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?
Malibongwe Tyilo (MT): Yes, ‘African Art’ exists. However, the term is a huge umbrella that encompasses a lot of diverse techniques and aesthetics, and, due to the many similar histories on the continent, there are bound to be a lot of common issues. Currently, because Africa is “in vogue”, the label can be enabling, although it becomes tricky once the novelty wears off. I think if someone calls themselves an African as their identity, then they can call themselves an ‘African artist’ if they produce art. As for the issue of labels, although they might feel a bit stale, I feel that the conversation is still necessary as there are so many aspects of defining our identity that certain parts of the continent are still grappling with.
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?
MT:I can’t say for sure what they want to hear and see, but I think that it is important to provide more original and regionally relevant content in general, through television and other media. Obviously, it has to be of good quality; otherwise the audience will simply revert to whatever overseas content they are used to. Ultimately, it is about proving that quality, original content can be produced on the continent.
Sandiso Ngubane (SN): I think the arts could meet young people halfway by actually going into the spaces they embrace rather than waiting for young people to come into the art space. What I have personally heard in my interactions with people of my generation is that the way in which art is presented − not necessarily the art itself − bores them, and I agree. What that should tell us is that the medium needs to change to suit their taste. It’s also of no use that art is written about in a language that not many understand. It may look and sound nice to someone working with and creating the art, but it limits the audience. They simply have no idea what is being spoken of.
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?
MT: We have to pay more attention to the voices from within the continent. Often, the story of African art is told by people who live and operate outside of the continent, which makes their voices instrumental in shaping the direction of African art. Obviously we live in a globalised society, and we can’t operate as though we are disconnected from that, but a keen understanding of what is happening right here is necessary in order for us to take the story of African art to the rest of the world.
SN: I think emerging as a respectable voice can only be achieved by beginning to understand ourselves and each other, and therefore the context within which artists create.
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?
MT: Yes, I do think we could benefit from the formation of that and similar structures. South Africa does tend to look outside of Africa when it comes to this, and an ‘African Art’ dialogue would go a long way towards dealing with the problems associated with South African art being perceived as too ‘Western.’
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?
SN: If such a perception exists, then it’s not isolated to the view of South Africa from any other perspective. The rest of the continent sees us as that African nation that sees itself as being ‘better’ than the rest. Of course, this creates a kind of animosity, and perhaps we need to open ourselves up a bit more to what is happening on the continent. Ask anyone who Jeff Koons is and they know, but ask them about a Nigerian artist and few would be able to answer that, myself included. It’s actually as simple as creating ties with curators and other industry practitioners from elsewhere on the continent and opening ourselves up to a type of exchange. I think we (young people) are the ones who should be opening these channels of communication now, but it really starts off with something as simple as awareness. We know more, generally, about current affairs in America than we do about Angola. Why is that? Why are we not concerned about our neighbours?
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?
MT: It’s problematic to define Africa as a single entity. It is also questionable to leave blackness out of how Africa is identified, especially considering how blackness is still treated in many parts of the world. In Africa, we still have to celebrate our journey towards validation, whether we are black or not. Even in our current time, many parts of Africa cannot be split from the reality of a colonial past, as it often defines the present and its struggles. That being said, Africa can still be a ‘dynamic energy’. Becoming a new dynamic energy does not mean that Africa should be in denial about its issues.
SN: I don’t think that trying to erase history is good for anything. That history is what shapes us, it’s what we know. We just have to be honest about how we engage with that history and I don’t think we have been. Is there a Rennaissance? Was there one? If there was, what informed that Rennaissance? Fact, illusion or euphoria, and how did all of that affect the discourse and what is to be the discourse going forward?
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?
MT: If people are raised in a way where they are heavily exposed to art and culture, in any society, I think they’re more likely to want to see more of it as they grow. They are also more likely to become discerning art and culture consumers who demand high quality work. It’s about fighting to expose as many kids as possible to the arts, and coming up with programs that are directly aimed at that, especially in schools. As important as Maths and Science are, it’s also time to teach school kids about the importance of art.
SN: I think people from all walks of life embrace arts and culture in their everyday lives, but it’s the narrow definition of what art is that makes it seem like people aren’t engaging or don’t want to engage. Let’s open the space and let everyone come in on their own terms.
How can we avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from framing our future discourse?
MT: Can we, or should we even want to? Is that not a part of the conversation itself? I think history will always frame future discourse, as it is the lens through which we look forward. The trick is not to seek answers for that discourse from the past.
SN: We can begin by letting go of expectations and just let artists create.
What new stories of identity are revealed for this Africa through its art?
MT: One of the realities for many parts of Africa is that it is heavily influenced by the West; we have so much that we can call our own, but we have also adopted and adapted so much. When it comes to stories of identity, I think we are still coming to grips with who we are as Africans living on the continent. The situation is not as simple as the marketers and PR gurus would have us believe, and I believe that art is one of the few practices through which we can capture nuances of that tale of identity.
SN: I think we need to start realising that identity is not something that can be separated from the individual. We live in a globalised world and our individuality is constructed within that context. This is why I frown upon the idea of always seeking to place something within the definition of ‘African’. I don’t know what that means, art being African. I don’t think art, in its nature, can be limited to a geographical location but that artists explore issues within their lived experience or interests. Identity arises from that. If a foreign artist comes here to find inspiration, does that make his work African or the subject African? I think it’s a very narrow way of looking at anything.
What is African art when it is no longer called ‘African Art’?
MT: We’re a long way from that; we’re still grappling with separating the idea of African art from the idea of curios and masks as its only expression in the eyes of the less-informed collector. Once we understand how diverse ‘African Art’ is, then we will be more equipped to speak about the schools of thought that fall under that umbrella, and perhaps not feel the need to run from the ‘African art’ label.
As Africa emerges, transforms and gains energy, what will African contemporary art represent?
MT: I think it presents an opportunity to better understand and deal with the struggles that come with the growth and transformation of the continent.
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?
MT: Leadership is definitely one of the most important issues for Africa right now, alongside an understanding of our identity as players on a global scale, and I think that questioning leadership should be one of art’s greatest provocations. Although I can’t tell what will happen 15 years from now, I think that art has the opportunity to influence the voting masses when it comes to choosing (and policing) leadership.
SN: I think that the idea of imposing a transformative agenda on art is absurd. I don’t buy into the idea of art being limited in any way.
For a new generation not willing to be co-opted into the dramas of the past nor defined by a previous generation’s concerns, art challenges new orthodoxies to create a new platforms for art practice and discourse that brings together creative, and intellectual minds.
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?
MT: There are voices that have managed to stay relevant. If anything, there is a shortage of voices with wide coverage, both old and new. We could do with a few more voices, specifically those who are able to capture the imagination of an audience that does not necessarily regularly engage with art. A lot of the current voices are known and understood only within the art community and, while that is important, it limits the potential to grow the art market.
Ultimately, in order to engage a new generation, you need voices that share the outlooks and frustrations of that generation. This is not to say that knowledge sharing cannot be intergenerational, in fact it should be, but currently there is not enough art discourse in the media coming from a younger generation.
Malibongwe Tyilo is the editor-at-large at VISI Magazine, and co-runs the South African fashion and lifestyle blog, ‘Skattie, What are you Wearing?’ with Sandiso Ngubane, a Cape Town-based freelance journalist. Together, they have launched the online magazine, ‘SKATTIE’, which focuses on fashion, art and design. Recently, the pair also launched ‘Skattie Celebrates’, a series of art publications, exhibitions and parties in collaboration with ARTsouthAFRICA.