The complexities of our relationship (as a continent) with the West and the pervasive influence that this has over many aspects of our lives, particularly in the creative sector, has had the consequence of our creatives constantly measuring themselves against the parameters that have been set by the West. Yes, we should absolutely have globally measurable standards in terms of our technical abilities/competencies as artists, but the content of our creative output should not be dictated or sanctioned by Western critics or audiences. By trying to fit into the Western mold and sometimes rejecting elements that might be viewed as not sophisticated or contemporary enough, a lot of our artists do themselves a disservice. I think the underlying issue is the connotations of the label ‘African Art’ and the various interpretations of what it means and what it is. I believe that this is problematic and, until we begin to define what it is within the continent and to embrace the multi-layeredness of our artistic contemporaneity, we will continue to limit ourselves and be limited by labels.    

What qualifies an artist to call him or herself an ‘African artist’?

This is a question that really puzzles me and I am not quite sure I understand the context in which this question would apply. I suppose this question to be particularly relevant within the South African context where race and identity is contested.  But I suppose this is really a question that we need to reflect on continentally and against the broader context of globalisation. What does it mean to be an African Artist in the 21st century? I have to confess that I haven’t really given this a lot of thought, particularly in terms of what qualifies an artist to be regarded as an ‘African Artist’. The word ‘qualifies’ is problematic for me. What does it mean to ‘qualify’ as an African Artist? Does it mean that if your antecedents migrated from Europe, for instance, you don’t qualify? Or if you are not 100% black? The question certainly requires more in-depth reflection.

Do you think the issues of labels and identity are still valid? Or is it old news?

I think labels and identity are very sensitive issues that take us into highly contested terrains and are not to be lightly dismissed. I would like to think that, in time, we will move away from them but, unfortunately, these issues continue to hamper our progress and cause conflicts. I believe that, in order to truly harness and utilise the opportunities that are available to us within the continent and globally, we need to move away from these labels and our somewhat problematic approach to identity. In our societies today, nationality and racial identity are much more layered and complex than they were even just 5 years ago. We are in a constant flux and various forms of mobility have given us the ability to move to a completely different continent and take on a different nationality. This means that issues of race and identity have become much more blurred. For instance, I am a Nigerian now permanently resident in South Africa, but generally I think of myself as an African and for me living in South Africa means that I am still living close to home. I am home because I still live within the continent.

Africa is a new economic frontier where young people are shaping Africa’s future. What do they want to see, hear and read that will inspire them to embrace African arts and culture?

Africa is not so much ‘a new economic frontier’. It has always been and continues to be a resource base for the West. It is also debatable as to whether young people are actually shaping Africa’s future given the many challenges that they face across the continent. Significant among these challenges is a lack of financial resources to enable young Africans access to a good education. There are also significant levels of poverty that prevent a large number of young Africans from building a culture of appreciating the arts. Having said that, Africa is recorded as the ‘fastest growing continent’ for smart phones, which means that a lot of young people have access to a variety of online platforms through which they receive and disseminate information. The youth are in a state of constant flux and shifting occupancy, therefore they need to be engaged through their spheres of interest.  I believe that the arts offer a broad range of interests that young people can engage with within the continent. There is a proliferation of contemporary music, fashion, design, literature and so on that are easily accessible through a variety of digital platforms and speak in a language that the youth understand. I think the visual arts present a bit of a challenge since they are perceived as being elitist. There is a need to present them in ways that are more accessible and less intimidating. What do young Africans want to see, hear and read? I would say anything that affirms and strengthens their sense of identity, and connects them to contemporary trends and other young people around the world.

It can be argued that Africa’s time is now. How do we prepare to take full advantage of the opportunities that are constantly unfolding in front of us. More importantly how does the African contemporary art establishment position itself to emerge as a ‘global player’ whose voice can be heard and respected?

Africa has, in the past couple of years, been in the position to dictate its own terms and to situate African Contemporary Art as an important ‘global player’.  I think we need to acknowledge that our artistic traditions are quite different from those of the West. We have inherited a complex system of ancient artistic traditions that have, over time, evolved into new contemporary trends informed by globalisation, within postcolonial educational structures coupled with postmodern influences, and ultimately supplanting some of these influences to chart our own creative course. This has resulted in the emergence of new ideas, new realms of imagination and new cultural spaces that are very unique and significantly different in comparison to others the world has to offer. For over 10 years now the West has been focused on African Arts and Culture, particularly on its enormous cultural potential and innovative developments. We are innovating and creating in our individual spaces and within our various regions. But we need to speak to each other more, to understand our different contexts, exchange ideas, generate partnerships and begin to work as a cohesive whole instead of as separate units. That I believe is the only way we can begin to build a strong creative network across the continent whose voice is relevant and respected globally.

