'Africa Remix' third panel discussion: 'On African contemporaneity, aesthetics, practices and debates: a conversation with African intellectuals'
by Landi Raubenheimer
The third panel discussion in a series of five on the 'Africa Remix' exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), centered on the idea of African contemporaneity, and was advertised as a 'conversation with African intellectuals'. On the evening, each panel member - Sanya Osha, Tom Odhiambo, Sipho Seepe and Thembinkosi Goniwe - delivered opening addresses to the capacity audience at the Richard Ward building at Wits University. The panel discussion was punctuated by contributions from journalist and editor Sean O'Toole, JAG Director Clive Kellner and academic and postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe.
Osha opened by discussing briefly different forms of art practice in Nigeria, highlighting the unique qualities of Nollywood, Nigeria's burgeoning film industry. He pointed out that the practice of art relied on the creation of an audience as much as the creation of the artwork itself. It seems that if anything, 'Africa Remix' had created for itself such an international audience (although arguably, it is the audience themselves who conceived of the exhibition and not the artists who had created the audience). Odhiambo followed with a heated address attacking the Kenyan government's lack of support for emerging artists. He also spoke about authenticity, and the lack thereof in the 'Africa Remix' exhibition. He went on to say that many of the artists on 'Africa Remix' were not residents of the continent, and that their representation of African identity was inauthentic.
I found this a reductive comment. One has to approach the issue of identity and geographic location with caution. Seepe pointed out that residents of townships, the mass population of the continent, do not doubt their African identity. It is only those 'outside' that dwell on their African-ness (whether the 'they' Seepe was referring to meant economically privileged, educated, or geographically removed from the continent, was unclear).
The discussion of belonging in Africa or being 'truly' African made me think back to the initial review I wrote of the exhibition. I attempted to unravel strands of meaning from certain artworks that dealt with identity, and specifically the issues of being 'inside' or 'outside' Africa. I asked the question: who belongs 'inside' and who belongs 'outside'? In retrospect I see what a dangerous question this is. The project of postcolonialism (if a concrete project as Bhabha theorises it indeed exists) is to subvert concrete definitions of binary opposites such as 'outsider' or foreigner, and 'insider' or native. Goniwe later pointed out that the panel was rehashing political and colonial debates and imposing these on the exhibition rather than taking the artworks at face value and centering the discussion around the practice of art-making in contemporary Africa. Are ideas of 'insiders and outsiders' indeed harking back to a colonial manner of thinking? Should we move them aside and simply look at artworks?
One may ask: does the very existence of an exhibition entitled 'Africa Remix' not point to a 'neocolonial urge' masquerading as postcolonial discourse? The notion of museum display is closely interwoven with colonial history and Western fascination with exotic cultures. It is questionable whether African art can come into its own within the existing canon of museum display and European fine art. Similarly, other exhibitions for 'previously marginalised' art practitioners like women, have been criticised for reinforcing the stereotyping of difference they were purportedly attempting to allay. Furthermore, what effect does the museum as institution have on such supposedly postcolonial agendas?
Goniwe was quick to attack museums as forums for such projects. He said that African art was not produced for museums and the notion of having to award an exhibition of this scale to African art said less about African art practice than about the Western or European conventions of art consumption and production. He pointed out that 'black people don't go to galleries and museums'. While this is a shockingly dubious generalisation I think that he has a point. It seems that the more colonialism's effects are addressed, the less the West can successfully address its own history in this regard. One has to wonder if there is anything the Western world can do with regards to African art. Should Europe just mind its own business? Goniwe is skeptical of donors or benefactors, whether towards Africa or its art. Donations and aid as such, he suggested, do not come without a price.
Goniwe went on to say, in the second round of the discussion, that Africa is always explaining itself to the West, and that it is always looking at itself and trying to compare itself to European standards. I disagree. The project of colonialism and subsequently postcolonialism is not about the former colonies. It is about the West, the coloniser. The West is constantly attempting to understand itself, and was delineating itself in terms of the Lacanian Other in its colonial pusuits. Now that there is no more Other (although this is arguable) the West seems to feverishly want to integrate the difference of other cultures into its understanding of itself. This self-centeredness is what lies at the crux of the postcolonial debate. 'Africa Remix' then, is possibly less about Africa than European relationships with Africa.
Kellner sounded very confident when he responded to the panel by saying that museums were apolitical, neutral spaces. While I am sure he is familiar with museum discourse and the ideological nature of museum space, I think that this is a rose-coloured viewpoint. Whether 'Africa Remix' can represent Africa's contemporary art practice is not really the question. Whether the term contemporary can apply to African art seems a more useful question. Can African art be interpreted at all through a Western museum institution or terminology so specific to European art history? Should it be? Who may answer this? Seepe made a very valid point when he said that so-called African intellectuals often assume that they speak for Africa. Most of these intellectuals are educated in the Western world. This is the fundamental paradox for African artists as well. They may find themselves straddling two worlds: the established European discourse of art production, and African traditions of art production. Now that Africa has met Europe it can never completely distance itself from Western 'economics', 'education', and 'art'. What remains unclear is what the next step is for African artists.
Mbembe expressed the belief that European art is becoming more like African art. He spoke about the dissolving of boundaries between cultures, and questioned the relevance of geographic location when examining one's sense of identity. While globalisation is certainly an issue, I think that geographic location is both essential and arbitrary in one's understanding of one's culture. Mbembe also pointed out the myth of contemporaneity for Africa. He believes the continent sees itself in three larger timeframes: pre-colonial harmony, corrupt colonialisation and contemporary yearning for pre-colonial harmony. The idyllic pre-colonial Africa seems as much a myth as the idyllic African wilderness of the colonial explorer. Sean O'Toole's naïat;ve suggestion of 'travel' as a tool in resolving one's interpretation of 'other' cultures echoed this misguided yearning for exploration and discovering the supposed 'truth' about other people and 'their culture'.
In the end, the evening's long-winded discussion seemed to indicate to me that 'Africa Remix' is fraught with difficulty. It is hazardous to write about the debates it embodies. Words and concepts such as 'the West' and 'Europe' are as vague and problematic as the name Africa, and the issue of being 'an African'. I feel myself very much an African, but I cannot help but wonder what Goniwe would say about that. Can anyone get beyond the problematic legacy of African colonialisation? Not yet it seems, and not anytime soon.
Opens: June 24
Closes: September 30
Landi Raubenheimer is an artist, freelance writer and a lecture at the Design Centre in Greenside, Johannesburg
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