Issues facing the african arts

Interview with Adriano Mixinge, by Landry-Wilfrid Miampika

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How would you describe the emergence of a post-colonial aesthetic? Adriano Mixinge outlines major trends in African sensitivity and logic using the idea of the crossing much cherished by Jean-Godefroy Bidima. Mixinge’s work is a call for a « Pan-African Renaissance ».

With the advance of globalisation, you liken the African artist to a tortoise. Why?
My likening of the African artist to a tortoise enables me to attribute him/her with the animal’s inherent qualities and also to differentiate him/her from the rebel artist of the Western world, because the African artist is not an avant-garde artist in Western terms. The African artist is thus attributed with wisdom, reason, wiliness, creativity and resurrection, as described in African fables. This also shows how the African artist is capable of formulating a comprehensive post-colonial aesthetic.
So how does the African artist, or more specifically, the Portuguese-speaking African artist, as a tortoise, create hi/hers own modern identity in conjunction with an emerging post-colonial aesthetic?
A postcolonial aesthetic is becoming apparent right across the African arts, but the movement is still coming together. The post-colonial aesthetic was initially related to the independence of formerly colonised countries, most with policies focusing on regaining respect for local traditions. The post-colonial aesthetic comes as a challenge from the former colonies and African literature is still very much at the forefront of the movement. There are two main aspects to the new post-colonial aesthetic in the Fine Arts – the quest for images, icons and objects from the immemorial past; and, the construction or recreation of the present in relation to this past.
Given this new context, how does the African artist articulate, subvert and resolve the opposition between traditional and modern?
The European element has already become incorporated into our traditions. Everybody relates differently to this factor. Each artist’s thought processes and creativity, the way he/she strings images together and the works of art he/she produces are intricately linked to his/her personal cultural context. This is quite distinct from the influence that his/her nationality, environment or the languages that he/she speaks (whether English, French or Portuguese) have on his/her work. However, the relationship between traditional and modern still bears the stigma of integration. As we know, integration plays an important role in Portuguese history since the indigenous peoples were obliged to forsake their cultural heritage. This then set a process of acculturisation in motion rather than transculturisation as defined by Fernando Ortiz. Although traditional culture is a constant backdrop to everyday life and the Arts in Portuguese-speaking countries, modern culture almost always wins out over traditional culture.
African art has always gone hand in hand with historical disaster. How do the African arts currently depict this, especially in a country such as Angola that has been at war for the past 30 years?
In my opinion, there are two kinds of disaster. Firstly, there is the disaster that is war, and, secondly, there is the impact that war has on society. In places where there may be war – in a conventional form – there is, of course, a structural, social, economic, political and moral violence.
What’s more, it must be noted that the de-colonisation of the Portuguese colonies gave rise to a number of problems revealed through artistic and cultural creation. Angolan and Mozambique writers Peptela and Mia Couto have shown several aspects of this catastrophe.
In the Fine Arts, Felipe Salvador, an Angolan artist currently exiled in Brazil, worked on the cold war dichotomy during the 1980’s. Rui de Matos, an army General working on the subject uses shrapnel and shells as material for his sculptures. Fernando Alvim, is behind the project Mémoires Intimes : Traces, which brings Cuban, Angola and South African artists together. Frederico Ningi, has created a sort of internal exile depicting the trauma of war in a city context. In Mozambique, Inacio Matsinhe also uses shrapnel and shells in his sculptures.
Art critic Jean-Godefroy Bidima puts forward the crossing as an epistemological and historical paradigm as a new foundation for the African arts. How does his « art of the crossing » and the « crossing of art » bring together the main threads of the African artistic sensibility?
Jean-Godefroy Bidima’s idea of the crossing is tri-partite. The first part is related to deconstructing influential myths, the second to the dialogue with modern culture and the problems of transcontinentality. The third and final part advocates recycling of traditions in interaction with myth deconstruction. In this way, the art of the crossing does not make any reference to a static origin, other than a compromise with origin, with history, with traditions combined with a new reading focusing on the continuum.
These ideas, drawn from Bidima’s work, have contributed to my theory on the four tendancies of African sensitivity and logic already present in literature, dance and music. These are: the artistic sublimation of war and death; fictionalising history, myths and the universe; the portrayal of the subject, society, customs or nature; and lastly, the representation of time-space totalities like the re-proportioning of the role of ancestral values and of a free imagination.
What are the essentials of each of the tendancies?
The artistic sublimation of war and death utilises war as a phenomenon in its own right and stresses the need for peace. This is depicted through the artists’ appropriation of military papers, war-related objects, the idea of camouflage and the trauma that society has faced. According to Christian Children’s Fund, Angolan tribal chiefs insist that the war will probably continue in Angola until burial rites and ancient funeral ceremonies are performed. Strong socio-political statements of this kind go hand in hand with the artistic tendancy. Art is currently performing a kind of purging process that society will eventually have to perform for itself. Artists following this kind of movement can also be found in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique and other countries that have been subjected to military or ethnic conflict.
