Nicole Guez discusses the notion of African artists’ « contemporaneity » with Africultures. Curator of the Paris Art pour l’Afrique exhibition (MNAAO, 1988), and initiator of the Contemporary African Art Guide an exhaustive inventory of artists, exhibitions spaces, and African contemporary art specialists (2nd edition, Afrique en Créations, Paris, 1996) she has spent many years fighting to revalue African art forms. An advocate of culture as a key to development, she is currently the general coordinator of Africalia, a major cultural venture set up under the aegis of the Belgian institutions to stimulate African creation and to promote the African countries’ cultural influence.
When did the notion of contemporary African artists first begin to circulate?
Primarily after independence in the Sixties. It was as if independence also gave Africa the right to be modern. As soon as independence was granted, Africa’s artists seem to have simultaneously been given the right to be contemporary. Up until then, people were almost exclusively referring to what I call « classical art » now called « primitive art » when they spoke about African art. The public jumped straight from « primitive art » to contemporary African art without realising that there were already African artists in the Thirties who worked differently to those producing « primitive art ».
In what way was this production different to the traditional arts?
In that rather than being a continuation of the traditional arts, it was closer to what was being produced elsewhere. It was produced by more or less precursory self-taught artists who opened up the way to contemporary production.
Next, came the post-independence artists, who were the founding fathers of contemporary African art but whose work, whose approach, have never formed an ensemble that could be collectively described as modern African art. I mean artists such as Iba N’Diaye, Malagantana, Skunder Boghossian, Pascal Kenfack, or Uché Okeke. The younger generations now attack these major Sixties’ artists because irreverence is a part of creation, and that’s not a bad thing. Art needs to write its own history. It’s good to know what you’re reacting against, but also what constitutes the foundations by which you define yourself. I would really like to see African artists be given back this part of their artistic memory, which has never been formalised. One of Africalia’s projects is to initiate films on these artists’ work, to show them at work, in order to constitute a corpus that will then be able to circulate around the whole African continent, in art colleges and elsewhere. This is an important contribution to the constitution of contemporary African art archives. It will help contemporary artists to be much more at ease with their own art history without trying to cut them off from non-African contemporary production. Indeed, the problem is that it is as if they were floating up in the air. When a gallery owner or curator chooses works, they often seem to do so at random. Contemporary African artists’ work cannot easily be read as an ensemble. It is not part of an approach, a continuity, an evolution, something that can be described as being in the order of an « art history ».
Does that mean that an artist’s « contemporaneity » must be part of a linear continuity vis-à-vis his or her history?
The Sudanese artist El Salahi, who produces magnificent work, adopts the image of a tree with its roots, trunk and branches to describe African artistic creation. They are all part of the tree. A lot of African artists are part of the contemporary experimentation going on all over the world, but they also need to know where they are from and who they are. It’s a highly polemical question. This question of the African artists’ « contemporaneity » has been raised at every seminar or conference over the last fifteen years whenever people talk about contemporary African art. Some say that contemporary African art exists, others that it doesn’t, that the contemporary African artists are artists just like any other artists and that there is no reason to use the adjective « African » to qualify an artist. The reason why there is such tension around this question is because it is badly posed. When we talk about « contemporary African art », we bracket together three words, each of which needs to be clarified if we want to know what we are speaking about and if we want to avoid finding ourselves in a inextricable situation that is caused by the fact that we combine notions that do not refer to the same things at all.
Where do you stand in relation to this controversy?
I think that we need to find a common thread that will enable us to analyse Africa’s contemporary artists’ work. The only more or less acceptable analytical paradigm I have found regroups three pieces of information. The first is what I call « the art of contemporary Africa », i.e. that of a continent whose people are living on different time scales. In Western society, people all live more or less on the same time scale, if only because of our means of communication. In most African countries, there are huge differences between the urban environments, where people have access to these modern means of communication, and the rural environments where they can sometimes be totally cut off from the rest of the world which doesn’t stop art from being produced. As a result, there is a kind of telescoping of different time scales even though people theoretically belong to the same society. The arts, which reflect the way in which they live, also belong to different time scales. That being the case, it becomes possible to consider that the term contemporary African arts does not refer both to the forms we can class as the most contemporary art and the « traditional art » that inspires works made using contemporary materials. In Madagascar, for example, certain « traditional » funeral sculptures are made out of contemporary materials such as industrial paints, found plastic objects, etc. An artist such as Amidou Dossou in Benin paints traditional masks but incorporates contemporary elements. These « traditional » artistic expressions clearly manifest a certain contemporaneity, if only due to their materials.
Does that thus constitute one of the criteria that define a work’s « contemporaneity »?
