The most interesting bits

Kaleidoscope magazine has done an "Africa" issue; it wants to walk a fine line between identity politics and universalism.

Winter in Tembisa (1991). Photographs by Santu Mofokeng / Courtesy © Santu Mofokeng Foundation, Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, and Steidl.

The summer issue of Kaleidoscope, a contemporary art magazine based in Milan, is devoted to ‘art and culture produced in (or related to) the African continent today.’ It’s full of good stuff. Many of the artists we’ve written enthusiastically about in the last twelve months  – Santu Mofokeng, Hassan Khan, Rotimi Fani-Kayode – are there, alongside some work we’ve been troubled by and critical of. I am largely ignorant of the provisions for fair use in international copyright law, so here’s a summary of the magazine’s contents, with liberal excerpts of some of the most interesting bits.

One, a brief and curious essay on the work of Santu Mofokeng. To quote:

His photographing from recalcitrant space outwards likely accounts for the vast difference between Mofokeng’s photography and that of his South African colleague David Goldblatt, who prefers an unbelievably sharp, clear-cut and transparent image.

Two: an interview by Shahira Issa with Hassan Khan and Wael Shawky, both have work in this year’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. Khan’s film Jewel featured in the New Museum Triennial earlier this year and I thought was great; his work in Kassel is “Blind Ambition” part-film, part-installation — you can see more images of it over at Al-Ahram. Shawky’s work at Kassel — Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo — is a film adaptation of Amin Maalouf’s text, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984). In the Kaleidoscope interview (which can be read for free online) Shawky explains how he used the puppets to create ‘a historical narrative’ which is also a ‘critique of historiography’, and chose to focus on ‘events that are mentioned only briefly in historical references’. You can see images of his terrifying puppets over at Nafas.

Three: an illuminating article on Sci-Fi narratives by Nav Haq and Al Cameron, curators of the Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction exhibition which we’ve already written far too much about (here and here and here).

Four: a piece on the work of the performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga, ‘Considering its commonalities with hysteria’:

Athi-Patra Ruga is wearing ridiculously high heels. A leotard clings to the artist’s cock, which is circumcised. It is the opening night performance for La Mama Morta (They Killed My Mother) at YoungBlackman, Cape Town in 2010. Inside the white cube, behind glass, the artist is convlusing. He throws himself hard against the gallery walls.

Five, information on the Cinémathèque de Tanger, a non-profit organization which aims to promote cinema culture in Morocco. Words by Bouchra Khalili, one of the co-founders:

It was at Casa Barata, Tangier’s extraordinary flea market, that we fully realized that we were founding a cinémathèque. We were literally picking up Super 8 reels that were older than we were, off the ground, and dreaming about the treasures they might contain.

Sixth, a portfolio of photographs by Viviane Sassen (you can see some over at her website).

Seven, an essay by writer and curator Nana Oforiatta-Ayim on her Cultural Encyclopedia project, which featured as a sketch alongside the work of the Invisible Borders collective in the New Museum Triennial. The essay, which can be read online, describes the project’s extraordinary ambitions:

It is these monumental changes that the Cultural Encyclopedia, a massive documentation project that I’m currently involved in, will account for. For now the prism of the nation is still the most comprehensive one we have, even though it might not always be so. The Cultural Encyclopedia will map, in fifty-four volumes, the trajectories of historical and contemporary cultural production on the African continent. It will be headed by a core team based in Africa, but its expression will expand out to thinkers, artists, philosophers and scientists from across the world. It will be printed in book form on a model based on the Bibliothèque Bleue, which was distributed not just among an urban elite, but also amongst the masses, distributed through both the formal and informal networks, at petrol stations, through mobile vendors and markets, as well as on the Internet.

