Missla Libsekal Portrait by Paul Mpagi Sepuya WEB

The Interview Issue: Missla Libsekal

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 Missla Libsekel, writer and independent publisher based in Vancouver. 

Missla Libsekal Portrait by Paul Mpagi Sepuya WEB
Photograph by Paul Mpagi Sepuya.
 
Is there such a thing as ‘African Art’? Does the label ‘African Art’ enable or limit artists from the continent? What qualifies an artist to call himself or herself an ‘African artist?’ Do you think the issues of labels and identity are still valid? Or is it old news?

It has been suggested before that there is such a thing as contemporary art from Africa rather than African contemporary art. The former being easier to identify and name in some respects versus the latter, a phrasing that is encumbered by a modality that suggests provenance is what makes/defines the art. Several artists that I have spoken with recently have suggested that we are still dealing with the “hangover of colonialism”, and the language of that time. Ill-fitting as it originally was, made and inflected by the coloniser, it endures and remains a misfit. I am often tempted to never use the word ‘Africa’ again, but it is difficult, and a bit of a paradox, given that I run a publication that focuses on creative practice on the continent. My frustration with it, really, is what it often represents within global consciousness – a complex spectrum flattened into singularity, a singularity that does a poor job of disguising ignorance. I know I need to get out of its shadow and into the light. The only way I know how to do that is through specificity, and through the generosity of many, many artists and writers who have made (and continue to make) themselves available and open for conversations, dialogue, sharing, and collaboration.

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?

Like all of us, they need a means to sensitise them to themselves, to each other and the world(s) that we live in. Is art not an aesthetic means, a way and language to humanise our experiences?

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?

The art world has its own set of politics. Having a good lay of the land is not only essential; it’s critical, even if that does not by itself guarantee success. I often come back to this phrase, “Don’t be cool, be relevant. And if you can be relevantly cool, good for you,” which is an excerpt from the artist Nástio Mosquito video artwork, Nástia’s Manifesto, 2008.

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?

A good prose dictionary wouldn’t hurt; one that could allow us to engage more meaningfully than the current conflated vocabulary that we are struggling to imbue with complexity. Rodin’s Thinker would not be what we know it as today, had he had only a mallet. Without a refined tool kit, we can’t hope for eloquent results. In terms of perceptions, we know that disagreement is not in and of itself something negative. In fact it can be a sign of a healthy discussion – that differing opinions exist. However, if that disagreement is based on a notion that cultures and people exist in isolation, in pure states that therefore equate authenticity, we are invariably standing on precarious ground. Who will be the gatekeepers to say what is authentic and what is not? What about the context for the making of a work?

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?

Dialogue, it’s a beautiful word: conversation amongst two or more people. My strongest take away from attending the 11th edition of the Dak’Art biennale was the real-time dialogic between curators, artist, critics, writers, gallerists, intellectuals, publishers etc. Many of these individuals knew each other and have been conversing over the years. On my account, it was the first time I’d met some individuals that I’ve known for several years, having conversed with them via email or other digital means, or others whose work I’ve admired. Then there were others whom I came to meet and know in Dakar. Dialogue happened, intuitively, fast and furiously. Dissenting, agreeing, challenging, laughing, perplexing but fundamentally exchanging. So, for someone like myself, only four years young in this realm, these meetings felt new but the conversations themselves are not new.  We need to make these spaces where these vital conversations are happening more available and permeable. I see documentation as one aspect of this.

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?

What good is it for us to go from one set of cumbersome, narrowing terminology to the other end of the spectrum of abstraction? One of the first things that gave me courage to even attempt to begin writing Another Africa, was the ‘3 Continent’ video series by Nastio Mosquito. As if reading a press release, he announces, in Europa and America, “I bought Europe” and “I bought the US of A”: their “pride,” “ignorance,” “comfort,” and their “simplicity of supremacy.” When it gets to Africa, he hums and haws for a while, and keeps sighing. He tries to say something, but holds back before blurting out, “Fuck Africa” and walks away. I felt deeply relieved; finally someone said it plain and clear. It was beautiful.

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

The good folks at Chimurenga remind us, “Who no know go know”. That is a famous quote from Fela Anikulapo Kuti. If we need to be prescriptive, then I would say reflection on what and how we say things, less hubris, more empathy. We use language to communicate: visually, in written form and orally. We are all authors. Every act with one or many is a potential conversation, a possibility for exchange that reflect assumptions, ideas and beliefs.

