The story begins one day in 1989 when an idiosyncratic and disillusioned European art collector visits an exhibition. The artists have unpronounceable names, they speak in languages unknown to the collector’s ears and they live in distant locations which he cannot find on his big plastic globe. It is like no exhibition he has ever seen before and he falls in love with it. Unable to buy what he sees, which already belongs to a big corporation, the collector engages the services of a young curator. He sets him the task of researching and acquiring new art from the most exotic places in the world. Gradually the collector’s dream comes true and before long the young man has returned with hundreds of works by artists from Africa. Delighted with the marvels he has brought home, the collector proudly displays his treasures to his friends. An exhibition is born…1
Out of Africa, the exhibition of eleven contemporary African artists which has been touring Spain, Holland and Mexico with a slightly different cast and title (Africa Now), has arrived at the Saatchi Collection in London. The exhibition, which marks a new move in Saatchi’s programme in showing a guest collection, is directly related to Magiciens de la Terre, the hotly-debated global art show which took place in Paris in 1989 and in many ways opened the doors of contemporary art to non-Western expressions of Modernism. André Magnin, who was responsible for ‘discovering’ the majority of African artists included in the notorious Magiciens exhibition, has spent the last three years trekking through the African bush in search of art which he feels embodies the present expression of the immemorial past. Africa, that much abused ‘reservoir of the esoteric’,2 couldn’t provide a better playground for the fantasies of a jaded collector and an adventure-hungry curator.
Unlike Magiciens de la Terre, the choice of artists in Out of Africa does not extend to Europe, America or Asia, although André Magnin and Jean Pigozzi, the collector to whom the works belong, intend eventually to cover other ‘Third World’ territories. The show has no discernable curatorial concept other than Africa now, which places it in a very vulnerable position. It is primarily the private collection of a rich enthusiast, and as such it has a highly personal flavour - possibly its only saving grace. When questioned about his selection criteria at the first showing in Las Palmas last year, Magnin showed slides of sunsets and landscapes he had photographed on his travels through Mozambique, Madagascar, Zaire and Nigeria. He spoke of personal encounters, of feeling empathy with the African artist’s working environment, finally revealing his decision to avoid ‘official’ artists - in other words artists who have received formal art training and are patronised locally to the point where their work reflects national identities.
Several artists I spoke to recently in West and East Africa are unhappy about the way their work is currently exhibited on the international circuit. Their criticisms are rarely directed towards details in the art itself, an unfortunate reflection of the huge isolation they experience working at different ends of the continent. What they question is the nostalgia inherent in the efforts of French curators and museum administrators, in particular, to search out the ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’, untutored African artist. The most problematic distinction to date rests on a predilection for self-taught artists who, as Jean Pigozzi writes in the catalogue that accompanies Out of Africa, ‘have the internal fire of creation’ and therefore do not need to ‘go to art school or visit the Louvre or the Whitney’.3 Primitivism now extends beyond the specific period associated with cubism and l’Art Negre and re-emerges in the 90s as a search for the neo-exotic: the authentic African artist still working in the isolation of the African bush and without influence from Europe. As Eddie Chambers put it bluntly in a recent seminar in London, the Black artist, ranging from the Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat to the Namibian John Muafangejo, has to be illiterate, surrounded with an aura of ‘juju’, and ideally deceased, to fit the appropriate Western stereotype. Efiaimbelo, the carver from Madagascar, whose funeral posts were displayed in a mock burial ground in the Africa Now exhibition corresponds in large part to this projection. Other artists in Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection such as Cyprien Tokoudagba and John Fundi, whose work is directly related to voodoo and beliefs in the spirit world, provide ample source material for the white man’s perennial thirst.
