Of all art forms, the visual arts are the least understood in Africa

Interview with Joëlle Busca

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Joëlle Busca, art critic and exhibition organiser, is the visual arts coordinator for Africalia, a Belgian-funded organisation whose objective is the promotion, stimulation and distribution of African culture. She is the author of two books in which she questions and analyses contemporary African art, while defining her own position. Here, Joëlle Busca examines the state of the visual arts in French-speaking Africa.

You have been working with contemporary African artists for a long time. How do you think the visual arts are developing in French-speaking Africa?
Contemporary artistic production is comparable to what is being done in the West, as we have seen with the Africa Remix exhibition. Existing structures have not evolved and nothing has been put in place to allow artists to advance to another dimension, with the exception of Mali, where a school of arts was established for several disciplines (2). Any activity is still very limited, or even stagnant to a certain degree, in the sense that artists are uninformed; they don’t have access to artistic circuits, which are inevitably Western. The question is, can they live from their art? They do what they can to make ends meet. It is very difficult for African artists at present and it is getting even more so because those that come to Europe are faced with more than one contradiction. They are invited as African artists in areas where they don’t want to be simply seen as African artists. On the other hand, those that stay in Africa are faced with enormous obstacles because Africa is getting poorer, apart from South Africa, which differs considerably from other countries in terms of the visual arts. It is in this domain that things are most complex. Over the last ten years in Africa, we have seen developments in dance, theatre and music, but in the visual arts – except for a few artistic residencies and biennial exhibitions – there have not been any collective projects. Of all art forms, the visual arts are the least understood in Africa. Ordinary Africans don’t attend such exhibitions.
Isn’t the problem due to the fact that the art operators are all foreigners?
Yes. I think that in Africa there is a great need for African art operators. Foreign operators can only do so much. Buying art or organising a biennial exhibition in Bamako is all very good, but in the end there is no real structure set up in Bamako to ensure that activities continue to be organised in the two-year interval between exhibitions.
There is no money in the visual arts. Apart from the Dakar biennial, which plays a specific role within a specific context, there is no event to unite artists. The solution does not necessarily lie in other biennials, but in events to bring artists together. Despite a certain amount of effort on the local level, African artists remain cut off from one another. To gain strength, they must unite.
Aren’t these shortcomings in the visual arts also related to the fact that artistic events, which are generally funded by Western countries, remain limited and that no thought is given to the impact that they could have on a local level?
The problem with development is time. During a festival a lot of people are brought together, there are offices, a structure that functions. Once the event comes to an end the organisers close up shop, and only re-open two years later. Between festivals how do people live? What do they do? At Africalia, we are working on sustainable human development. Organising a festival in Africa is not like organising a festival in Belgium. In Africa, we have to focus on artistic creation, but also on people. And that is not being done. In the visual arts this is a major problem.
In recent years certain artists have emerged nevertheless. Aren’t you being a bit pessimistic?
I am pessimistic about the entire continent but, yes, there are certain individuals who are doing really well, by living essentially in Europe. But how many artists are making a living from their art? Except for South Africa – once again – very few artists choose to remain in Africa. No one is responsible for this phenomenon, which is inherently linked to the effects of globalisation. All the same, I am not convinced that improving communications and making it easier to move around and meet people is really the answer for Africans. Most often, artists do not have access to information or to what is being done in art. They don’t see what is being done elsewhere; they know nothing about the art market. But it’s not because of a lack of interest. The European art market is not a solution for them at all, but in the mean time they have to live and any solution will do.
Over the last 15 years have major exhibitions such as Les Magiciens de la terre and Africa Remix resulted in the emergence of any aesthetic trends?
No. These exhibitions have above all else served to introduce artists, allowing some of them to exist today as artists, to live from their art and to be able to express themselves. I am very critical of Les magicians de la terre and even of Africa Remix and other similar projects, although they are, in spite of everything, positive … but then again, I suppose that any undertaking in Africa is positive.
Does Africa Remix really reflect what is happening today in Africa? I really don’t know. On an individual level, it allows us to discover great artists and beautiful works of art. As an exhibition, was this really what should have been done? I think that if monographic exhibitions were organised, African artists would really begin to exist on a collective level. Will the Quai Branly Museum be the first to do something along these lines? I definitely hope so. The contemporary art programmes announced to date have been really unimpressive. A Yinka Shonnibare retrospective, that’s not very daring is it?
This is a domain in constant evolution, which requires a lot of money and a lot of intelligent initiatives. It’s true that artists may hope for immediate fame and fortune, which can resolve individual problems, but the basic problem remains a collective one.
Certain artists, like Kofi Setordji in Ghana and Bartélémy Togo in Cameroon, who are veterans of the Western networks, have created their own galleries. What do you think of this kind of initiative?