Eight, the writer Olufemi Terry in conversation with filmmakers Frances Bodomo and Jean-Pierre Bekolo and the film festival director Mahen Bonetti. Bodomo has some particularly interesting comments on the white South African photographer, Pieter Hugo:

Pieter Hugo’s photos are a constant inspiration for my visual idea of Africa, but I struggle with the way many have come to see him as a “voice of Africa.” And I don’t think it’s about losing a sense of wonder. I think if any of his subjects were to make a film or take pictures from their lives we would find in these infinitely more “exotic” things. But they wouldn’t simply be “exotic,” but a refreshing portrayal of human experience – a humanized depiction of Africa, rather than an objectified and/ or exotic one. This is my struggle with Pieter Hugo: he takes uniquely beautiful photographs, but many viewers of these photographs assimilate them into their view of Africa, and make the subjects objects.

Nine, an essay on music, mainly on the use of pidgin in Ghanaian kuduro, by Benjamin Lebrave, which can be read online here.

Ten, an essay on urban planning in Africa by Antoni Folkers, especially interesting for its mention of speculative plans by Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez. You can see more images of his models here.

Eleven, a portfolio of photographs by Rotimi Fani-Kayode (whose exhibition in New York we reviewed here).

Twelve, an interview with Nicholas Hlobo, an artist who has been making some extraordinary work with leather, by Sean O’Toole. Hlobo says:

I am curious about who I am, my origins, the migratory origins of black South Africans, and the mosaic qualities of Xhosa rituals. […] I feel I should not rob the viewer of the opportunity to create his or her own understanding of the work. Hence, the titles of my works are not translated, so that whoever is reading the title is made to look at the object. […] People have often said my work is too white, which I find very interesting. My work and my personal life are intertwined; I find it difficult at times to separate myself from my work.

This is literally true of several works pictured in the magazine, in which the artist is either contained by or attached to large leather pouches. The interview is followed by two essays, by Tracy Murinik and Liese van der Watt, the first of which can be read online here.

Thirteen: A portfolio of images by Namsa Leuba, from her book Ya Kala Ben, produced in Guinea-Conakry.

Fourteen: An interview by curator and art-world-titan Hans Ulrich Obrist with ‘the Afropolitan artist’ (a label not discussed in the interview) Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose paintings at the New Museum Triennial I describe with stupidly little detail here. The artist, born in London in 1977, makes some of the most exciting and challenging paintings being exhibited right now. Obrist asks her about the influence of Ghana on her practice, and Yiadom-Boakye emphasises an understatement:

HUO: I would like to ask you about Ghana, as your family comes from there. I was wondering if you have any connections to Ghana or Africa?

LYB: Not very strong ones. I mean, my strongest connection is my parents.

HUO: Who live there?

LYB: NO, they live here in London, and they have for forty years. But just the fact of them having raised me the way that they did, they are my connection. I find of have an idea of Ghana from them, but I wouldn’t say I have a strong personal connection with it, in that I haven’t been there that much and I certainly never lived there. I wasn’t born there – I was born here, and I was raised here. Really my connection is through my relatives, the people who raised me, and their way of thinking, which to me is very Ghanaian, and that has obviously effected how I think and what I think about. But it would be disingenuous of me to claim some strong connection with Ghana as a place because I don’t really know it and I wasn’t raised there.

HUO: But it’s there through the transmissions of your parents.

LYB: Definitely. The way I always put it was that Ghana is present as a way of thinking and a way of seeing, which has influenced me.

The rest of the interview can be read here.

Sixteenth: “Notations from the public diary of Invisible Borders,” by Emmanuel Iduma, a Nigerian writer documenting on the photography collective’s second annual journey, currently underway, between Nigeria and Ethiopia. The article takes three themes — Safety, Borders, Transportation — to raise the objects and obstacles of traveling through Tchad, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Yes, there are rumors that turn out to be true. But there are rumors that never turn out to be true, rumors that are in fact not true. There are even warnings that are given based on past occurrences, based on the fear that what happened in the past might reoccur now. The instant challenge when you receive a warning is to understand that an event is not bound to occur, that the future is not the past or the present. The future is yet to happen. So it was with us. We received warnings.

Check the Invisible Borders Facebook page for their updates and photos.

