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 Touria El Glaoui, founder of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

Touria PROFILE creditChrisSaunders web
Photograph by Chris Saunders.
Is there such a thing as “African art”?

I believe there is, but we need to go beyond labeling art from the continent simply as African, and think more openly about the various contexts and cultures that inform artworks.

Does the label “African Art” enable or limit artists from the continent?

It seems to have done both in equal measure. For example, if an artist agrees to be seen as an African, it is usually a way of enabling them to be promoted outside of the continent; ironically, it may limit with artwork, as Africa shouldn’t be the only art works with specific cultural and geographic roots. By way of being labeled African, artists take on a very broad and non-specific historical and cultural lineage, often to the detriment of the work they produce. When conceiving of 1:54, the aim was to allow for as broad and varied an image of the continent to emerge as possible. Beyond representing a geographic space the aim was to provide a sense of belonging and diversity. What is also interesting is how the idea of African art and its definitions, has now become what the artists themselves have chosen to question.

What qualifies an artist to call him or herself an “African artist?”

I think most artists would refer to themselves as artists before thinking of themselves as African artists. Within 1:54 we present a whole range of practitioners, some of them live on the continent while others (for whatever reason) live elsewhere. Others have based themselves on the continent, but are not from there. Fundamentally, an artist in Africa should be free to seek his or her own identity beyond their individual ethnicity, birthplace or cultural background. In fact, what was fascinating about 1:54’s educational program last year, is how we heard from international artists like Carsten Holler and Olafur Eliasson, who both gave talks about the various projects they have been working on in Africa, having benefited from its energy and vibrancy.

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

Labels have been a problematic in relation to African art, especially those labels defined by the West in order to address the historical contributions of African artists. In the present moment, we are seeing the landscape shift, bringing new life to old categories of art and its meaning. 1:54 is the place where new identities are being sought, established and even contested by African arts professionals. One of the clear issues with African art over the past decades has been a lack of access, which goes hand in hand with the lack of knowledge and understanding. In such circumstances, labels are an inevitable pitfall. Identity on the other hand has been, and remains, an important signifier of how far we have come. Africans should feel proud of their unique identities and do everything possible to celebrate their achievements and accomplishments. I hope 1:54 can be a place where the identities of artists are celebrated, and considered, beyond labeling or pigeonholing.

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?

South Africa has a rich mix of cultural influences and shares parallels with Western art, just as it does with art from the rest of Africa. To speak specifically of contemporary art, it’s true that South Africa’s economic infrastructure has enabled a strong art market like no other on the continent. It is also true that many artists have benefited from institutional and educational frameworks, which allow for a great deal of access to the wider world. If you look at artists like Cameron Platter or Anthi Patra Ruga, their art reflects a very present moment in South African society in all its complexity. They may use aesthetics or forms of imaging that are used in the West, but the content of their work is deeply embedded in what’s going on in South Africa.

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?

There has been a long tradition of dialogue and debate around ‘African Art’; however there haven’t always been adequate platforms to sustain its momentum. In fact, a number of the conversations we have today about identity, authenticity, and Africanaity, were foregrounded in the 1980s following seminal exhibitions in Paris, London and New York. As far as centers of culture and thinking, there are a number of very active and productive projects taking place across the continent. Doual’art, for example, has one of the most original examples of this kind of activity, and engages an international as well as a local audience. Several other centres across the continent (such as the Raw Material Company in Dakar) have also been extremely successful in promoting and facilitating dialogues. ‘Forum’, curated by 1:54, is three-day program that draws on a host of the leading figures facilitating this active dialogue.

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?

All that you mention is of course part of a history that informs the world we now live in. In brief, I would say that dynamism is will play a key part in Africa’s future. The need to think outside of the box will not only be reserved for artists, but for anyone who wishes to make a difference. The trials, failures and, more importantly, the successes of the past, should be thought through as we move forward. Of course, art is one of the key signifiers of how far a society has come, so we are optimistic about the future we face. This energy has done more that create optimism however, we are facing a myriad of social, cultural and political issues and we must create more opportunities irrespective of our differences

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?

1:54 offers the opportunity to see a great number of perspectives at the same time. What is significant is how histories are mediated and communicated through art. Matters of art and culture are being defined by generations. Of course, not everyone is interested in these areas, but we can all play a part in them. 1:54 reaches out to an online audience through digital platforms and we really try to engage as wide an audience as possible. Technology has proven an incredibly democratic tool for the decimation and production of ideas in Africa.