It’s above all a way of showing that contemporary African art doesn’t just mean the art produced in the towns or by the diaspora artists. It concerns all creative works that are produced in contemporary African societies, whether rural or urban. Western curators and gallery owners can choose what they want to show out this artistic production, but they can’t decide for African societies that their art is this or that. I don’t accept the idea that certain forms of traditional art are not contemporary, or that only conceptual art, hyperrealism, pop art, or any other type of art that belongs to a purely Western art history, are contemporary. It’s the work that matters most of all, not the approach that the artist has chosen to prioritise. Each artist has his or her sensibility which makes him or her explore such and such a type of expression, but you can’t say that one type of expression is contemporary and the other not.
What is the second criterion?
That of « contemporary African art ». In Africa, art is not only about aesthetics, it is also about ethics. When Senghor set up the Black Arts Festival in 1966, he wasn’t only aiming to rehabilitate a certain aesthetic. He did so for deeper reasons, for ethical reasons, to assert a certain number of responsibilities, beliefs, to position himself in relation to an identity, not only in aesthetic terms but in ethical terms too.
The term « contemporary African art » evokes the idea that, in addition to their creative functions, artists in African societies have other functions that are habitually fulfilled by other people in other countries and societies.
Functions that are inherent to the evolution of their societies?
Yes, artists sometimes have a particular role to play because the other mechanisms that would normally be in charge of these different things don’t exist or work. The artist might, for example, have a tribunary function, expressing what’s wrong in society. He or she can be responsible for representing civilian society vis-à-vis the political machine. The artist’s « language » allows him or her to communicate both internationally and on a domestic level because it is accessible to everyone. It’s a language that isn’t tied to the word, that people can understand whether they are illiterate or have a university education. And that is all the more important given that the divisions in African societies are often related to language difficulties. Artists have the privilege of speaking a language that the whole of society can understand.
Given today’s linguistic differences and the different milieus’ different levels of development, it is the only language that can reach all levels of society and can be understood just as well in the towns as in the countryside. It’s a form of questioning that addresses everyone and thus enables artists to help make society evolve, to help make it reflect on itself, to make it more dynamic.
But that could be said of all works, whether they are produced in Africa or not. What makes the universality of the artist so specific in Africa?
There is a much greater division of functions in the West. In Africa, from the moment artists create, are listened to by different people in society, make a name for themselves, have a voice that people hear, they often finds themselves being made responsible for functions that Western artists would not necessarily have to take on board. One example is Abdoulaye Konaté in Mali, who was put in charge of the Palais de la Culture in Bamako because he is a confirmed artist. As there are no organisations or groups who clearly fulfil this kind of function yet, artists are obliged to do so, often to the detriment of their own work.
These are roles that the artist indeed appears to have to accept within his or her own society. But where does this situate artists on an international level?
That brings me on to my third point, that of « contemporary art ». On this level, it really doesn’t matter whether the artist is African or not because something goes beyond national origin in his or her work. If these artists succeed in addressing all audiences, and not just an audience in their country of origin, it’s because their work touches on something profoundly human which doesn’t concern just one culture or society. The message their work conveys can reach everybody. The Ivoirian artist Abouramane makes kind of minimalist alters that look both like little houses and reliquaries. When asked about these works, he explains that he repeatedly produced these works that are instinctively perceived as reliquaries when he first started out because he was thinking about his mother’s native village, which he never knew because he was raised in the town. The reason why these works move us so deeply is because they make us all question our own roots.
This is one example of what an artist’s work can convey, the kind of questions it can raise about identity, time, our relationship to memory, all these things that a work of art conveys. Isn’t a work of art an introspection that has been given a form?
Isn’t this a way of posing the question of the artist’s contemporaneity vis-à-vis his or her identity, his or her history, rather than his or her artistic output itself?
A lot of people who work in the art world only show and promote certain African art forms that echo the forms or experimental styles that already exist in Western cultures. This is the case, for example, with Pume’s very clinical work (South Africa) which echoes Jean-Pierre Reynaud’s work. The same goes for Body-Isek-Kingelez’s scale models, which are close to pop art. Esther Mahlangu (South Africa) was exhibited not at all by chance alongside Sol Lewitt (United States) at the Lyon Biennale. Curators have the power to expose artists and to push them from one exhibition to the next according to criteria they do not always identify with. People market artists in the same way that they market a singer or film star, focusing on certain aspects of their work at risk of confining them. The danger is that the artist ends up cut off from his or her own society and only dialogues with foreign societies. If African societies are deprived of this connection, their societies’ advancement towards modernity is objectively slowed down because artists are ferrymen.
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