I am a little sceptical of artist-made solutions. We shouldn’t mix matters. This kind of thing bothers me. Being a cultural operator in the visual arts is very difficult and it’s a full-time job. An artist is neither a manager, nor an organiser. I prefer projects like that of the national museum in Mali, which has opened up to contemporary art. Samuele Sidibé, the museum’s director, put on a very intelligent exhibition, which really kept the Malian population in mind and which was anchored in the reality of the country. To inform people, he placed a notice in the national daily newspaper, l’Essor, instead of publishing a catalogue. The exhibition took place over an extended period and schools were invited. It didn’t have a spectacular impact, but I think that initiatives like this are the most efficient.
You have to reach out to people to increase their awareness of contemporary art, otherwise new structures will never emerge.
But if there were no private initiatives, what would be left on the local level?
There are exceptions all the same, like Chab Tourés’photo gallery in Bamako or the Zinsou foundation in Cotonou. Their initiatives are very courageous. But this type of enterprise is very rare.
In the visual arts, setting up a residency does not have to be very expensive. However nothing is being done. The residencies that are organised, which are often initiated by artists, have not proven very successful. They are extremely limited and have not generated any spin-offs. There is a desperate need for collective initiatives in the visual arts. These collective initiatives should be able to place the emphasis on training, creation and raising awareness. This is after all a very unusual domain, which is complex, fragile, and in a bad state.
In one of your books, you speak about the « relatively unfounded yet inevitable selections made by the French cultural centres (CCFs) » in Africa. Is this point of view still valid today?
Yes. I wonder if it’s not worse! In general, funding is flagging. Aid has been reduced. The African continent is being abandoned. When you see what’s happening in Côte d’Ivoire, which was after all a pillar in West Africa, and in Senegal, where the main figure of opposition is in prison, you have to wonder where we’re headed. The situation of artists everywhere is closely linked to the political and economic situation, and some situations don’t look very hopeful…
Don’t external contributions risk formatting the artists?
There is in fact an obvious risk. It can be seen in Africa Remix, where certain pieces are interchangeable. This is also the case with European artists, but they have the means to maintain a certain distance and they have enough information at their disposal that this is inexcusable for them. For African artists it’s different. I’m fascinated by the way that those who succeed do this. They adapt to extremely difficult situations with a lot of skill and intelligence. They have to be marketable on the European market – African but not too African – and they do it with extraordinary skill and great sensitivity. But the price of this is a certain level of compromise, which sometimes shows up in their creations.
Is this the reason why you speak in one of your texts of « the expressway to westernisation (…) which pollutes artistic practice on the African continent » (4)?
If artists really wish to succeed, and not only in financial terms, but by building a certain reputation, they go into exile and exile their work, which is in turn adapted to the European market. The problem is that there isn’t an African market. We’re faced with a void. They don’t have any other solutions and I completely understand why they make this choice. We are in a dangerous system, which is constantly worsening, because Africa is what it is. I was hopeful about the African Union, having a man of culture like Alpha Oumar Konaré as its head. There are a lot of meetings, but not a lot comes out of them. Africa has other things to worry about. What’s at stake, and this is part of Africalia’s work, is explaining that culture and development are inseparable, even for Westerners.
How can the Africalia project help to set things straight?
On the Belgian side we can’t do much. We are heavily promoting inter-African training, which is one of our hobby-horses. We are funding a trip to Brazil for two African museum directors to participate in a congress uniting directors of contemporary and modern art museums. This is an opportunity for them to meet their counterparts and discover Brazilian museums. It is very important for Africans to see solutions in continents other than Europe, because when an African museum curator comes to Europe, the solutions he finds are out of his reach. However, the alternative solutions proposed in Brazil are lot closer to the way Africans think and act.
In light of cuts to cultural aid, is interaction between local networks a possible answer?
I think that’s the only solution! Africa has to find its own source of strength, and that strength exists. Artistic activity would better thrive if Africans were able to foresee other solutions. Funding has been cut everywhere and at the risk of seeming pessimistic, I think that the situation is very alarming. Three years ago when I arrived at Africalia, there were more financial backers than today. We are all being confronted by cuts to cultural funding, whether in Belgium, France or Switzerland. We are going to have to explore other possibilities. For me, the Brazilian experience, where there is an extraordinary inter-functionality, seems a lot more interesting and better adapted to African realities than the Western model.
Marco Tulio Resende, a Brazilian artist and teacher in a fine arts school, holds workshops in villages, using local materials. He would have a lot to contribute to a fine arts school in Africa. Instead of waiting for gouache pigments or other materials to fall from the sky in Bamako, artists would be able to work with local materials. Abidjan’s school of fine arts, which also did this type of work some years ago, was definitely one of the more interesting schools.
If there were numerous local projects, the « institutional » initiatives would be effectively diluted, and in the end the various initiatives would evolve in relation to each other, without this sort of domination by the CCF on the one hand and of the Pigozzi collection on the other. This would create a certain balance would fall into place, but it would need to come from within Africa, whereas today everything comes from the outside.

(1) L’art contemporain africain, du colonialisme au postcolonialisme, and Perspectives sur l’art contemporain africain, L’Harmattan, 2000.
(2) A multimedia academy named after Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, was inaugurated in late 2004.
(3) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. L’art contemporain africain, p.19.
(4) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. Brésil, l’héritage africain, p.191,Dapper, 2005.
///Article N° : 5735

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