In 2005 Simon Njami, the Cameroonian art critic and co-founder of “Revue noire” wrote and important article titled “Another Gaze” on contemporary African art in the context of a globalized world. Since then the discourse has moved on substantially, but I think it is still worth reading.
Njami proposes a good number of suggestive ideas, but there are three that I found particularly adequate for our current situation in Nigeria.
1. First, he identifies the two main directions taken by contemporary art from Africa: the ‘internationalists’, who reject every form of triumphal exoticism and Africanism…and the ‘authentic’, the heritage of Les Magiciens de la Terre, most prominently represented by the collection of John Pigozzi.
2. Second, he emphasizes the need to “return to the artist”: “The lesson we’ve learned from the past 15 years and that will serve as our guiding thread, is that we must look at every contemporary African artist according to his or her own inspiration, regardless of any other context. Here, the context is understood as personal experience and shifts it away from any form of territoriality.”… “It is necessary to understand that it is no longer thinkable to accept the dictatorship of the market that not only sets up the prices, but also influences fashions in art and its inspiration. We must return to the artist, talk about the artist, analyse the work with all the tools at our disposal – none should be left out.”
3. Third, we insists on the need to promote a curatorial approach, “which substitutes a nuanced, individualised treatment of contemporary African art for an overwhelmingly territorial one”.
I copy below some of the most important paragraphs. The whole article is available at http://www.metamute.org/en/Another-Gaze
By Simon Njami
In the past 15 years, contemporary African art has found its audience – a public. It is now usual to come across African artists taking part in international biennial exhibitions or being shown in European, American and Japanese galleries. This development was confirmed by the nomination of the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor as director of the last Documenta in Kassel. African art has become a constituent part of the international contemporary art discourse. The theoretical basis has been supplied by publications such as Revue Noire, followed by Atlantica, NKA and Coartnews. They form a pool of information from which all sides draw raw material for a debate that finds its roots in the 1980s. An important role was also played by a series of group exhibitions, which contributed to the increasing recognition of African art. Yet, in the global village that has been forced upon us by the new world economic order as inevitable and necessary, the role of Africa and its artists still needs to be defined. One of the paradoxes that has accompanied the evolution of this discourse is that it has been forged, to a great extent, outside of the African continent. The rare events staged on African soil are the Bamako and the Dakar biennials, the chaotic biennial in Cairo and the ephemeral biennial of Johannesburg. Questions concerning the recognition of African art production therefore remain: what gets included, according to what criteria and what strategies?
The question that is being raised here is that of the inadequacy of our references. Postmodernism and its analyses point us to a monolithic view of the world, excluding everything that does not seem to fit in to its model of accepted discourse.
If the last 15 years prepared the ground for integration rather confusingly, what path are we now to follow in this stuttering century, and what will be the situation of the continent and its artists? Every attempt to answer this question must first return to the landmark events that influenced our understanding of African art within and outside of the continent. The simplest way to achieve this must be an overview of various exhibitions and an attempt to reintegrate them into the context from which they emerged. Every exhibition triggered off a debate and made a position felt. Looking at those years one would have thought that, in the last part of the 20th century, the Manichean temptation of radicalism could have been avoided. But truths clashed and came face to face amidst a cacophony that is blatantly oblivious to history and its lessons. Thus the field of contemporary African art gradually transformed itself into a vast, economic and theoretical battlefield, one that forced the various actors into defending sometimes restrictively narrow definitions.
The discussion was even more passionate since when it comes to African art there is a tendency to reduce it almost completely to the conditions of its making; every attempt to understand the shifting truth as an illusion of reality projects a certain definition of Africa and Africans. Art historians, gradually replacing the ethnologists in this field, have tried to reach a definition of African specificity, while placing the continent on the wider map of international art. Such deliberations necessarily throw up the complex question of the parameters of such a definition. What do we have in mind, or rather, should we have in mind, as we tackle the problem of contemporary African art?
The ‘80s were harbingers of what the ‘90s were to confirm: the definition of the world is no longer the exclusive prerogative of the rich countries. First theories of globalization sprang up – not dissimilar to the theories of universalism of the 18th century. The need to initiate a discussion on contemporary art in Africa became ever more evident. Ethnographic contextualisation has gradually been replaced by decontextualisation; one misunderstanding expected to chase away the other. The flaw in the idea of a global village, as imagined by some, is its inability to avoid repeating the old instincts of appropriation.