The Zairian painters Moke, Chéri Samba and his brother Cheïkh Ledy were well established in their home country before the arrival of Magnin. Their genre of painting, with its combination of richly detailed scenarios and biting social commentary, is part of the visual history of urbanisation in post-independence Zaire. While it lends itself well to encapsulation by a Western art market eager for new authenticity, this work is less favoured amongst fellow African artists, many of whom view this style of painting as an extension of popular graphics and sign-writing. Moke paints large-scale cartoons of his surroundings in Kinshasa with its night crowd, drunk on Skol and Primus beer, giving in to corruption or mythologising the experiences of the Gulf War. The Self Portrait, 1990, so the story goes, was inspired by Magnin at a point when Moke’s imagination was momentarily stymied. But that rumour does not weaken the power of the tryptich to point a cynical finger at the imaginary African artist who, in the third painting, has apparently disappeared into Van Gogh’s chair and lost his true African identity (the fateful premise of the Pigozzi collection). These paintings stand out because unlike the contrived translation onto canvas of Cyprien Tokoudagba and Esther Mahlangu’s mural art, or the grotesque tourist figures of Ivoirian Emile Yebo Guebehi, the Zairois group, sometimes described as ‘artistes provocateurs’,4 operate deftly between assimilation and subversion.
The international situation surrounding contemporary African art is changing so rapidly that the issues relating to its presentation outside of Africa often blur a vision of the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of the artists themselves. The temptation is far greater to write about the conditions generated by an exhibition of African art, than it is to explore the art. The vocabulary of 20th century African art is largely unfamiliar terrain to a Western audience, and so to speak of ‘African art’ is still in many respects to refer to the West’s understanding of ‘traditional art’ from Africa. Increasingly the term is being recognised as a discursive construct not unlike ‘Orientalism’, implying an imaginary realm with very real political consequences, a field of knowledge deeply entwined with the histories of colonialism, anthropology, museums of ethnography and the lucrative trade in ‘tribal’ art. In the past, interpretations of ‘traditional’ African art have generally fallen into two modes: ethnographic contextualisation, whereby objects act as testimonies of culture and artists are seen to be operating more within a social community than as individual creators, and a purely aesthetic approach, oblivious to ‘deep description’, that contents itself with the formal and evocative dimensions of the foreign object. This impossibly reductionist set of alternatives continues to bedevil the presentation of historical art from Africa. Ethnographic museums in Europe and America have been debating the crisis for several years, yet still seem unwilling to involve African artists and historians directly in the negotiation of their own artistic past.
The sudden interest of European and American museums and private collectors in purchasing contemporary art from Africa, which in a period of recession is considerably cheaper than its Euro-American counterpart, has aggravated this situation. Dealers and curators are placed in the immediate position of having to find a more compatible means of framing the works and ultimately commodifying the new aesthetic which doesn’t always fit neatly into its ‘tribal’ antecedent. It is clear from the current curatorial dilemma which has characterised recent exhibitions, such as Susan Vogel’s Africa Explores, 1991,5 that too little faith is invested in the ability of the art to stand its own ground without intervention from the West. The artists’ own reflections on their work are given anecdotal significance and written art criticism from Africa is generally treated as non-existent. The intellectual dimension to African art, claims the Ghanaian art historian Kojo Fosu, is rarely or never understood.6
Faced with a vast continent of over forty countries extending from Egypt to South Africa, Sierra Leone to Mozambique, and an unfathomable diversity of visual artistic expression, the urge to reduce 20th century African art into manageable categories (‘urban art’, ‘international art’, ‘popular art’, ‘self-taught’) overpowers any effort to accommodate a sense of the artists’ own decision-making process. Any exhibition has to take into account the desires of the artists whose works are being shown, and this applies to African as much as it does to European artists, but somehow this obvious channel is only intermittently pursued. Without direct feedback, a blanket-term such as ‘African artist’ remains uncontested. Is the disenfranchisement of the African artist still part of the narrow procedures of anthropological research, or are we encountering here an inadvertently Post-Modernist ploy? To rejoice in the hypothetical death of the author is one thing, but this disassociative strategy, when transposed onto the subjects of centuries of colonial oppression loses all the sovereignty of its philosophical position.
The latest travesty of Magnin and Pigozzi, which favours the untampered inspiration of the self-taught artist against the academically-trained painter or sculptor, effectively cancels out a significant proportion of African artists, many of whom have travelled abroad and whose concerns incorporate current critical and art-conceptual questions. Art departments have existed in universities right across Africa since the early 40s and although several are still run along an anachronistic Beaux Arts model, many artists are keen to benefit from this additional perspective, if only to rebel against its strictures. Oil on canvas is the dominant medium in West Africa and yet a number of younger artists have succeeded in forging an independent position through a conscious and sometimes political reappraisal of local materials and pigments. Atta Kwami, an artist based at Kumasi’s University of Science and Technology in Ghana, compresses hand-made paper dyed with pigments into grid-like permutations. Apparently convention-bound, these ‘Tana paintings’ seem to float between rational knowledge and instinctive action. This floating is likened by Kwami to the act of breathing.
