Is there such a thing as ‘African art’ and does the label “African Art” enable or limit artists from the continent? What qualifies an artist to call himself or herself an ‘African artist?’ Are the issues of labels and identity still valid?
Over the past two decades, there has been a surge of creative energy surrounding contemporary art in Africa. A new generation of artists are finding their voice and defining themselves with global concerns. While of course speaking to local specificities, as generally all artists inevitably do, many artists in Africa today are interested in examining issues of technology, development, urbanism, and political and economic change, and how these factors transform social patterns and culture. These cannot be isolated as solely ‘African’ concerns, but how Africa and the rest of the world define themselves together. Within this framework, the label of ‘African Art/ist’ can at times stifle the conversation by compartmentalising ideas that are very much interconnected. At the same time, many artists in Africa embrace this label as a connection to their cultural identity, so it is not to banish the term, but to be aware of how this can be limiting and can ignore the specificities of their message.
Africa is a new economic frontier where young people are shaping Africa’s future. What do they want to see, hear and read that will inspire them to embrace African arts and culture?
Contemporary art can play a central role in this new demographic, because they are speaking to similar experiences and frameworks. A growing generation of young people today are beginning to transform the economic landscape in Africa by bringing in new ideas and business models. This emerging group of entrepreneurs are increasingly interested in creative economies and how culture develops on a local and grassroots level. For example, the same group of young entrepreneurs that are embracing innovative start-ups that engage technology and social media are also the group that make up the burgeoning audience for local musicians, arts initiatives and designers. These young entrepreneurs want to see the local cultural scene prosper, as it falls into the ideology of their own brands and personal interests.
It can be argued that Africa’s time is now. How do we prepare to take full advantage of the opportunities that are constantly unfolding in front of us. More importantly how does the African contemporary art establishment position itself to emerge as a ‘global player’ whose voice can be heard and respected?
Working at a non-profit foundation that serves to develop new opportunities for contemporary artists, I see that there are many obstacles to overcome as contemporary art in Africa moves to the global stage. For one, many major cities have yet to establish a fully integrated infrastructure for the art market, one that looks out for the artists interests and their long term careers. Most of the time, the artists are on their own to simultaneously produce work and act as their own agents. In addition, while there is of course a need for a stronger institutional base of museums to critically engage art on the continent, there are an increasing number of non-profit and private initiatives that are doing amazing work in their local communities. Of vital importance is more direct communication and interaction between these arts organisations around Africa. Working together, these initiatives project a thriving arts community, one that can define itself in its own terms on the global stage, rather than contemporary African art being defined by the Western art institution.
There is a perception amongst some on the continent that South African contemporary art is more ‘Western’ than ‘African’. How do we bridge the divide geographically and culturally, between the north and the south?
I think that the perception that contemporary art in South Africa is more ‘Western’ than other parts of the continent has to do with the fact that the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town have such a developed art market, which trickles down in many ways — including more representation for artists, more international exhibition platforms, and opportunities for residencies and exchange. This ultimately affects the kind of art that is produced. I think that South Africa’s strong presence should be used to benefit artists working in diverse parts of the continent rather than stay an isolated market based on such perceptions. I think this is starting to happen, where there is more exchange taking place within Africa; we need to see more.
Is a new trans national ‘African art dialogue’ needed to foreground the various conversations, challenges and successes from other African centres of culture and thinking?
It can only benefit to have more communication surrounding these issues, and in this way the discourse of contemporary art in Africa can progress. I think that the more this happens, the more organisations in different parts of Africa can learn from one another, both in their similarities and their differences.
If Africa can leave behind its idea of Africa as a geography, or as a post colonial reaction, or as being defined by blackness, can it then be defined rather as a new dynamic energy?
I think it is best to say that there are many dynamic new energies (in the plural sense) that make up contemporary art in Africa. There are many diverse practices and experiences and different kinds of art being made in response to this myriad of cultural specificity. As we move forward to define art in Africa outside of such prior notions, it is important to keep this in mind.
There is a new generation of Africans whose minds are not shackled by a past of oppression or power dynamics. How do we engage and inspire them to embrace art and culture?
I think this emerging generation of young people is already in tune with art and culture, and the issue is making sure that there are opportunities for them to experience more of it. It is important for this generation to engage with art that is about their own issues and concerns. It is also necessary that the art community is constantly striving to expand its audience and reach people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. When we speak of ‘the youth’, this spans a broad group of people that approach art in different ways.
How can we avoid bad historical precedents and pigeonholing from framing our future discourse?
