The Polyphonic Spree

Shortly after the opening of Africa Remix, a number of visiting artists from the continent and beyond participated in a public debate. Mary Corrigall reports

Nigerian artist, Dilomprizulike, during a performance held at the opening of Africa Remix, June 24. Photo John Hodgkiss

The voices of the 25 visiting artists who participated in Africa Remix had all but been sidelined as curator Simon Njami took centre stage, utilising the exhibit as a platform to expound on and establish his (non) definition of contemporary African art. A panel discussion, held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) on June 26, however, provided the artists with the first public opportunity to articulate their thoughts on the significance of this gargantuan African art extravaganza.

Among the artists who attended the panel discussions were LouLou Chérinet, Moataz Nasr, Patrice Felix Tchicaya, Dilomprizulike, Antonio Ole, Myriam Mihindou, William Kentridge, Ingrid Mwangi, Pascale Marthine Tayou and Aimé Ntakiyica. Although the questions posed by Khewzi Gule, contemporary curator at JAG, ranged from the prosaic to the predictable (“What is African art?”), it was clear that many of the artists did not necessarily embrace Njami’s curatorial ethos.

While Njami has rejoiced in the fact that Africa Remix has finally reached African soil (“because it will give an African audience the opportunity to see works that travel the world but are rarely exhibited in Africa,” he wrote in the January/February 2007 issue of Frieze), Chérinet suggested that she did not perceive the significance of an African show being staged in Africa. “Why should I feel any different about it showing here compared to elsewhere?” she declared.

Although all the artists’ work is being exhibited under the banner of contemporary African art, most of the artists who partook in the discussions seemed to resent being classified as African artists. Nasr shirked the “African artist” label. “How can a [geographical] region determine the kind of art you produce?” the Egyptian artist asked.

Art is inevitably shaped by the conditions or the context in which it is produced, said Lagos-based Dilomprizulike, inferring that artists from Africa instinctively produce art that is said to be African. For Burundi-born Ntakiyica, the themes that informed his artworks are inextricably linked to his identity as an African in the postcolonial era.

Of German and Kenyan ancestry and unable to comfortably fit into any cultural group, Mwangi proposed that the issue of African identity is an inescapable theme. She suggested that while the artists eschewed being labelled, it was part of a necessary process that facilitated understanding of their work. “We need categories to place things,” the Nairobi-born resident of Ludwigshafen in Germany stated. However, she did suggest that categories cannot entirely describe an individual: “You can’t name what a person is.”

Keen to articulate and share the concepts that inspired their art, the artists tended to desist from engaging fully in any arguments that sought to untangle the complex issues that haunt African identity. And as the discussions shifted to the individual rather than the communal motivations behind the art on exhibit, it became abundantly clear that the artists felt that the only commonality that united their work was that it was shaped by their own idiosyncratic impulses rather than a response to their Africaness.

“I hate this geographical link to my work,” asserted Tchicaya. “My work is about me.” Although born in Paris, one half of Tchicaya’s family is from the Congo. Chérinet concurred with Tchicaya: “My work is never about Africa or Africaness.” Echoing their sentiment, Kentridge said he was relieved that his fellow artists did not consider Africaness as their primary identity.

Speaking about future exhibitions, it became obvious that most of the artists were frequently showing their work on the international art circuit. A few artists suggested that being habitually estranged from the African continent naturally prevented their work from embracing an African aesthetic. Moving between Ethiopia, her birthplace, and Sweden, where she is often based, had destroyed her allegiance to any particular cultural character, Chérinet said.

Some suggested that the conditions for art making in Africa had compelled them to pursue careers abroad. Mihindoa, who was born in Libreville, Gabon, but lives in the Moroccan city of Rabat, was keen to relay the limitations that artists face in Morocco. “Everything is organised so as to prevent us from producing art; there are no budgets, no shows and no audience,” she said.

Despite the constraints facing some continental artists, Mihindou suggested that they could not be dissuaded from producing art; artists would create their own platforms if necessary. While she inferred that Africa Remix provided a vehicle for artists from the continent on which to broadcast their expression, she highlighted the fact that the exhibition could not function as the final word on contemporary African art. “A lot of Africa is missing from Remix” she observed.