Which Art History in Africa?

Photo from The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists, curated by Simon Njami – SCAD Museum of Art, Fall 2014

Reading Eddie Chambers’ thoughts on African diaspora art history brought home my own struggle of writing on contemporary art in East Africa. I burst out laughing when he, pretty much, joked about the reality of writing on very recent events: “Those of us who work in the realm of African diaspora art history—in my own case, with a particular emphasis on British-based art practice—are constantly faced with the curious, absurd, but sobering challenge of researching that which happened, in a manner of speaking, very recently.” This means, of course, that his writing on late 20th century Black Artists in Britain challenges an art history, that is, both white and centuries old. Chambers reminded me of a very real challenge. Is historical writing on art in Africa available?

Beyond the fancy, glossy, pages of art history books, are African artists (more so, East African artists), whose modern and contemporary art work is practically unrecorded. By unrecorded, I do not mean this literally. Yes, their work is recorded, but really not publicly, instead it is personally recorded, or through collective and personal memory. In this sense, for any writer, or researcher, available writing on these artists, many of whom are living on the continent, is quite unusual. As a result of this, as an art writer working in Africa, I have no available model to craft an entire practice of writing books on contemporary art in Uganda.

When asked what art critics I read to inform my own practice, I am dumbfounded by the fact that my own reading has consisted of white American and French theorists from the 1970s. This often follows with a doubtful look asking: what exactly do you know about Ugandan art? It is as if reading Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’, Jacques Derrida’s ‘Writing and Difference’, Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ places my knowledge of contemporary art (theory) in the West. Yet, this, I have discovered is not unusual for anyone writing on contemporary art in East Africa.

The conversation on contemporary art in Africa, often, overwhelms the art itself, which gets lost in there, somewhere. Some of the most quoted documentations of contemporary art in Africa in recent years are not only difficult to read, but they say little to nothing about the art itself. Yet, again, this is not unusual from writing on contemporary art in Africa, or in the African diaspora. Chambers complaining about the naming of African diaspora art history says: “It seemed to me that there were things, and there were black things; there was history, and then there was black history; there was art, and there was black art.” Chambers goes on to point out how Kobena Mercer’s series on African diaspora art has been named and gives a recommendation in how this could change:

Instead of Cosmopolitan Modernism, Discrepant Abstraction, Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, and Exiles, Diasporas, and Strangers, perhaps the books’ titles should have been along the lines of Modernism, Abstraction, Pop Art, and so on.

Achille Mbembe’s article ‘Afropolitanism’ published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Africa Remix (2004) comes to mind. And while that show included the phenomenal work of contemporary artists as wide ranging as Cheri Samba, Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu, El Anatsui, and Goddy Leye, the text referred more closely to a theoretical cultural context—one which has been taken up more in African literary debates by writers like Binyavanga Wainaina.

The Portrait of Mali (2012), the monograph on Malian photographer Malick Sidibe opens with a self-titled text by Sabrina Zannier, which discusses how—and maybe why—anthropological approaches teach us anything at all about contemporary art in Africa. She discusses among other things: Sidibe as a storyteller in the rural setting among his goats and sheep. Yet, to contradict the story, in true manner of art writing on contemporary art in Africa, she does not escape discussing Roland Barthes extensively in relation to Sidibe’s photographs.

Yet, perhaps, some authors have struck a balance that works. Coco Fusco’s essay, The Bodies That Were Not Ours, published in Nka Journal in 1996, was striking in its discussion the black male body in contemporary photography. In comparison to the two texts mentioned above, it reads more like a personal journal on the black body in performance art. The essay was collected in a book of the same title published under Routledge along with other essays by Fusco.

Some authors seem to present an overview from a logistical standpoint, while addressing issues of politics and contemporary art practice. Author Candice Breitz, in a rather balanced viewpoint of the much critiqued 1st Johannesburg Biennale, Africus, wrote about its position in a political and logistical framework: “It is in the spirit of slow reconstruction and transformation that the first Johannesburg Biennale should be received; not as a polished event, but as an unfolding process, a work in progress.”

