Ongoing at the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH), Flow, described as “the first twenty-first century exhibition focusing on art by a new generation of international artists from Africa”. However, SMH notes, the artists, who hail from eleven African nations, reside mainly in Europe and North America and travel to and from Africa regularly. The majority has never been included in a significant U.S. museum exhibition and is virtually unknown in this country…. Flow will illustrate the individuality and complexity of the visual art produced by a dynamic generation of young artists, this time with a global perspective. (Full disclosure: I was asked to write for the “Flow” catalog but was hesitant because I thought its premise was faulty: by the time I decided to contribute my objections, the organizers had closed on submissions).
The critique below touches on very sensitive subjects so I will try to be as clear as possible. I had commented earlier on this blog about the persistent evacuation of Africans from the site of their own creative discourses in my review of Disney's representation of Africa without Africans. Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the representation of contemporary African art and it is now reaching a point of epidemic proportions. Although "Contemporary African art" is now evident in "mainstream" (read "Western") art and critical discourses, this context of practice continues to be represented almost exclusively as the domain of African artists who live and work in the West. These artists are largely Africa-descended citizens of Western countries trained in elite Western institutions of art whose practice unfolds in places like New York, Amsterdam, London, etc. Their art channels the prevailing ethos of Western mainstream contemporary art and is therefore more accessible to curators who have since 1990 used these artists to enunciate a narrative of contemporary "African " art. As an art historian I have written against this trend, not because I don't consider such artists "African" enough but because I explicitly think that the persistent focus on such artists occurs at the expense of African artists based in Africa. This focus is increasingly offensive, intellectually bankrupt, very biased and racist in its assumptions, but above all, it is quite stunning that its narrative of contemporary African creativity is being adopted as a dogma in art history.
I was reminded of this attitude again in Holland Cotter's excellent review of Flow in today's New York Times. (I should point out here that Holland Cotter is a first rate critic and I have immense respect for his work). Titled Out of Africa, Whatever Africa May Be, Cotter seemed baffled by the assumptions of this exhibition and notes as much in his analysis. “Afropolitanism", Cotter notes, is the modish tag for new work made by young African artists both in and outside Africa. What unites the artists is a shared view of Africa, less as a place than as a concept; a cultural force, one that runs through the world the way a gulf stream runs through an ocean: part of the whole, but with its own tides and temperatures. The idea that Africa is less a place than as a concept is one of the conceits of recent postcolonial discourse, which to me is a supremely evasive response to the marginalization of Africa in global discourses. In all my work as a scholar, Africa is the ONLY continent I have ever heard discussed as “less than a place and more as a concept” which often serves as a basis for moving the discussion away from the continent entirely. Coming from an intellectual history in which philosophers like Hegel declared that Africa was no part of history, contemporary discourses grudgingly concede Africa’s historicity but argue about its concrete geographical existence. The problem here of course is that contemporary curators and critics argue for the global identity of contemporary practice but I believe I have demonstrated clearly on this blog that such arguments are illusory. Africans have almost absolute immobility in a contemporary global world that works very hard to keep Africans in their place on the African continent (see Aachronym's Borders and Access series of posts in October and November 2007). There is no immigration policy anywhere in the Western world that welcomes Africans and evidence of major bias against African global mobility abounds in international media. As Kwame Opoku noted on this blog, there is no Western country anywhere that will grant an African a visa merely to visit Western museums and Africa-based African artists find it almost impossible to secure visas to show their works abroad. (In my series of blog-posts titled Borders and Access, I demonstrated how difficult it was even for highly accomplished African scholars based in Western institutions to secure visas and humiliation-free passage through Western airports). Those African artists who live and and work in Africa and are compelled by global immobility to remain in that context serve mainly as props in the personal narrative of Western (and increasingly African) curators who take the liberty to pick and choose those they promote to the category of “global artists”. This liberty to pick-and-choose limits the viability of continental African artists and also undervalues their artworks in the “global” art market. It thus seems that living and working on the African continent automatically render artworks made by such artists valueless. This latter problem of how their locality contributes to undervalue African artworks is completely not addressed in discussions of contemporary African art.
Cotter rightly notes that the question engaged in Flow concerns the idea of Africa as a fixed identity or sensibility and in this regard, the artists in Flow have every right to argue against any identification that denies their international location as artists. I am not arguing that African artists have to live in Africa for their works to be acceptable: I am for example an African living in California and writing as a historian of global African arts. I am however arguing against a concept of globalization that erases Africans who live on the African continent from its purview. Are African artists who live in Africa part of the global world? If so, why don’t we see exhibitions of their art that takes their particular aesthetic concerns into consideration? In a truly global world, why does it seem as if all contemporary “global” artists take their cue from New York? If indeed they take their cue from New York, why do we talk about their work as if it transcends space, place and time? It seems to me that what we have here is a supremely colonial and imperialist discourse of art masquerading as a global discourse that assumes that an artist is global only to the extent that he or she lives in the West or assumes aesthetic attitudes that comply with prevailing orthodoxy in New York, London or Paris. Consider also that all the exhibitions produced to tout the “internationalization” of African art rarely make it back to Africa and are not accessible to Africa-based artists except through the internet. This is itself points to their marginalization. Few art exhibitions that originate in the West reach Africa and it is only South Africa in recent times that has managed to get on the international exhibition circuit.
