The Audacity of Place and the Limits of Self-Representation

This short paper is a measurable attempt to mediate the real and perceived gaps that locate Africa based artists to the peripheries. It asks where the opportunity for self-representation are, and looks at the engaged strategies of interpretative recovery that have the potential to demystify and delineate the zones of enunciation that are usually so fraught with gross misreading’s.

In the preface of their 2009 book “Contemporary African Arts since 1980” Enwenzor and Okeke-Agulu make grand claims for the flourishing development of African art within the global geography and mechanisms of contemporary art and point to “the significant role” it is now playing in “revising the outmoded models of discursive control, where a limited number of centers enjoyed disproportionate power in determining and shaping the contours of advanced artistic debates.” (Enwenzor, Okeke-Agulu, 2009:7) Although the assertions make positive claims for the development of contemporary African art they do not necessarily paint the true and balanced picture. Arguably, a limited number of centers do still enjoy disproportionate power in shaping the contours of advanced artistic debates. These centers are located in the global ‘north’ or ‘west’ and their domination on the creation and reception of knowledge conforms to the uneven patterns of cultural exchange across the globe that are accentuated by higher levels of economic polarization and political disenfranchisement of the global south.

This is very apparent in that, many if not all, of the major exhibitions[1] on African have primarily occurred in Europe and the United States. From the ethnographic[2] showcases of the early 1800 to the totalizing and contexualising shows and biennale’s of the 2000’s. “In their concentration and gratification of “spectatorial lust,” [these exhibition] and world’s fairs provide a particularly telling ensemble of sites for this investigation of the performance of African modernity through industrial [and creative] labor. However, the striving for social modernity emerges most strongly in those sites in which the production of modernity is taking place outside as well as inside the bounded space of the exhibition.” (Kruger, 2007:22) Kruger of course was speaking here about the exhibition of Sara Baartman as the Hottentot Venus in Paris in 1810, through the Savage South Africa Show in London in 1899, to the Darkest Africa displays at the Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933, where “natives” and especially Africans at world’s fairs were cast as “primitives” against which to measure white supremacy and imperial power. (Kruger, 2007:20)

Although the climate is somewhat different and some progress has been made, the sentiment is still fitting and still appears to apply in the selection and proliferation of interest in the production of African artists and its conditions of inclusion.

Some of the greatest challenges facing contemporary art from the continent of Africa range from the difficulties of accessing global markets, the restrictions in artistic mobility, to the continued skewed projection of African art as a subject bound by museological paradigms stuck in the ghost of the “enthnographic present”, which have so long haunted the perception of African art.

These challenges keep the tide of remarkable work from an on-going contemporary practice on the continent from being fully experienced by new audiences and leaves the impression that the development of art in the content is stagnant and that the only African artist of note are those with transnational and diasporan identities. Many of the much celebrated African artists one encounters as modern in western critical idioms and those highlight in Enwenzor and Okeke-Agulu’s works are often times not known even in their countries in Africa yet, their works are seen as visual vocalization of Africans thought. Besides living in the West, this majority of recognised African artists is also highly conscious of and versed in Western art paradigms, which are then reflected in their work as part of western “normative” standard. This reinforces the perception of an unilateral and “acculturatal” transfer of ideas that results in gross misinterpretations.

These misinterpretations are exacerbated by a gaze that perpetually fixes the cultural production of contemporary African artists, if not in the sites of invisibility and non-existence, then on the periphery of encounters between the public and contemporary representation. This gaze reduces their artistic expression to either the aberrant production of a de-nativised imagination or to an inferior mimetic exercise in futility. In addressing the basis for this exclusion of African artists from the sites of normativity and the critical silence that surrounds their practice, my interest lies mostly, though not entirely, in those gaps – between worlds – where the potent signs that these artists carry from different localities are translated and ultimately transfigured through relocation into new imaginary constructs of identity, which their new places of domicile constantly deny them. (Enwenzor, Ogube 1999)

Rarely ever do artists who live on the continent get received or accepted into the area of international art, and when the do their works has to within the normative constraints of an “authentic” African art. This authenticity does not account for the contemporary cultural life in Africa, which due to colonisation and other globalising processes is now almost similar and closely related to many others around the world.

The question for me becomes how do I position my work in this strange climate that offers opportunities to speak but where you can only be heard if you are saying a particular kind of sentiment.

What is of interest to me, and perhaps often overlooked, are the variety of approaches that have been employed in delineating boundaries and allegiances, modes of representation and production, which both reincorporate otherwise marginalised voices, and simultaneously disunite them from, specific traditions within the complex realm of contemporary African cultural production. The measure of articulateness that Africa based artists, and in particular that of young South African artists, who since after the dismantling of apartheid arguably have already many more opportunities to represent themselves in the arts than their counterparts in the rest of the continent, valuable insights to offer in relation to the contemporary cultural life. How would one go about mediating the reception of young artists who are currently working in South African and have had little or no exposure outside the continent that doesn’t stick their production into the pre-provided boxes of identity, transnational or local and globalising influences? How does one avoid the traps of generalisations where cultural identity is no longer determined by geographical origins, ancestry or biological disposition, but is increasingly becoming a hybrid construct? Can one even avoid the references that are unique to the psychosocial conditions of the post-colonial African political, social, economic, and cultural ecosystem? Is it worth looking specifically at the South African historical context since it has been stretched and examined from the border-zones between fashion and the subversion of the body in relation to global structures, ideology and politics?

Reference List

Enwezor, Okeke-Agulu. 2009. Contemporary African Art Since 1980. First Edition. Damiani

Loren Kruger. 2007. “White Cities,” “Diamond Zulus,” and the “African Contribution to Human Advancement”. TDR: The Drama Review. Volume 51, Number 3 (T 195), Fall 2007 pp. 21-45


[1] Africa Remix’ (Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf), The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994’(Museum Villa Stuck, Munich), Africa Hoy (Centro Atlantico de ArteModerna, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1991), Seven Stories About Modern African Art (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995), Looking Both

Ways: Art of Contemporary African Diaspora (Museum of African Art, New York, 2004), Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad (Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, 2003), Flow (Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2008

[2] Savage South Africa Show in London in 1899, Darkest Africa displays at the Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933

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