« Art is borderless »

Interview with Ery Camara, by Maureen Murphy

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Senegalese artist, Ery Camara is a freelance curator in Mexico. The former assistant director of the national museum of anthropology in Mexico currently teaches museography and organises exhibitions and seminars in various Mexican museums. He was President of the Jury at the last Venice Biennale and has participated in Dokumenta. He was a member of the jury for the official programme at Dak’art 2002 and was invited to organise on an exhibition on the theme of the African diaspora.

What were your selection criteria for this exhibition?
They simply asked me to include artists from Africa and the diaspora. I contacted Muhsana Ali, an African-American artist who lives in Senegal and is married to a Senegalese man. She came to know Africa during a trip to South Africa. She also lived for a long time in Ivory Coast and visited Ghana because she wanted to trace her ancestors’ origins. She has adopted Africa as her home and I thought it would be interesting to show her work, especially since she has also worked on the theme of slavery (1).
The second artist is a Cuban by the name of José Angel Vincench who has been working on the theme of religion. In Cuba, the Yoruba religions are a strong influence, with what they call the santeria. In his work, Vincench collected together several santeria icons, transformed them and thereby succeeded in integrating them into his pieces. I was interested in seeing how religion continues to provide a link between Africa and America. José Angel is not of African origin but I was more interested in the spirit of his work.
The third artist is Mario Lewis. He works with conceptual art. His case is very interesting because he had a serious illness and almost lost his sight. During that time he experienced seeing everything as a blur and from then on, he created an artistic style very different from anything else that is being done in Trinidad. Because, in the Caribbean, as a general rule, most artists do nothing but cater to the tourists and therefore everything is exuberant and colourful … Lewis chose to work conceptually, based on his own experiences and on the social relationships that exist between government officials and the people. In a piece called Blind Spot, there is absolutely zero visibility. He poses the question, « Who is governing? Who is approving what the government does? » This is a very interesting piece about people who think they can see but they can’t see a thing. His work raises the following question: Does visibility alone enable us to see things?
Concerning the choice of artists in the official programme, what was the main thread?
The main thread was first and foremost the quality of each individual piece (what did the work represent). We had to decide whether the work was transgressive, because some artists repeat well-known schemas, which was something we wanted to avoid. We favoured works that introduce a new African aesthetic and that also, after analysis, showed a certain standard. The rule was that the piece had to be innovative.
Does the principle of accepting applications on individual assessment open up the event?
Yes, I think that it lets us discover new artists but a lot of artists were absent too. The important thing – for the general public – is to broaden their horizons, and that we also show that both within the continent and abroad artists are continuing to work. They style or their work enables us to see just how rich this production is. However, we did have to refuse a lot of applicants in order to obtain this result.
Wasn’t the Biennale’s ambition to represent a particular type of production?
No. Above all, it was to set a common thread that would enable us to ensure that there was quality, variety and innovation. The aim was also to encourage the idea of development.
How is the Biennale placed in relation to other events of its kind, in Europe or the United States, in relation to the international art market in the West? Where is it placed, what is its role and how important is it?
In one sense, I think that the Biennale has a lot to learn from other biennales and the art circuit. The most serious problem that African artists have is the lack of supporting infrastructures. When I talk about infrastructure, I don’t simply mean galleries but also sponsors, collectors, a whole circuit to enable the art to circulate, both on a local and an international level. A solid system of criticism should be paralleling artistic production so that people can understand the context and the contribution it makes. In the past we saw lots of extremely talented artists being exhibited in a fairly exotic manner. However, I think that the artists and the public have to go beyond that stage. Today, artists interested in phenomenon such as globalisation or the media revolution, artists who are well-informed about what is happening internationally, appropriate certain technology and trends in order to re-interpret them. In this sense, I don’t see why we should want to trap them in a primitive or exotic mould. The Biennale is working to make people aware of these changes.
Nevertheless, there is still a huge gap between the artwork shown at the Biennale and what is done on the streets, for example.