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

Its continued malleability. Sometimes you have to rely on the poetic articulation of others. Manifesta, not too long ago, published a conversation between John Akomfrah and Raimi Gbadamosi where they speak at length on identity, particularly in relation to Akomfrah’s work and its possible reading.

Akomfrah says, “Over the years there has been a way in which identity has been attached to the work I’ve done. People have tried to link it to the question of identity politics in various ways. I’m against that use of the term to describe the work, for the very simple reason that it closes off all the things I am trying to explore. I’m instead interested in a politics of identity; I’m interested in probing the limits of beings, the limits of identities or even how identities come into being because I don’t accept that they are natural, biological, or otherwise. I know that those ‘eternal categories’ play into the formation but I don’t want to give them the entire responsibility. Which then means that the work is invariably about how someone could say to me, ‘Well, you’re a black person.’ What does that mean? When did this come into being? Because I remember not being black! I remember being Negro, Coloured, African and all sorts of not-so-flattering descriptions! I’m trying to understand the traffic between these moments of naming, all of which have appeared ‘natural’ and ‘universal’ at their inauguration.”

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

Ray Johnson, the conceptual artist that pioneered mail art, as I understand it, was interested in questioning and dematerialising the art object. Posting works in progress to be altered by other artists and then forwarding again by mail. That was the artwork the process. It challenged the idea of art making, and its commercial valuation and sale. Similarly, the Internet is facilitating networked art that revisits this idea of new ways to see and understand the art object, authorship, copyright and so forth. In these cases, I understand the modifiers to art, one as mail and the other as network, but what can we understand by the modifier ‘African’? We are stuck because we always begin with geography the primordial which then leads to another complex, hard-to-contain fields such as identity and rights to author(ship). Can we get to a place where the signifiers relate to history, schools of thought, technique, ideology, iconography and so forth which may also help us to understand what came before? What our precursors made, and the engagement and the movement thence forth?

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

What we all hope for from art: alchemy, where something in and of itself is completely useless but, in the end, becomes useful. Its contemporaneity will make clear that it is not tethered to a material or form, but rather how the myriad of modalities of address and thoughtfully spark debate on existing realities, making that which was out of sight, obscured or opaque come into view.

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?

To pose not solutions, but questions, questions that will provoke the most emotion and reflection on truth, lies and perspectives; questions that challenge the linkages between things and meanings, and ultimately can lead to the invention of new relationships, complexities and ways of seeing and being.

As the old ideas of North and South – East and West deconstruct, what approaches will be reflected through its art practice and discourse?

Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University has put forward some very interesting ideas in her essay, Nomadic Territories and Times.  She writes that “The local now transacts directly with the global: the global installs itself in locals and the global is constituted through a multiplicity of locals.” I think we are starting to see such contours. Take, for example, Invisible Borders The Trans-African Photography project, a group of photographers, writers and artists making social interventions whilst travelling by road from Lagos. They are currently in Nouakchott, en route to Sarajevo. It is a project focused on quotidian exchange and framing tiny banal moments within public spaces that founder, Emeka Okereke, describes as the real stories that give “headlines” their backbone. The process is as much the artwork, even if they are working with mediums such as writing and photography. This reminds me of Johnson’s conceptual work with mail art.

For this fifth edition, they’ve released an app and invite netizens to join the journey. The work is not being viewed in a physical white box.  Any smartphone, or computer for that matter, gives you free access to view each participant’s on-going personal work, their collective conversations, photo essays and a look at their social interventions and exchanges. For example, on Day 40, they visited with Malick Sidibé in Bamako. During their meeting, he shared some of his favourite photographs, and ideas on photography and culture. It is powerful on many levels. They are heuristically probing the limitations not only within Trans-African exchange but how to place art within the public space for the everyday person. Not to mention the making of a performative artwork in combination with the local and global simultaneously. Sassen suggests that this type of exchange is significant because “it makes possible a new type of power for actors who would be seen as powerless in terms of conventional variables.”

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?

From my knowledge, the media terrain is sparsely populated. Factor in visibility, availability, accessibility etc. and then it really becomes hard to get a grasp on who the ‘current voices’ are and their relevance.

Who is the new African art hero?

The hero is the doer. The one giving contours to the nebulous. The hero from my experience is many, not one. 

Missla Libsekal is a writer and an independent publisher based in Vancouver. She is the founder and editor of the online platform ANOTHERAFRICA.NET, a journal dedicated to contemporary art and cultural practices.

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