Sixteenth, a historical study of the 1935 exhibition at MoMA of “African Negro Art” by Paola Nicolin, which makes some incisive points on the curation of contemporary African art:

MoMA’s space was also completely white: an absence of color that seemed like an aesthetic response to the objects. How does the choice of colors and materials in museums today reflect a different – or identical – approach to cultural diversity? It was [Alfred J.] Barr, in line with the MoMA mission, who thought of the exhibition as a crucial tool for the creation of the occidental canon of African art, and grasped the importance of its documentation and the possibility that the exhibition project, once finished, could continue to be used as an educational tool, through its representation.

Seventeen: a piece on Massimo Grimaldi, an Italian artist who hijacks art prizes by submitting applications for works of art which involve giving most of the money to medical charities working in Afghanistan, Sudan and Sierra Leone, a gesture one judge apparently described as “moral blackmail”:

I think the intelligence of some of the jurors was to recognize that the moral blackmail was a structural part of the work, just like a painting technique. The lack of scruples, almost the violence of these projects that test the ethical character of an institution and even the moral character of the individual jurors is clear, confronting them with the question: “What is better: to make some art-work or to save human lives?”

In 2009, the artist gained funds from the MAXXI 2per100 award, a competition established by the MAXXI museum, compelled under Italian law to set aside at least 2% of their total budget to the production of art. The artist used 92% of the 700 000 euro prize to build a pediatric hospital in Sudan. Images of the project – “Emergency’s Pediatric Center in Port Sudan Supported by MAXXI” – were then projected on a wall of the Roman museum.

Eighteenth: Last, an interview by Carson Chan with Elvira Duangani Ose, recently appointed Curator of International Art at the Tate Modern, a post sponsored by Nigerian Guaranty Trust Bank, who is involved in plans for partnerships with art institutions in Africa (more on that in this interview with the Mail & Guardian). The Kaleidoscope interview, which can be read online here, has lots of interesting points and references. For some reason Chan uses the interview as an opportunity to respond to criticisms (like the one we made here and here) of the Marrakech Biennale, which he co-curated.

Chan tries to persuade Duangani Ose to agree that criticisms of his exhibition by ‘Western critics and observers’ (but also, remember, by the Jamaa collective) aren’t valid. We critics are, apparently, guilty of ‘ideological patronage’ for having suggested that the organisers had failed to make adequate representation of art from the African continent. Duangani Ose eventually answers Chan with the simple statement, “it’s the curator’s choice”. But it’s also about the choice of curator. Chan is clearly an intelligent curator, sensitive to the political implications of these things, and he has done impressive research with which he defends himself against criticism, but this doesn’t change the fact that the Marrakech Biennale is the play-thing of Vanessa Branson, who chose the wrong curators.

Elsewhere, Kaleidoscope elegantly negotiates its descriptions of art in the African continent and diaspora with the demands of identity politics and universalism. But as the editor, Alessio Ascari writes, ‘this overview is necessarily not exhaustive, partially arbitrary and … to be continued.’ The mapping out of Africa in contemporary art is a mammoth task but it too often excludes many of the same countries. As usual, art from South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria predominates. What about Tunisia? Chkoun Ahna, an exhibition at Carthage Contemporary earlier this year, suggested interesting things are happening there. What about Zimbabwe, Algeria or Tanzania? Exclusions made in these overviews are rarely arbitrary and have much to do with relations between the art market and local economies, the politics of the diaspora, the development of art institutions in Africa.

Any project — Kaleidoscope magazine or this blog — which makes even the most obscure claims to (or extravagant refusals of) representing a region of the world must confront these questions. Third Text journal recently issued a call for papers on contemporary art and ‘Lusophone’ Africa, suggesting that recent interest in contemporary art from the continent has been ‘skewed’ towards countries with larger English-speaking populations. Representations which seek to map out these exclusions, and describe obstacles to the growth of contemporary art culture in the countries frequently ignored in such overviews, would offer a better understanding of the art objects which educate and please Western observers without obscuring the fact that they threaten the whole idea of “an occidental canon of African art” with its necessary and inevitable destruction. Since Ascari has promised that this is ‘to be continued’, we hope their next Africa issue is as strong as this one and can explore art from some of the regions neglected here.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.