You know, this year, the unofficial programme had 100 exhibitions. This enabled visitors to really see what is presented freely, including exhibitions rejected by the official biennale. What’s missing is an in-depth study of what contemporary African art is becoming in its own society. What do you generally find when you look through texts? You get the impression that all the effort is going into presenting this art in the West, and yet, before it is presented to the West it needs to be presented to the people here too. It should be noted that we don’t have a museum of modern art here, although it is really important to have a place for cultivating memory, where people could see the different stages in the artistic transformation, as well as the episodes of continuity.
Do you think that this situation is due to a lack of political motivation or for economic reasons?
The two are related. We have to think of how to orient the Biennale so that it is far more useful to the general population. It’s very important that each Biennale leave a trace so that people can carry on the effort, and so that we can improve each time. For example, the fact that there were 100 exhibitions in the unofficial programme this time means that there is work being done out there. This is good for production but what happens about circulating the work produced? Who’s looking after that? The government, the private sector, the artists themselves? The quantity of work produced is merely an exhibition without accompanying documents, but it’s important to study the phenomenon that is art, to understand how it integrates into society and what kind of effect it has on other social sciences.
What are the perspectives for developing an art market in Africa?
I think that if Africa is capable of organising a biennale, it should also be capable of finding a favourable market for artists. However, to create this market, it doesn’t suffice to exhibit. We need a certain level of real promotion and there needs to be a distribution platform through the media so that people know what’s out there. It’s the same as in the West. When a new style erupts, people lose their points of reference; they need the information that is circulating – either through books, or through the media. If we hear about the artist and their beliefs, we slowly gain interest in them. But here there’s only a small minority that gets close. We never find monographies on the artists and when the study of art isn’t on a pedagogical level, as practiced in schools or universities, you could say that that art history doesn’t exist. This makes it very difficult to approach potential sponsors or collectors to support art.
In your opinion, is the Biennale just a starting point for focusing on these points?
Yes. I think it’s very important, because the five Dakar Biennales have provided a certain visibility for the artists. Some artists now participate in international exhibitions and are invited all over the place. It’s good but there’s still a terrible lack of information about their works. So, people from elsewhere don’t know what’s happening in the arts in Africa.
What do you think of what Okwui Enwesor is doing at the moment?(2)
Okwui? I think he has a lot of responsibility and I hope that it’ll work with Documenta. I met him two years ago at the Biennale in Havana. I hope he’ll have a chance to review the current aesthetic and find out how to open the gate to this creative diversity. But he will also face market pressures – like Catherine David. In 1997, I was invited to the « 100 days, 100 guests » conferences. I noted that it’s really hard to change mentalities. The same thing happened in Venice last year when I was president of the jury – I had the same problem. Being African, everyone is wondering what Okwui’s doing at Documenta. He’s not from the visual arts, he’s more literary, but he’s worked with Guggenheim and he’s worked on several big exhibitions. I think he can make a considerable contribution to widening the perception of art today, maybe even more than people trained in the arts.
You work in Mexico City …
I teach museology at the university there and I’m also a consultant for several museums. I was an assistant director at the national museum of anthropology and then I became an independent curator. I often organise exhibitions in venues such as the national museum of fine arts and the museum of modern art. But I’ve also worked a lot on the theoretical side of things, organising seminars with themes such as the state of contemporary art, the museum and art distribution. This enabled me to work a lot on an international level, and to collaborate on Documenta and the Biennale in Venice.
What is anthropology for you?
Anthropology opens up a new perception of art for us. Before, we used to say that we couldn’t mix art and ethnology or sociology, etc. Now, we’ve realised that we shouldn’t seek art’s formality but rather its potential for integrating, or an understanding of the context itself, which makes it possible for this art to take a particular form. I think that today’s artist is more of an ethnologist. He talks about his environment, about the restrictions of his surroundings and this is reflected in his work. Today’s art is very often politicised one way or another. We therefore have to accept the idea that a person’s environment has a very big impact on them.

1. Muhsana Ali’s exhibition, « Portes et passages du retour » [Doors and passages of the return] and his work with Abidjan’s street children is presented on www.africultures.com’s exhibitions page.
2. For further information read Okwui Enwezor’s interview in Africultures, issue 41.
///Article N° : 5618

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