I am no contemporary art expert. Sometimes one has to start with a disclaimer. The term and whatever definition whoever gives to it have been on that awkward zone where I have felt that I should be equipped with more specific knowledge to say even something quite generic about it. Also, my intuitive and somewhat outdated direct connection between the idea of contemporary and fine art has always had this self-manufactured inner conflict with my identity relating to counter culture. Even if the conflict wouldn’t really exist, I have imagined it. I think I have been quite elitist in avoiding certain kinds of art, so I found myself rethinking a few things as I was going to see ARS 11 exhibition in the Kiasma museum of contemporary art in Helsinki, Finland. This year the tag line promised that the exhibition “changes your perception of Africa and contemporary art”.

Of course, first I had to figure out what exactly is my–let alone everyone else’s–perception of Africa. Isn’t it false-advertising to promise to change something that you can’t universally define and which varies from individual to individual? The use of this misguided slogan is hardly the fault of the many artists featured in the exhibition, so I thought, for my benefit  and just in general, let me have an open mind. Perhaps that is the prerequisite for art anyway.

The museum is bang in the city centre overlooking the brand new state of the art music house (also, regardless of the official version, built largely for the purposes of fine art) and the nine tents of Occupy Helsinki that are standing in the rain next to it. It’s all very Global Village.

My experience of the art was pretty much as I expected; some works were great, some not to my liking which is understandable considering the quantity of art in this exhibition, but admittedly, very little of it did much to change my perspective of the African continent and cultures. I don’t know if it did more to someone else. Generally speaking a lot of recycled materials had been used and waste was a recurring theme that was approached from many angles. A lot of beautiful photography (some examples of my favourites were Samuel Fosso, Kudzanai Chiurai and Maïmouna Patrizia Guerresi), various installations and sculptures were scattered around the five floors of Kiasma.

For me, by far, the most interesting parts of the exhibition were the work of Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and South African artists Mary Sibande.

Ojeikere‘s photography collection titled ‘Moments of Beauty’ consisted of beautiful black and white images recording the Nigerian history. I found it interesting that in an exhibition that is supposed to change my view of something, the items I most enjoy, and which I think may work the best in delivering the promise of performance the curator has made, are the ones that are not abstract at all. It is just straightforward snapshots of real events in history. If reality changes our perspective, then what is our perspective based on to begin with?

Mary Sibande’s art had more layers. She is playing with the idea of South African (and perhaps beyond) maids and their role in society. There were some beautiful photographs, but the piece that really stole the show was a large dressed up statue of a maid wearing a Victorian style royal blue dress riding a stallion reaching to the sky (my image at the top of this post). Whether by design or by accident this horse riding maid was separated only by a window from the native horse riding statue of the Finnish war marshal and former president C.G Mannerheim (see in the background). Next to each other, quietly they ooze thousands of meanings from different struggles; one from the top of his local food chain and the other from the bottom of her own. Yet, and this might be largely due to my own values and interpretations of history, the one on the inside, the maid, was the one whose horse was to ride her to triumph, even a modest one if such an expression exists, as the historical narrative becomes less Euro-centric.

I still see Africa as I did before this show, but I enjoyed much of the art. Perhaps the exhibition mainly changed my idea of contemporary art which it also promised to do. So that’s okay, but if this exhibition really changed the perceptions of its viewers on Africa, I think we should move to an area that is closer to my main interest and ask why–and media I am looking at you now–is it that these works would change the way anyone sees a continent that is frequently in the news? Perhaps there are more people than I’d care to imagine who view the whole continent of Africa as 90% disaster zone with disease and corruption sprinkled over it desperately relying on the kindness of Bob Geldof and Bono, and on the other side, 10% safari game drive utopia with animals and poor, but smiling locals and Out of Africa settlers. If that was your idea, then perhaps it was high time for it to change.

The image problem that Africa has, to a large extent, is a result of the terrible geo-branding warfare by the global north which is an extension of colonial attitude that created the realities on the ground in the first place. If the low expectations that are in our midst change because of an art exhibition we shouldn’t expect anyone to thank us, but rather we should say sorry this didn’t happen sooner.