Africa’s artists redraw the map of the world

By Virginie Andriamirado

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Contemporary art works are particularly at the mercy of the international market’s rules decreed by the North. Africa is responding by organising its own biennales and through an artistic exploration that attempts to go beyond the overly Manichean opposition between diversity and uniformity.

« I hope that the enthusiasm that this exhibition has generated will open up avenues for other African artists, otherwise it will have served no purpose ». Those were Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow’s words when he was interviewed by Africultures (n° 18) in May 1999, as nearly four million people flocked for three months to the Pont des Arts in Paris to admire his monumental sculptures.
Four years have passed. Although the sculptor is now accepted in the highest circles, although his success runs as far as Japan, the reality is that nothing has changed for contemporary artists from the African continent. The « Ousmane Sow phenomenon » did not end artists’ isolation, the weakness of cultural and artistic networks, nor the public authorities’ resignation, confronted as they are with other priorities. There were no repercussions for Africa’s contemporary arts, therefore, either on the continent or anywhere else where the mechanisms of globalisation are getting ever stronger at all levels, including in the arts world where Africa remains deeply marginalized. The continent, which is not devoid of talent, nonetheless has a card to play. Its artists have a combat to lead in order to assert themselves as they are, with their language and their way of thinking the world through an artistic oeuvre that must be inscribed in the long term, far from the diktats of fashion and third-rate exoticism. There are several routes to be taken, despite the obstacles. It is up to artists to rise to the challenge.
When the Western world has us cornered
The history of the evolution of Africa’s modern and then contemporary arts – which still remains to be written by the Africans themselves – is obviously intrinsically related to that of the continent’s political and economic evolution. In addition to the colonial past and its legacy, Western thought has imposed itself as the absolute reference thanks to the West’s economic and technical superiority. All the workshops set up by the Europeans in the colonial period, whether it be the art schools in Dakar, Poto-Poto (Congo), or Makerere (Uganda), imposed – under the pretence of letting artists express themselves – the West’s vision and plastic approach. What could have seemed more « natural » than importing easel painting, a medium until then unknown to the Africans?
Parallel to this, European then American artists discovered African art. But the role of these arts – which revolutionised Western painting at the beginning of the last century – seemed to be more of a discovery given the seal of approval by Western artists than a real influence. Although it undeniably influenced the period’s major artists – Derain, Vlaminck, Picasso, Braque and Matisse – one only has to read even the most enthusiastic art critics of the time, such as Pierre Laude, to measure the meaning, still detectable in approaches to contemporary works, of what the Senegalese art critic Iba Ndiaye Diadji has called « the infantilisation of African arts ». (1) Primitivism, the exhibition presented by the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art in New York), still found the means to assert this in 1984, confirming the predominance of the Western arts over the primitive arts.
In this context, African contemporary arts are still confined to the ethnographic or « extra-muros » museums, like Ousmane Sow on the Pont des Arts or Amahiguere Dolo (Mali) in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Some might say that « it’s better than nothing », given that modern art museums are inexistent as such in sub-Saharan Africa, where, outside the rare private galleries, artists are « condemned » to the sempiternal foreign cultural centres network if they want to exhibit. Although sometimes criticised by the artists themselves, who denounce certain selection criteria – either cronyism or « politically correctness » – these networks are often the artists’ only launch pads. Everything then depends on how they land, take their place in the international arts community, and learn to master the ways in which it works. The greatest danger facing them – to see the essence of their work become misappropriated, impoverished, and emptied of all substance – is that they be co-opted to the detriment of recognition, the frontier between the two being fragile.
From colonial to international exhibitions
Over these last fifteen years, African artists’ greater participation in the major Western exhibitions shows an evolution in the relation to arts from the South. It was the French exhibition curator Jean-Hubert Martin who opened a breach in 1989 by exhibiting a hundred artists from five continents, fifteen of whom were African, in his Paris-based Les Magiciens de la Terre show. Described as a manifesto, the exhibition elicited a great deal of debate.
The controversy around this exhibition, which was often accused of being neo-colonialist, did not stop it from being a success, attracting two hundred thousand visitors in four months. Declared the first major international exhibition, Les Magiciens de la Terre at least had the merit of opening the doors of the Western art world to artists from the South, and notably to African artists, who attracted considerable attention. Since, a certain number of them, including the Congolese (DRC) artists Chéri Samba and Bodys Isek, the Ivoirian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, and the South African Esther Malangu, have widely exhibited around the world. They have not always avoided falling into the traps of the market, which dictates a seductive production that is soluble in the world of international contemporary art, notably Chéri Samba and the Beninese sculptor Calixte Dakpogan. Eleven years later, Jean-Hubert Martin, assisted by four ethnologists, struck again at the Lyons Biennale (France) with Partage d’exotisme in which twenty-five artists from the North and the South were presented with the « intention of exchanging reciprocal gazes ». There too, the desire to have artists of different origins coexisting in a same space caused a stir, some deploring the total lack of complicity between the works, and others « the impossible reciprocity of one group’s gaze vis-à-vis the other’s, and its illusory community ». (2)
