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 Meskerm Assegued, curator, anthropologist and writer based in Ethiopia.

Meskerem Portrait web
Image courtesy of the author.
Is there such a thing as ‘African Art’?

I don’t believe so. Art is art. Great art transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. I don’t see Picasso’s art as Spanish; it is simply great art. If we want to see great art coming from this continent, we must view it as art first.

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

Africa is far too large and diverse for its art to comfortably fit under a single label. Labels are a convenient way to categorize, but they set certain expectations for both creators and consumers. This holds back African artists with their own unique vision, because they are expected to work within the confines of whatever “African art” is perceived to be.

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

Artists can call themselves whatever they’d like. Personally, I’d rather just call them by name.

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

As long as there are institutions and individuals with money and time invested in labels, there will be a strong push to maintain them. Labels shouldn’t be an issue, and I don’t think they will be forever, but for now it’s something we still have to deal 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?

Everything. You can never know what the next great source of inspiration will come from. The best we can do is lay it all out for them and see what they do with it.

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?

There is an Ethiopian saying – “Sirotu yetatkkut, sirotu yifetal” (what is buckled while walking will unbuckle while running). There is danger in moving too fast. Young villagers are clamoring for the latest gadgets before they can buy a new pair of pants. As important as it is for Africa to engage with the growing technological world, we must be careful to do so at our own pace. Africa is big, but the Internet is bigger.

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 think artists should be free to express their perception or their observation about anything they find interesting. The history of South Africa is unique. The public is a mixture of diverse groups, which includes the natives, Europeans, Indians and migrants from different countries of Africa. Therefore, the artwork made in South Africa is a reflection of these diversities. It is true that William Kentridge and Jane Alexander penetrated deep into the European and American art markets and museums. These artists are South Africans of European ancestry. Given the colonial history of the country, it is not surprising that these artists had easy access to the best European education, thus expanding their exposure and knowledge of European artistry and art production techniques. Naturally, their art reflects issues relevant to their observation and emotional reaction to their environment.

Art is an expression of an individual artist’s impression. The concept of ‘Western Art’ and ‘African Art’ are impositions made by those who benefit from these divisions, either politically or financially. Art is free or should be free from political or cultural divisions. It should cross lines between the past, present, future and the various artistic disciplines. The only way we can bridge the geographical and cultural division is by paying attention to the intellectual and technical quality of the artwork without prioritising the national identity of the artists. We have to treat artists as individuals with complex backgrounds. We are connected, therefore art should be viewed as such.

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?

 I think a dialogue is needed about the role of art in the world and how it is changing. It is important to understand how technology is influencing art or vice versa.  In this rapidly changing environment, the relationship of science and art are far more interesting and timely topics to discuss. 

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 am more interested in throwing out the definition altogether. As long as there is a pervasive notion of what Africa is or should be, its art will be expected to fit into that mold. I want to encourage art that isn’t tied to its place of origin.

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?

 The most important thing is to keep them informed. They must have an understanding of where they stand in the world, and they must know that they are a part of it.

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

 The first thing is always to look at ourselves in the mirror. Change can only happen from within us. If we don’t confront ourselves and take the necessary steps to change, we cannot ask anyone else to change.  If we look forward and start working towards it, others may follow. One of my favourite lines from an American Civil Rights folk song is “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize, Hold On”. When ever I think of this line, the first thing that comes in my mind is ‘spotting’ where a dancer keeps her or his eyes on a spot and spins without losing control. Focusing on a clear mission and moving towards it is the only way we can dispel the past and move into a positively productive future.  

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

 I don’t know, but I look forward to seeing it.

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

 African art has never been anything but art. The artist’s birthplace only matters when we make it matter.

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

 The future.

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?

 Art pushes the limits of perception. Part of my work is to challenge people’s perception of artists. If in 15 years we can start appreciating artists for their work rather than their origin, Africa may finally be recognized as an integral part of the world.

For a new generation not willing to be co-opted into the dramas of the past nor defined by a previous generations 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?

 If the media want to remain relevant to the art world they will have to start looking at it in three dimensions. They must put as much work into their understanding of art as the artists put into their creations. The art world is changing fast and isn’t going to wait around for the media to catch on.

Who is the new African art hero?

 The idea of a hero is limiting. It is competitive and unproductive. There are many people who are doing interesting and highly effective work everywhere and all the time. I often question how one person can be a hero. Anyone who is actively engaged in making a difference is a hero. 

Meskerm Assegued is a curator, anthropologist and writer. In 2002, she founded the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre (ZCAC), an artist residency located in Addis Ababa. Assegued’s curatorial practice began in 1992 at Oton Gallery in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Since 1998, she has curated numerous exhibitions, both in Ethiopia and abroad.

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