Even though Suzan Vogel’s 1991 exhibition Africa Explores the 20th Century, at the Center for African Art in New York, opened two years after Les Magiciens de la Terre, it marked the swan song of the ethnological era, representing as it did the core of the praxis that was then en vogue within the ethnographic milieu. The title indicates that its aim was to show a century of African art, but according to which criteria? Suzan Vogel solved the problem by avoiding making any choices. She renounced taking the risks that she was perhaps unable to take. The exhibition therefore portrayed Africa as a complex and overcrowded continent. Africa Explores was not so much an art exhibition as an ethnological representation of context at the expense of aesthetics. Just as colonial exhibitions had done in the past, it set out its stall, showing everything it possibly could. It was up to the audience to make its own selection. A true cabinet of curiosities. The overblown ambition of showing a whole century of art of such a vast continent could have no other result; the selection and the theme were ill defined, and the chosen items could only be assembled in the same place via the ethnological approach. It made one fact clear: what used to be classified as African Art had not yet found an adequate translation to the contemporary museum.
Vogel, like Pierre Gaudibert in his 1991 book Art Africain Contemporain, attempted to establish, if not a hierarchy, then at least a way of distinguishing between various African art forms. She did so using an empirical vocabulary, the limitations of which she was the first to acknowledge. However, two years previously, the discourse had taken a turn in another direction which, while not new, nonetheless caused waves that are still being felt today. Even though Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou was not solely dedicated to Africa, it brought the debate into the public arena.
From the early ’90s, we could then discern two directions in the analysis of contemporary African productions: the ‘internationalists’, supported by Revue Noire, who rejected every form of triumphal exoticism and Africanism as embodied, for example, in the collection of the German Hans Bogadzke; and the ‘authentic’, the heritage of Les Magiciens de la Terre, most prominently represented by the collection of John Pigozzi.
These shows promoted the view that art could be anything as long it came from different countries and set up a kind of a political correctness based, once again, on ideas of Otherness. Meanwhile the ‘internationalists’ were trying to address African art using the same criteria applied to any other art practice, no matter where it came from. In spite of these radically diverging positions, African art had both sides to thank for having become a real topic of theoretical discourse, celebrated by numerous exhibitions and an ever increasing presence of African artists at big international events.
The lesson we’ve learned from the past 15 years and that will serve as our guiding thread, is that we must look at every contemporary African artist according to his or her own inspiration, regardless of any other context. Here, the context is understood as personal experience and shifts it away from any form of territoriality. Established methodologies are perhaps no longer suitable to solve the need for such sensitivities. We should resist any form of exoticism when selecting artists, otherwise the obligatory inclusion of a couple of Africans used to prove that the market has become truly global is in danger of becoming yet another curatorial trend. It is necessary to understand that it is no longer thinkable to accept the dictatorship of the market that not only sets up the prices, but also influences fashions in art and its inspiration. We must return to the artist, talk about the artist, analyse the work with all the tools at our disposal – none should be left out. There is today a dire need for transdisciplinarity. If during the ’80s discussions of contemporary African art were limited to a happy few, working almost exclusively in Europe (namely Paris and, to a lesser extent, London) and to a handful of ethnologists and anthropologists, the ’90s opened the way to a more idiosyncratic set of approaches. Its origins were no longer the primary criterion for the appreciation of a non-Western art work. The gaze became sharper. Contemporary art and museum curators joined with specialists. Using their position in the global culture game, they forced the discussion to tackle the work directly without necessarily focusing on origins.
The emerging curatorial approach, which substitutes a nuanced, individualised treatment of contemporary African art for an overwhelmingly territorial one, was/is the modest contribution of Africa Remix. It is also the aim of the newest initiative on the African continent, the Luanda Triennial in Angola. Scheduled to take place in spring 2006, it will attempt to bring the inscription of African art in the contemporary world to another level, while also trying to define its originality. The triennial will also attempt, on the one hand, to address the context in which all big international art events are constructed and, on the other hand, to offer new routes for reflection. Those routes could enable Africans to speak for themselves and to stop being the spectators of their own history, written, as it has been from the colonial times, by others.