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

As I mentioned, African art has long had a discourse, but I believe we are seeing more interest in art from the continent internationally than ever before. People are free to bring their own viewpoints and engage however they wish to. The emergence of online blogs and magazines means that anyone can contribute and make their voice heard. This is of course a very exciting idea, and, following the fair, a number of bloggers voiced their opinions and really gave great insight and personal perspectives. Perhaps the only downside is that not everyone does their research, which inevitably leads to pigeonholing or adopting the wrong historical precedents. This year, 1:54 will present a bookstore with some of the leading titles on African art, and scholarly journals such as NKA. This is a great way of informing the audience and providing a wider context for the artworks and discussions taking place within the fair

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

Sometimes new stories emerge, but more often artists offer new ways of looking at old stories. Last 1:54 presented the work of Edson Chagas, whose series, Found Not Taken, reflects Luanda’s urban and indusial environment through a series of discarded objects. Collectively, they say something about the situation of Luanda as multilayered city, telling a unique story of decline and renewal. The documentary element of Chagas’ work was a fascinating way of presenting Africa in a new light, and felt very ‘of the moment’. You will have to wait until this year’s fair to see what new stories emerge.

What is African art when it is no longer called ‘African Art’?

I believe the term ‘African Art’ is an entirely arbitrary but understandable and sometimes necessary one. For a non-African audience, artwork from elsewhere needs a context. Much like the word contemporary, it alludes its meaning, every art work was contemporary once just as every work produced in Africa is of course African. Yet it seems we are stuck with this as a category in and of itself, which has in many ways limited artworks from being understood and considered in greater depth.  The terms inscribes art from Africa with so much meaning and history, and yet does very little to disambiguate the locality and specificities of a work.

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

All art reflects the society from which it emanates, but it is wrong to say that Africa is emerging – it is perhaps more omnipresent than before for various reasons. Transformation is certainly something we have become accustomed to, for better or for worse. Contemporary art should go above and beyond what we expect and I am always amazed at how art reflects the world we live in.

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?

That is for artists to decide. As I mentioned, there a real opportunity to think outside of the traditional forms of making and using accepted or traditional forms and materials. In the future, I’m sure there will be an accelerated growth of artists intervening in the market and making bold and provocative works of art. There isn’t much that can’t be achieved within the next 15 years, if an artist sets his/her mind to it.

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

I don’t think these typologies have been deconstructed all together, but there are certainly some cases where specific regional cultures/forms of practice have been fused together. This often creates an interesting blend of ideas, and is space in which there is more to be gained in the future.

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 itpossess and pose?

Again, the new qualities are often determined my artists and the aesthetics, material or conceptual directions they peruse. From the perspective of 1:54 we are keen to show the diversity of the continent by presenting artworks that sit within a variety of styles and traditions. Galleries often bring together artists who would not have been seen together before. Here, in the magnificent neoclassical space of Somerset house in London, not only is the building a new context for much of the work, but also the art works showed communicate different perspectives. This is truly unique.

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.

Interestingly, successive generations of artists have faced the same challenges. At 1:54, artists in their twenties are shown alongside deceased artists. What is amazing is that parallels always emerge, and the works are of equal interest to older and younger generations.  The forum has been incredibly successful in teasing out such conversations and has a wide-spread audience of people from round the world.  This year it will return with new dialogues and will refer very much to art history and the present moment of production.

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 believe we have a great deal to learn from past, and should try to refer to the historical roots of what we do. The art world is a very fleeting and, at times, futile place, but the generations who have established themselves over time have done so mostly through hard work and dedication. No two voices are alike and while many individuals may be pursuing the same idea, they almost always reach separate conclusions. Which is to say that as long there is space for both older and younger generations to engage with art of the present moment, we are on the right track. Especially if they remain aware of one and other feed off the knowledge and expertise available to them.

Who is the new African art hero?

I was recently able to see the work of the artist Ibrahim Mahama at the Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition in London. He will be among the new artists presented at 1:54 this year. His work deals with supply and demand in African culture, and international trade routes. The experience of being in the room was incredibly powerful and I was very impressed by the in installation of the work.

Touria El Glaoui has occupied various business development positions in the Middle East and Africa, and organises and co-curates exhibitions of her father, Moroccan artist, Hassan El Glaoui’s work. In 2013, she founded the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

ARTsouthAFRICA magazine is available at leading and niche bookstores in South Africa and via subscription for international distribution. Subscribe now and receive a 20% discount (offer valid until 30 September 2014.)
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