Cotter concludes his analysis with an important point that without geographical specificity, flow easily becomes drift”. I point out usually in this context that no one lives in "global" space although analysis of artists based in New York often sound as if they do not live in actual locations. Cotter defends the rights of artists not to “wrap themselves in evidence of their origins” (the earlier crass artworld demand for evidence of “Africanness” which undermined earlier generations of African artists whose works produced in this vein are now regarded as worthless) but he also defends the viewpoint that we cannot speak of Africa without engaging the African context itself. And CONTEXT is what I am talking about here: WHAT IS THE CONTEXT OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART? Is the context Africa itself in all its contemporary complexity? If this context is truly global, why are curators not exhibiting the works of African artists who live and work in Africa, to enunciate their particular aesthetic and political orientation or at least get their viewpoint about how they see themselves in relation to the global context? Do African artists always have to wait to be “discovered” by Western curators or discourses before they and their contexts of practice assume global importance? Why is the continent not treated as a significant context of globalization? For example, the Ghanaian sculptor El Anstsui moved to Nigeria in 1975 and has remained there all this while, creating astonishing new styles of art and training several generations of contemporary Nigerian artists, myself included. Why is El’s Nigerian sojourn not seen as evidence of transnationalism but instead, his exhibitions in New York (for which he is now globally famous) taken as evidence of his ‘arrival” in mainstream discourse as a global artist?
Global discourses mask obvious relationships of power, not the least of which is the power to frame and if necessary silence discourse. Western discourses largely define Africans as blank slates that can be interpreted to conform to Western ideals. One of the truly horrendous problems of scholarship in African art history is the extent to which Africa is denied any credit for its own knowledge systems and forms of cultural production. This is conundrum of our age, a dastardly version of the lament of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink”. In contemporary art discourses, “Africa” is everywhere but the African continent itself is everywhere invisible. It may come as a surprise to many that there is indeed an African continent composed of many countries where large numbers of artists live, work, and engage as best as they can in global discourses: their practice deserves recognition on its own terms. There are also notable numbers of expatriate African artists working in the West whose practice deserve to be taken seriously but I always argue that such artists ought to be defined as truly global artists and their work discussed in relation to their primary contexts of residence and practice. Every time I pass through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I see European and even South American artists assimilated into the mainstream American art narrative (their works as titled thus: Arshile Gorky, American, born Armenian…). I will like to see the Flow artists represented thus (Latifa Echakhch, French, born Morrocco; or Adel Abdessemed, French, born Algeria…) which recognizes their African origins but locates them squarely in the French context of their contemporary practice. Doing otherwise only marginalizes these artists and enables the curators to maintain a conceit of absolute Frenchness that excludes any black person from consideration. And for crying out loud, doesn’t being born in a Western country make someone a native of that country of birth? Why then does Flow describe someone like Grace Ndiritu as anything but a British artist seeing as she was born in London?
I credit exhibitions like Flow for bringing artists unknown in the USA to the purview of Americans and as an American museum it probably has no other credible mandate. However, some of these artists who grew to adulthood in African had already achieved measures of fame in their own countries within a national context that provided their initial engagements with the creative and discursive processes. Modou Dieng was not entirely unknown in Senegal and I wager that the other African-born artists in this exhibition similarly achieved some fame in their countries before emigrating. I think it is now very important for curators to turn their attention to Africa's geographical context so that they can better understand what is going on in various African countries and treat African contexts as valid sectors of the global world. Globalizations shouldn’t always require Africa to emerge only in the West: people in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Zimbabwe are active agents of global change even though we tend to marginalize their existence and contributions. The percentage of African artists who live and work in the West is very minuscule (less than 0.0001%) but they occupy 99% of the discourse of contemporary African art. This inversion holds only for African artists: Chicago is full of expatriate Irish but no one goes to Chicago to study “contemporary Irish art”. If this inversion persists, we must at some point declare the scholarship it produces as valueless because its subject focus is questionable. If on the other hand, we don’t need to study Africa to understand Africa, then we should state so upfront and spare everyone the sleight of hand that passes for contemporary curatorial focus and scholarship on the subject.