In the meantime, several exhibitions were held with the express desire to improve the image of Africa’s contemporary art, in which folklore sometimes mingled with avant-gardism. The fact was that Africa and its arts had become fashionable and each major capital held its exhibition of African contemporary artists, including New York in 1991 with Africa Explorers, London in 1995 with Africa 95, and Berlin the following year, with Afrika – A new African Art.
Whilst this effervescence enabled certain creators to become known and even gave a few the chance to enjoy an international career, it also created « disposable-artists » – as it had previously done with Eastern European artists – whose works, ready to be consumed for a limited period, offered what people expected from an African artist.
The emergence of biennales in the South
To see the work of African contemporary artists, one must look to the art biennales which have sprung up over the years throughout the southern hemisphere. Whether in Sao Paulo (Brazil), La Havana (Cuba), Dakar (Senegal), Gwangju (Korea), or even Johannesburg (South Africa – only three editions of which have been held), each one constitutes a global event which, despite some weaknesses depending on the places and years, have managed to displace the centre towards the margins.
Even if they don’t yet have the same clout as the Venice and Lyons biennales, or the Documenta in Kassel, Germany (whose curator was the Nigerian Okwui Enwesor in 2002), these biennales can influence contemporary art circuits by asserting themselves and by running in the long term. This will help to widen the artistic network on an international level and at last give meaning to the globalisation of contemporary art forms, a globalisation which is too often limited to a centre constituted by the Anglo-American world and the riches of the European countries. The biennales of the South do not represent a stake for the international art market yet of course. In 2002, the United States and Britain alone enjoyed a 79.7% share of the art market (3), whilst 98% of the world’s contemporary art institutions continue to exhibit just Western artists. They are nonetheless followed – even if from afar and at times with a certain condescendence – by the market’s players, who are well aware that they can spot artists and emerging trends there at a time when some pronounce the degeneration of Western artistic approaches.
The biennales of the South have everything to gain from this, as long as they find a just balance in their selections between rigor and audacity. It is at this price that they will reinforce their audience, opening up the way to other art forms born out of blending, encounters and confrontations. It is out of this dynamic that artists such as Georges Agdéagbo (Benin), Pascal Marthine Tayou and Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon), William Kentridge (South Africa), and Ndary Lô (Senegal) have emerged, imposing themselves on the international stage.
A « United universe »?
Globalisation, multiculturalism, and the like are all-encompassing generic terms that are not really in touch with the realities confronting Africa’s contemporary artists. As the French sociologist Alain Quenin insists, « like the entire artistic community, artists from the ‘minor’ countries remain under the seal of approval of the Western contemporary art world’s mainstream and, more than any other country, of the United States, whose leading role is incontestable » hence « the gulf that exists between the universality claimed by contemporary art and its concentration in the hands of a handful of countries. » (4)
Amidst the standardisation and ghettoization of cultural practices, between the local and the global, what are the perspectives for artists of the South? The period is placed beneath the sign of confrontation, but is this really new? Driven by their history and necessity, African artists are almost by definition in confrontation. As they cannot exist economically outside the field of Western art from where their recognition still has to come, they have no other choice than to innovate. They have already grouped together at local levels or under the impetus of several efficient cultural operators, and set up residencies, whether in Cameroon, Mauritania or Burkina Faso. Networks have formed, events are organised, even if they are always dependent on Northern funding of course and at the mercy of the different countries’ at times turbulent internal situations. The difficulties are real, if not at times insurmountable, but these forms are nonetheless affirming themselves. The artists occupy the cultural stage, seek a just balance between the tensions of affirming an identity and factors of cultural blending. Those who refuse to be assimilated into « world art » without necessarily falling into identity fixations that becomes a source of introversion and exclusiveness, stand out. Whether they work in the diaspora or « at home », they – Sokey Edorh (Togo), Ouatara (Côte d’Ivoire), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), and Pefura (Cameroon) – take other paths, keeping their distance from the standardisation of a global culture, drawing on the effective force of their art. The influences, hybridities, and blendings aren’t important. Just like for Edgar Morin, the French sociologist, for whom « the alternative between homogenisation and diversification is simplistic » because « posed by a thought structure that esteems that if there is homogenisation, there is no diversification and vice versa. In reality, they go together. They are contradictory but complementary. » (5) And, at the end of the day, wherever it is from, whatever its visibility on the international circuit, what is really important still lies in the meaning and the aura conveyed by the work of art.

1. Conference given by Iba Ndiaye Diadji, « Mutations disciplinaires dans les arts et les nouveaux champs de créativité : le cas des arts africains », December 2000.
2. Joëlle Busca, L’art africain contemporain, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000.
3. Source : www.artprice.com.
4. Alain Quenin, Le rôle des pays prescripteurs sur le marché et dans le monde de l’art contemporain, Report for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 2001.
5. Edgar Morin, Croissance, n° 49, July-August 2000.
///Article N° : 5689

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