Africa, Assume the Position?

I love that African artists are getting exhibition space in European galleries. But being told to “Assume Art Position” by a Milanese gallery?

Such a strange, combustible collage of nonsensical superiority (“Africa” being directed to take on “Art”), and the allusion to “assuming” a sexually subordinate position in a title might be seen as appropriately titillating, especially when it comes from the cheesy world of Italian galleries – but please, a newsflash: neither “Africa” nor its artists need to be told to assume any position.

And amidst the terrible sentence structures (witness the fragment below), we learn from this press release that Africa is a single country (and we really cannot make excuses based on unfamiliarity with English):

In a country such as Africa, characterized by contradictions and important issues in the social, economic and political realm; art becomes the preferred way not only to escape reality. It becomes also the best way to address it, absorb it, understand it and ultimately criticize it.

The press release, to which Joost Bosland of Michael Stevenson Gallery alerted me (he guaranteed that it was “not tongue in cheek”), assures that the show, curated by Yakouba Konaté (curator of the Dakar Biennial) at Primo Marella Gallery, is “an important group show focused on contemporary art from Africa”. Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), Soly Cissé (Senegal), Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Moridja Kitenge Banza (Republic of Congo), Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo (D.R.C.), Jöel Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), and Peter Eastmann, Cameron Platter, Stuart Bird, and Athi Patra Ruga of South Africa are included.

The work exhibited is undeniably powerful and nuanced–in ways that this gallery’s positioning of the art and artists does not seem to recognise. Particularly significant are the textile hangings of Konate (the curator himself), the sexually alluring, dangerous figures within Ruga’s prints, the playfulness of Platter’s video work, and the Rorschach bleeding of Tuogo’s watercolours. Moridja K. Banza’s video, “Hymne à Nous”, where a collective of identical men (modeled on the artist himself)  – perfection in bronze-hued nude–sing a harmony, built on a combination of lyrics from the anthems of the Congo and Belgium (themselves French “hymns” based on Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude), provides an arresting full-stop to the simple posturing of the gallery (still from “Hymne à Nous” above) . This song of the one-and-many alludes to Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer–those sacred bodies both included and excluded by law, both sovereign and slave – as well as the revolutionary possibilities available to bodies erased by Power/in service of Power.

If the aim of the show “is to bring to the attention of the European public a selection of works, sculptures, paintings, installations and videos, that effectively epitomize the most recent artistic trends from a country with a rich cultural and artistic tradition,” then yes, the curator was instrumental in picking pieces that don’t pander to the expectations for wood carvings from Africa. But having to deal with that gallery, and that attitude in order to exhibit your work can’t have been an easy negotiation. Konate must have Achille Mbembe-like balls and bravado.

There’s going to be a catalogue, too:

Primo Marella Gallery has published the catalogue “Africa, Assume Art Position” featuring critical essays by Prof. Yakouba Konaté. The catalogue positions itself as a seminal publication for the research and understanding of the last trends in African contemporary art.

I can’t wait to see it.–Neelika Jayawardane



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. This post prompted me to look for the origins of the phrase "assume the position," which in my sometimes faulty memory seemed to have other meanings before it became sexualized.
    Here is one that I was familiar with in my college years, part of the police-to-suspect dialog:
    assume the position:
    Turn away, with your hands in a visible and unmovable position so that you can be searched for a concealed weapon.
    Also, in dance training, specifically ballet, with reference to one of the standard positions of the dance…first position, second position, etc.
    In a charitable spirit, might not the Italian gallery been making a dance culture reference rather than a submissive sexual reference? Just wondering. They should of course be sensitive to all common meanings of the phrases they employ.

  2. Pied Crow, my hat's off to you for looking up the history of the phrase. We know that language contains layers and layers, and play with all those references – when "africa" as a "country" is asked to assume "the position," many of the things which you've mentioned are part of the image repertoire that gets conjured up.

  3. I think the sexual themes expressed in the work suggest there is a sexual reference and reading that in terms of my personal experience of some of the ways in which Africa and African bodies are represented and consumed in Italy as homo sacer exotica, the reference to subordination is on point.

    On a different note, I saw this charity appeal in The Telegraph yesterday – very I had a farm in Africa type stuff. Blogged on it.

  4. I think it's pretty rich for a white European citizen like Bosland to take a "position" like the one he is trying to take here. Sometimes people who are not native English speakers make mistakes in translation so we shouldn't jump to conclusions here. Perhaps Michael Stevenson gallery is threatened commercially by this Italian gallery no? Perhaps they feel like they alone own and can speak for African Artists?

    Positioning is an art term popularised in Europe recently. Perhaps look it up before jumping to conclusions.

  5. your reference to people thinking africa is a country is well taken – i don't mean to be didactic but perhaps you should put a line on your blog header to say that you, too, don't make the mistake of thinking africa is a country.

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