Fictionalising history, myths and the universe is related to the way artists deal with myths. Artists like Mustapha Dimé and Viyé Diba from Senegal are part of the tendancy. Another artist, Frederic Bruly Brouabré has been creating a kind of personal diary of his view of the universe. Yinka Shonibare at one time produced a kind of personal diary on the 19th Century Victorian England using photography as a type of theatrical space in which the artist dressed up as an Englishman of the time. His work is humorous, playful, slapstick and uses history not belonging to an African. However, since Yinka Shonibare lives in London, he takes on this history as part of his bicultural identity, so to speak, which means that he can move in English and African contexts at the same time.
The tendancy of the portrayal of the subject, society, customs and nature dates back to the first half of the 20th Century with painting styles such as the portrait, still life, landscape and various ethnic group compositions which served as a supplement to anthropological studies. During the 1990’s, four photographers were representative of this tendancy. Seydou Keita (Mali) portrayed the middle-class during the 1950’s when Bamako was one of the most prosperous cities in Africa. Oladelé Bamgboyé and Rutimi (Nigeria) whose work focuses on racial (white/black) and sexual (male/female) identity within the context of the diaspora affected by cultural intermingling. Zwelethu Thetwa portrays South Africans living in shanty towns or townships. In short, the tendancy depicts Africans of today as a subject or pretext for discussing social problems such as male homosexuality (still a taboo subject), poverty, and the difficulty that the majority of Black South Africans have in gaining access to knowledge and high technology.
Lastly, the representation of time-space totalities such as re-assessing the role of ancestral values and of a free imagination refers to the integration of different types of art making use of the idea of time and space in connection with dance, theatre and music. Along these lines, Zaire artist Bodys Kingelez, portrays a utopian Kinshasa in a post-industrial age, and Tapfuma Gutsa, from Zimbabwe is redefining African sculpture.
How does contemporary African art reconcile the need for a new Pan-Africanism and what the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, calls the « African Renaissance »?
Lately, there has been talk of the need for a new Pan-Africanism that runs parallel to what Thabo Mbeki has called the « African Renaissance ». Historically speaking, Pan-Africanism was postulated by William Du Bois in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century to lay claim to the pre-conceptions of one Negro identity around the world. The « African Renaissance », although recently reviewed by Thabo Mbeki, has previously been discussed in the Introduction de la culture africaine, published by UNESCO at the end of the 1980s to illustrate the relationship between political power and independence movements in Sub-Saharan Africa. Thabo Mbeki no doubt talks about a « second » African Renaissance related to the independence of South Africa and its rise as one of the centres of legitimisation of knowledge, old traditions and high technology. I believe that there should be a fusion between these two schools of thought. We will therefore come to talk about a « Pan-African Renaissance » in which all Africans, whether from Africa or elsewhere, will be have a common identity and history – that of slavery, colonisation and de-colonisation – at once uniting and differentiating them.
Could you then say that the African Renaissance is in some ways a fertile new utopia that follows the failure of the utopia of independence and the state of the current independence process constantly aggravated by ethnic conflict?
It is true that it could lead us to a real and new utopia. It is true that Sub-Saharan Africa is a patchwork of cultures. Any discourse that goes beyond national boundaries is risky. The « Pan-African Renaissance » discourse makes it possible for Africans to dialogue with each other and also partake in other regional discourse in order to better combat the dangers of globalisation. Talking about a « Pan-African Renaissance » is therefore a necessary utopia.
Ousmane Sow’s exhibition on the Pont des Arts in Paris, or the exhibition « 2500 Years of Nigerian Art » organised by the Fondation de la Caixa were enthusiastically received by the public and art critics alike. Would you say that African art is being better accepted in the Western world?
Contemporary African art is gaining more respect on the Western circuit. There is a whole network of exhibitions, magazines, and European and American institutions that are interested in it. Traditional African art, which was the subject of numerous colonial ethnological studies, is still the reference and is a historical fact. For example, the institutional system of Art in Spain needs to be better structured and developed. Having said this, the system in Barcelona is an exception. There have been several exhibitions of traditional art such as the exhibition « 2500 Years of Nigerian Art » or an exhibition by South African artist William Kentridge, to name a few. All the same, it should be noted that the attention being paid to African art is partly because there are a great many African specialists in European universities and museums. This interest shows a change of attitude towards Europe and America’s vast diaspora populations. In short, even though the West continues to speak in the name of the Other, it admits the possibility of the Other speaking for him or herself.
Will this acceptance have an impact on the power relationship between the centre and the margins?
Of course. Even though the centre-margin dichotomy has never really existed according to Eldridge Cleaver. Better still, two extremes have always existed – the have and the have-nots, the insiders and the outsiders, those who make themselves heard and those who are not heard. The dialogue between the arts makes it possible to go from one extreme to the other, from the extreme of forgotten or unknown art to the extreme of recognised art that has been studied and legitimised, or vice versa.

Adriano Mixinge was born in Angola in 1968. He is a historian and art critic and has been the Curator for several art exhibitions in Angola, Spain and in South Africa during the first biennial in Johannesburg. He has written numerous articles on contemporary African art. Currently a consultant for the Cultural Service of the Embassy of Angola in Spain, Mixinge was previously Director of the Department of scientific research of the Musée National d’Anthropologie in Luanda.
Translation of the French text compiled and translated from Spanish by Landry-Wilfrid Miampika///Article N° : 5452

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