It’s not that easy to put a finger on the relationship between African artists and those from the African diaspora. In a globalised world in which African centres are increasingly dynamic, couldn’t it be said that we are currently witnessing a convergence of forms and sources of inspiration?
When referring to African artistic creation, Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi – who, along with Ahmed Shibrain and Kamala Ishag, founded the Khartoum School – uses the image of the tree. A tree has roots, a trunk and branches. And in his view, many artists from Africa or the African diaspora experiment with global issues and forms (branches), but also feel the need to bear in mind where they come from and relate their work to their origins (roots)… Defining “contemporary African art” and distinguishing it from (or likening it to) that of the continent’s diaspora potentially opens up a can of worms. The risk is to oversimplify it, or else to put everything into the one box. “We can only use this expression if we don’t claim that there’s only one way to make art, and if we avoid speaking about African art and African identity in the singular,” explains Rocco Orlacchio, director of the Voice Gallery, in Marrakech, which he founded in 2011 and whose objective is to stifle the resurgence of orientalist tendencies. According to curator Marie-Ann Yemsi, who headed up the 11th edition of the Bamako Encounters, “one of the major issues today is to de-exoticise gazes, to debunk misconceptions and unravel them in order to show Africa as it is. Stripped of fantasies.”
Indeed, Africa comprises 54 countries and a wide range of increasingly numerous artistic centres, historically Niger, Senegal, Morocco and South Africa. And beyond the generalities that gloss over reality, the question of origins is also a risky notion. Focus on the artists’ origins amounts to seeing them in terms of what we expect from them; in other words, a series of preconceptions, a return of the colonial impulse and also its corollary, latching onto the victim identity. All this, without taking into account clichés surrounding handicraft production (starring wax-print fabrics) – production which cannot be said to be conceptual (or not that much at least). “Relating the notion of identity to geography seems obsolete to me,” continues Marie-Ann Yemsi. “Multi-affiliations reflect today’s world.” That said, for many artists, the tree metaphor still applies. Ousmane Sow, considered by many of his peers as a father of contemporary African art, once declared: “Because of their history, Africans don’t make sculptures like non-Africans. But this Africanness stops there because our desire is to be inserted into universal contemporary art.”
Poetics and politics
All the same. Between artists from Africa and those from the diaspora, we can still identify a number of shared ideas and stances: the issues of integration and identity, with works tinged by political nuances in particular. On the African continent, postcolonial vestiges and the youthfulness of democracies are two common themes. Political and identity-related issues come up frequently among South African artists, explains Cape Town-based curator Jana Terblanche, who collaborates regularly with Smith Studio. “Identity politics is continuously a prevalent in South Africa art, as we are still a fairly new democracy in the process of re-evaluating our history and place in the world. There has also been an increase in artists experimenting with installation and performance-based art forms. Furthermore, artists are beginning to explore the digital space, and experimenting with how that space fits in with traditional object making.”
Outside the African continent – the African diaspora is a complex phenomenon, nourished by the triangular trading system that came into place several centuries ago, then decolonisation, and now globalisation –, artists often hold minority positions, with all the challenges that this implies, compounded by poor integration or even, at times, outright xenophobia. One striking example is seen in the United States. Carrying on the work of intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, one particular group of artists, ranging from Jacob Lawrence to David Hammons, passing through Aaron Douglas and more recently Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Keith + Mendi Obadike, and Glenn Ligon, has developed a strain of art to combat segregation and its ongoing effects in the United States – its pertinence recently sadly proved by the unjust killing of African-Africans by policemen, sometimes with the victims’ backs turned. The United States offers a particularly salient example of the struggle that African-American artists are still engaged in to stand up for their recognition and history, but diaspora artists all over are involved in this movement of examining their history, the triangular economy, colonialism and its legacy.
In this respect, conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, along with Thelma Golden, are drivers of the “post-blackness” concept that sheds light on the ambiguity of the situation. As Thelma Golden wrote in the catalogue of the “Freestyle” exhibition (Studio Museum, Harlem, 2001), artists are “adamant about not being labelled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” In his book Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now (2011), journalist and critic Touré believes that a new generation of artists and citizens, born outside the direct context of segregation, is using the idea of “blackness” to construct its identity and acting as a group – even if Touré acknowledges the impossibility of giving the concept a clear-cut definition.
From aesthetics to ethics
Another common point between artists from the African continent and those in the diaspora is that their work is not merely based on aesthetics but also ethics. A phenomenon that isn’t new. When Léopold Sédar Senghor launched the Festival des Arts Nègres in 1966, his aim wasn’t merely to support aesthetics but was founded on deeper reasoning to do with social responsibility. On top of creation, artists in African societies (or their diaspora) have occupied roles that step beyond artistic practice. This was the case of Abdoulaye Konaté in Mali, who, as an established artist, was given the task of heading up the Palais de la Culture in Bamako. This was also the case of other artists, namely Bartélémy Toguo, who founded, in 2000, the Bandjoun Station Cameroon, a centre not restricted to art (with a collection of over 1,000 pieces and residency projects, but also educational and agricultural focuses). “As Africans from the diaspora, we should give something back to our continent. We have a duty, and it is to help Africa. She needs the elites from its diaspora just as it needs those who stayed on the continent. Together, we can pull the continent out of the difficulties it is suffering from today. All Africans, whatever their field – agriculture, sport, science, culture – with knowledge, should give back part of this knowledge, this knowhow, to Africa.” He goes on to say: “I don’t want to create a contemporary African art ghetto; this is why we also invite artists from all over the world. We want to make Bandjoun Station a place of creation where artists without borders can come and conceive projects, in a residence, but with links to the local community.”