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?

This is a complex question, and I think that it is challenging for those of us who come from other parts of the continent to fully appreciate and understand the historical contexts and socio-economic dynamics within which, for instance, the black South African artist operates. In comparison to other parts of the continent, South African art in my experience is very Western oriented. To bridge the gap, South Africa needs to understand that, even though it is head and shoulders above a lot of African nations in terms of infrastructure, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ahead in terms of sophistication and exposure. As a continent we have lessons to learn from one another and the South needs to come to the party and not always assume that the party should come to it. I think there is a lot of potential that is as yet untapped in terms of cross-regional engagement and partnerships. These are channels of opportunity that need to be explored more intimately.

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

 Absolutely! I believe this dialogue is very critical and of great importance if we want to make any meaningful impact and progress as a continent. 

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?

I very much like this concept of Africa as a dynamic energy because that is, very interestingly, how I think of Africa in my mind. As this enormous mass of undulating energy filled with dynamism, hope, rhythm, creativity, philosophy, innovation, ancient lores, wisdom, and so many other indefinable forces.

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?

I see myself as part of this new generation, but perhaps this might also be addressing the ‘born free’ generation of South Africans.  The youth need to be greatly inspired, particularly in these times where they have few role models and there are numerous societal challenges faced by young people. They need to be proud of their heritage, to embrace both their cultural identities and the contemporary cultures that they are more familiar with. A foundational arts and culture curriculum starting from elementary school through high school is critical in supporting their understanding of their cultural heritage and artistic traditions.  

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

I think this is unavoidable; we already have those precedents and the pigeonholing. I think the question is rather, “How do we reconcile with and overcome our historical baggage to enable us forge ahead?” We need to embrace and acknowledge our past not ignore it, only then can we truly move past it and begin to redefine and shape our future discourse.

What new stories of identity are revealed for this Africa through its art?

We are a continent that is in a constant flux, continually redefining itself, and this is a source of cultural enrichment. This gives us the opportunity to innovate, to re-invent ourselves and to embrace our diversity as well as our similarities. We are a multi-dimensional, multi-cultured, multi-layered, multi-racial society.

What is African art when it is no longer called African art?

It is just a fusion of culture, ideas, innovation, partnerships, collaborations, creative interventions, contemporary trends, and creative spaces/platforms created by artists from the African continent, consumed locally (within the African continent) and globally.

As Africa emerges, transforms and gains energy, what will African contemporary art represent?

A synergy comprised of what essentially African contemporaneity is, fused with global trends.

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?

A lens through which we filter events and experiences that are deeply personal, and interrogate societal, economic and political issues that continue to plague us around the continent. It is not easy to predict how these will influence Africa 15 years from now; the continent is highly unpredictable, changing from one day to the next. 

As a confident transnational Africa emerges, what do we see as the most progressive approach that ‘African art’ can take and what does this approach represent and what new qualities does it possess and pose?

A progressive approach in my view would be regional policies that encourage and strengthen cross-border partnerships. For instance, artists being able to move across and within borders with ease would enable greater interaction and engagement. This will engender self-confidence, self-respect, acknowledgement of and pride in our national, regional and continental creative sectors.

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? 

I think the current voices are relevant, but perhaps we need to put more effort into broadening our audiences and being much more inclusive. We are leaving out a huge demographic of young people that we should be engaging with through a variety of digital platforms that speak to that particular group directly, in their language and within their spheres of interest. We should not be afraid to explore new mediums and to extend our audience base.

Who is the new African art hero?

They are multiple, not just one hero. For me it would be those artists or creative collectives who, in spite of the various challenges they face in terms of a lack of infrastructure or facilities, are producing really incredible and innovative work around the continent. 

 

Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke worked as the arts project manager at the prestigious Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg, and has consulted as a researcher for the University of the Witwatersrand, The British Council, and Arterial Network. She is the Johannesburg editor at OMENKA Magazine and currently works as the Regional Network Development Management at the Visual Arts Network South Africa.

 
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