Worth mentioning are two exciting volumes of art writing on contemporary art in Africa. One is ‘Contemporary African Art’ by Sidney Kasfir (2000), and another is ‘Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Market Place’ (1999) edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwenzor. 

The writer, or researcher, on art in East Africa will read, first and foremost, political texts. No doubt that a text such as Franz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ is fundamental reading. Mahmood Mamdani’s‘Citizen and Subject’ comes to mind, as well. Then, the writer will read philosophical texts. Regardless of which part of Africa, religion will most certainly come upfront. ‘Artist, The Ruler’ by Okotp’Bitek will appear to be fundamental reading for East African art writers. That 1986 text argues from the position that we must abandon Christianity in order to appreciate African aesthetics.

Then, the writer will read art historical texts. From East Africa, again, the one canonical text they will read is the catalogue of the 1995 exhibition: Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, curated by Clementine Deliss. Yes, I know what you are thinking. The truth is that such a reading plan speaks of art, but in very technical terms. In more elaborate terms, if reading on art in Africa is for those who have gone to graduate school, it is no wonder that this information remains unavailable in local libraries, schools, bookshops, homes, and personal libraries across the continent. If history must become available it should be readable.

The real difficulty, for any art writer on the continent, is to know about exhibitions and artworks that happened, as Eddie Chambers says, quite very recently. If going to library archives, and personal libraries, is insufficient, they must go to find the actual artists who were in these exhibitions. The art writer, here, ceases to be a critic of current exhibitions and art productions, but they become a kind of curious “mad person” digging up the past. They go on an obscure, exciting, ridiculous adventure.

The available encounter with contemporary art in Africa is, today, shaped by moral and aesthetic postmodern philosophy from France and America. One doesn’t, in the most formal sense of an art catalogue, exhibition, or critical review, encounter art in Africa without, first being bombarded by colonial and postcolonial theories named above. At times, and often, art curators and writers turn even further back to Hegel, Kant, Leibniz, Hume, and even earlier to Artistotle! Even today, the encounter with art in Africa is shaped by a trajectory of Western philosophical discourse.

Therefore, how can I, as a writer on art in Africa, encounter the subject in new and exciting ways? How can I write about a 1977 artwork by a Ugandan or Kenyan sculptor or performance artist, aware of not only its postcolonial baggage, but also more precisely the wider body of cultural expression in which it was produced? How can I, as a writer, make culture in the 70s more available, palatable, readable?

From recent publications such as ‘Word! Word? Word! – IssaSamb and the Undeciferable Form’ a monograph on IssaSamb of the Sengalese art group Laboratoire Agit’ Art, curated by Koyo Kouohat Raw Material Company in Dakar, Senegal; the new monograph on ‘J. D. Okhai Ojeikere’ curated by Olabisi Silva at the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos;  ‘Ibrahim El Salahi: A Visionary Modernist,’ the monograph on the Sudanese modern artist Ibrahim El Salahi, written by Salah Hassan; a 54 countries Cultural Encyclopedia curated by Nana Offoriata Ayim at the Center for Cultural Research in Accra, Ghana. My encounter with visual art, here, exists in broader ways, that engage life, history, culture, fashion, architecture, poetry, popular music, and other forms of existence. Reading ‘Word!’ I am exposed to Issa Samb’s originally handwritten manifesto; I am for the first time reading a play that the artist wrote (which are real insights into the working methods of Laboratoire Agit’ Art); I am for the first time reading the poetry of Samb, an artist still stigmatized in Dakar for his political views under an earlier postcolonial regime. Reading ‘Ojeikere’ I am exposed to not only the famous 1970s ‘Hairstyle series’ but I am taken on a journey to see how ‘Pa Ojeikere’ (as he is fondly known in Lagos), made his work as an accurate and nuanced document of the times in which he lived.

These books, are not simply glossy art books, they are documents that show the exciting possibilities of artistic research, and the importance of innovative research in the writing process. Only when art writers on the continent become more adventurous and daring in their research, making choices that aren’t preaching to the choir of postcoloniality, will we discover a fuller and richer encounter with art in Africa.

Further Reading