Sadikou Oukpedjo has taken a similar approach. “I used to sculpt in my family home, but this caused a few problems. So I bought land fifteen kilometres from Lomé, where I felt a bit isolated. I wanted to turn it into a type of residence. I invited artist friends, and we created a studio together. I bought equipment for those who didn’t have the means to do so. This encouraged many artists to come. I consider that art isn’t something we experience, but undergo. It’s torture to be an artist without having the materials to work.” And this isn’t the only example: take Sammy Baloji who set up, in 2008, the Rencontres de l’Image de Lubumbashi Picha (the latter, “image” in Swahili), or Aida Muluneh, creator of the Addis Foto Fest.
A time of convergences
Thanks to globalisation, Internet and the increasing openness of Africa, many commentators observe a shrinkage of formal gaps between the continent and its diaspora. “We’re no longer in an era when there’s no access to what’s happening everywhere in the world, in terms of politics and art,” explains Rocco Orlacchio. “Often, artists who haven’t had the chance to travel haven’t had the opportunity to get to know, learn and face up to diverging viewpoints, as much on issues surrounding art as on the issue of what art should be. If we focus on visual language, this is the difference that essentially comes up in practice, production, aesthetics.” Similar views crop up, from Marrakech to Cape Town. “I think artists of the diaspora respond to their circumstances, oftentimes probing the duality of their identities,” notes Jana Terblanche. “In an increasingly global world, I think the differences in the work of artists local to Africa and the diaspora is narrowing.”
In short, it seems that we’ve turned a page since the era when gallerist André Magnin would travel all over Africa on behalf of collector Jean Pigozzi, scanning the continent to discover artists whose production was well established, but who were absent from circuits legitimising them outside of their own territories – artists like Seydou Keïta, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Chéri Samba, Romuald Hazoumè, JP Mika or Malick Sidibé. Over time, things are smoothing out…
A continent opening up
“The African diaspora plays an important role in the creation of contemporary African art, and elevating its visibility outside of Africa,” suggests Jana Terblanche. “I don’t necessarily differentiate between artists of the diaspora and contemporary African artists. They’re two sides of the same coin.” However, amongst the most prominent artists with African origins, many live outside the continent. Julie Mehretu works in New York, Marlène Dumas in the Netherlands, Kader Attia and Adel Abdessemed in France… According to Hassan Hajjaj, who lives between London and Morocco, “when you’re an artist from a third-world country, you need a connection with the West to be taken seriously, as if your career couldn’t exist independently except as a variation of something already existing in Europe.”
“As the art system is international today, it’s difficult to progress if there’s no structure within a country,” observes Rocco Orlacchio. “In theory, each country should set up a small system for this to be possible. There are several ways for an artist residing in Africa to enjoy international recognition: by participating in exhibitions in public institutions, having their work acquired by public collections, but also private ones. Art schools need to be set up and, naturally, be supported by collectors, both local and international. All this corresponds to the creation of an art system.”
South Africa, one of the most dynamic scenes on the continent, was revealed to the world in the 1990s, with artists including David Goldblatt, Roger Ballen, Kendell Geers and Tracey Rose… This scene notably owes its strength to the emergence of a new ecosystem, including very active institutions and galleries, as well as the involvement of universities. “Many prominent South Africa artists continue to live and work from their home country, while receiving acclaim abroad,” explains Jana Terblanche. “I think with the increased presence of South African galleries and artists on the international art fair circuit, local artists will reach new audiences and the local art market will benefit.” On a continent whose cultural power is on the rise (through the opening of a myriad of foundations, museums and art centres, including the Mohammed VI Museum (Morocco), the Fondation Zinsou (Benin), the Zeitz Museum (South Africa)), the South African example seems to have already found followers.
What’s more, whether they’re from the continent or not, the international recognition of artists from Africa or of African origin is increasing. Two African cultural bigwigs featured amongst the five winners of the Prix Praemium Imperiale in 2017. Ghana’s El Anatsui, distinguished in the field of sculpture, and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, singled out in the music category. We can also mention Lubaina Himid, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize 2017. Originally from Tanzania, the 63-year-old artist pores over the identity of the African diaspora and its invisibility in the social, political and artistic fields…. Let’s note that the Musée Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie / Pyrénées-Méditerranée, in Sérignan, is organising the artist’s first solo exhibition in Europe, until 16 September, showing her work on the representation of Africans in the history of European painting, while also exploring the issue of slavery and colonialism through art history. “Africa is becoming its own centre,” enthuses Marie-Ann Yemsi.