‘Vouhou Vouhou’ is another spirit or movement which emerged in 1986 in Cote d’Ivoire as an expression of pictorial research in which ‘materials of retrieval’ could be made to redefine a new specificity within the multifarious identity of the Ivoirian artist. Saturated by a diet of Rambo, Dynasty and the Surrealist and Freudian inclinations of their professors, N’Guessan Kra, Youssouf Bath, Theodore Koudougnon and Yacouba Touré wrote manifestos and began to paint on jute and stretched animal skins with earth, sand, local chalk and natural pigments. This wasn’t collage as their French art school teachers had taught them, but a case of sticking together the fragmented inheritance of 20th century African art. Although Magnin’s speculative eye has wandered into ‘Vouhou’ country, these artists represent the ‘official’ domain he is keen to avoid. Their material works contain too many reflections of the ‘intellectual morgue’ of the West, and for Magnin, art in Africa ‘has nothing to do with a progressive history, composed of problems that are successively posed and answered’.7 The annulment of an African ‘avant-garde’ is yet another example of the Pigozzi/Magnin procedure. Whether or not an ‘avant-garde’ exists in the European sense of the word is a crucial point which needs to be debated within the complexity of the African context. For, as Efua Sutherland, the respected Ghanaian writer and initiator of literacy programmes put it to me recently: art in Africa was designed to aggregate social wealth. To be anti-society in the sense of the ‘avant-garde’ is for Africa to repeat the West’s history…
Issa Samb, artist, critic and founder of the Laboratoire Agit Art which has existed in Dakar since the late 70s, is wary of the numerous officialdoms which smother present practice. Unlike most of the West African states, Senegal has nurtured its home brood and artists have benefited from the social and cultural philosophies of poet and statesman Leopold Senghor. Even so Samb, like his colleague Etale Sukuro in Nairobi, whose paintings are treated as seditious material by the Kenyan authorities, stands happily outside this warm nest. He has no desire to couch his work in a new heritage industry, nor is he seduced by the razzmatazz of international art world glamour. His concerns lie with the immediate problems of dispossession and displacement in Africa and the lack of status accorded to the Tuareg and other nomadic peoples. If the world is moving fast toward a near pathological obsession with ethnic and racial differentiations, then all the more reason, he feels, to shift the power invested in boundaries. Perhaps that is why Samb chooses to paint on perishable materials, tarpaulins sewn together with daubs of shellac, paint and tar and hung from wooden poles like the makeshift banners which help to shelter the homeless. A blackboard with a chalk text defying the destruction of the Xelcom forests in Senegal commemorates Labour Day, a wire sculpture is rendered indiscernable against a mound of dead leaves, and as Issa Samb treads over the surface of his paintings in his studio in the rue Jules Ferry, one can’t help wondering how much longer it will be before artists from Africa are given a direct line. It may be possible to relegate to historical circumstances the misconceptions produced by the primitivist painters and collectors of l’Art Negre at the beginning of the century, but it is seriously debatable whether today European and American academic and commercial interests should once again be allowed to ventriloquise the other’s desires and thereby frame the access to art produced in Africa today.
Out of Africa, with its unfortunate title evoking scenes of Meryl Streep running into the arms of Robert Redford, may be part of the largest collection of its kind in the world, and does include some great pieces, but ultimately represents the imaginary Africa of its collector, an exotic safari into a world he has never personally experienced and probably never will.
1. Scenario to Out of Africa based on Jean Pigozzi’s own words in the introduction to Africa Now, catalogue pp.13-14
2. Wole Soyinka, ‘Between Self and System’ in Art, Dialogue & Outrage - Essays on Literature and Culture, New Horn Press, Ibadan 1988, p.64
3. Jean Pigozzi in Africa Now p.14
4. Graeme Ewens in World Beat, September 1991, p.30
5. Centre for African Art and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
6. see Kojo Fosu, Intellectual dimensions of Ghanaian visual art of the last decade, Paper presented at the National Festival of Arts and Culture, 25-27th August 1992, Kumasi College of Art, UST, Ghana
7. André Magnin in Africa Now, pp.17-21
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