The best way to avoid bad historical precedents in the discourse of African art is to be aware of this past, but not to let it dictate the future. Too often, exhibitions of ‘African Art’ begin with a premise of explaining what it is refuting. I think that, at this point, contemporary art in Africa has found its voice and does not need to answer to these precedents any longer. Art in Africa can be presented from what it is in a positive sense, rather than what it is not.
What new stories of identity are revealed for this Africa through its art?
The influences of globalisation and technology have not just changed identity in Africa; they have changed the way the world understands itself. Today, individuals — irrespective of their geographic background — form their identity through a mesh of skewed cultural references. Identity is no longer something that is determined or static, but free-floating, unstable, and open to constant renewal. The same can be said about identity in Africa today as it can about cultural identity in a general sense. It is formed through global references as well as local traditions.
What is African art when it is no longer called African art?
It is still the same art, only its labels change. There is nothing wrong with the designation of ‘Africa’ as an identifying trait of an artist or artwork, as many artists are deeply influenced by their local environments. The issue is when that label comes to trump other factors and ignores the complexity of the work.
It will come to represent yet another viewpoint from an increasingly diverse global art community. The international community has realised that it has historically been too Western-centric and has started to take corrective measures, notably with Latin American and Asian art in recent years. As Africa emerges on the global stage, it presents another viewpoint that adds to a more inclusive conversation. The issue then is to make sure that contemporary art in Africa is presented in an integrated way rather than as isolated or as a side show.
What are the deepest provocations that art should pose for Africa today? And how do you think these will influence Africa 15 years from now?
As I live and work in Lagos, Nigeria, I find it interesting that professionals in many different disciplines use Lagos as a case study for the archetypal city of the future, from architecture to urbanism and economics. As artists explore the dynamics of the city in their work, they are really speaking about new aspects of urbanism that shows itself across cultures. That for me can be a deep provocation for the art I work with locally. In 15 years, we will be able to see how aspects of this new urbanism have developed, and how artists cope.
As the old ideas of North and South – East and West deconstruct, what approaches will be reflected through its art practice and discourse?
We are already seeing this process of geographic deconstruction, where artists are informed by many different kinds of cultural references. This means that artists are working with issues that are at once local and global, and that speak to cultural specificity of place while at the same time addressing universal concerns. This is where our definition of “place” shifts, no longer tied to a tangible rooting in geographic space but one that is virtual and conceptual.
As a confident transnational Africa emerges, what do we see as the most progressive approach that ‘African art’ can take and what does this approach represent and what new qualities does it posses and pose?
It would be an art that forms new communities by engaging expanded audiences and constructing a more democratic dialogue. The many political, social, and economic issues that will shape Africa in the future demand a public forum, and art can be that forum. It also has the power to be inclusive and participatory, giving voice to under represented communities and placing socio-economic concerns on more equal footing. “Art for social change” may be a tall order, but art can begin discussions that make its public aware and its citizens active.
For a new generation not willing to be co-opted into the dramas of the past nor defined by a previous generations concerns, art challenges new orthodoxies to create a new platforms for art practice and discourse that brings together creative, and intellectual minds. Are the current voices and media of today’s ‘art establishment’ still relevant? Are they able to capture the current zeitgeist? How should we be engaging the new generation to inject a sense of edginess into our discourse?
A new generation of artists have developed in Africa today that are not yet on the international stage. Western art institutions have selected a handful of artists in Africa to stand for the continent as a whole. While these artists make very important work, there is much that is ignored by this limited view. As arts communities around Africa gain increased educational, developmental, and exhibition opportunities, the talent pool grows, and there needs to be an outlet and platform to bring these artists to the broader public.
Who is the new African art hero?
The new African art hero is the accomplished artist who gives back to their local community by establishing mentorship and development programs to bring up the next generation of artists on a local level. This has become common in art communities such as Lagos. With a dearth of continued educational opportunities available, these artists are creating new initiatives that will take this next generation of artists to the next level and give them the tools to develop their ideas and navigate the international art world.
Is there anything else you would like to add that hasn’t been covered in these questions?
It is of vital importance that contemporary art in Africa be defined locally and not solely from Western art institutions. This means that in Africa we need to develop more exhibition platforms — festivals, biennials, art fairs — so that the world comes to Africa, rather than a few artists from Africa coming to the Western world. In this manner, cities in Africa can become hubs for creative expression on par with other international cities, not only for African art, but for global contemporary art in a plural sense.
Joseph Gergel is a curator and a writer, currently based between New York and Lagos, Nigeria. For the past two years, he has served as a curator for the African Artists’ Foundation, as well as co-curator for LagosPhoto, an annual international arts festival for photography in Lagos.