Does the African art world have a centre?
Europe’s art capitals emerged as the most able to achieve visibility and the institutional validation of contemporary art from Africa. It appears this compelled, and was somewhat mitigated by, the ‘decolonising’ curatorial thrust driving the exhibitions studied in a new report by Corrigall & Co, a South African based art research consultancy. The New Art Examiner doesn’t print such reports outright but we are always interested in the political import of cultural trends. Redefining who we have become in direct reference top the slavers and empire builders our forefathers were, is gathering pace.
*Contemporary African Art Ecology: A Decade of Curating attempts to unravel the complex matrix of conditions that have contributed towards the exponential expansion of contemporary African art. It is a mouthful but it is essentially asking where and through which groups of people, places or types of institutions the prominence of art from Africa has taken place?
Unexpectedly, it is through identifying and tracking the work of Africa’s top curators, which include the late Okwui Enwezor and Bisi Silva, over a ten-year period (2007 to 2017) that insights into this embryonic market are gleaned. Curators are rarely the prism for information on art markets. However, for the African art market, the limitations – an absence of platforms for art in Africa and sustained institutional resistance to it in most western art centres – drove this niche group to generate platforms or adapt them.
The report found that from 2007 to 2017, Africa’s ‘top 20’ curators staged more exhibitions in Europe – 47% – than in Africa – only 37%.
These high-profile curators include the likes of Gabi Ncgobo, the South African who curated the 10th Berlin Biennale in 2018 and is on the selection committee for the artistic direction of documenta 15. Most were born in Africa and remain tethered to the continent through platforms, projects, or appointments, however, the wealth of opportunities in Europe’s historical art centres and the high visibility they offered them proved impossible to resist.
This coupled with their desire to insert the realities of postcolonial life in the Western art and visual canons and the paucity of contemporary museums in Africa are some of the factors that contributed towards this Eurocentric slant to the development and structure of the contemporary African art ecology.
As the Senegalese-born Koyo Kouoh, the newly appointed director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town observed: “I was concerned with the lack of visibility of artistic and intellectual ideas coming from Africa and its diaspora in a country such as Switzerland, where I was living. It is out of this perceived necessity – to make African related practices more visible – that I started organising discursive programmes,”m (Kouoh featured In Ocula, 2014).
Italy and France emerged as the countries in Europe that Africa’s top curators staged the most exhibitions. The importance of the Venice Biennale to the visibility of contemporary expression from Africa contributed to Italy, Venice, as a recurring ‘centre’, while museums in France, particularly Paris, informed the centrality of this country in the advancement of this ‘category’ of art. Simon Njami, the curator with Cameroonian roots, was found to be the most active in France, where he is based.
“El Anatsui had being doing huge metal sculptures in France in early 2000. I first saw them at ‘Africa Remix’ (curated by Njami). These are works that are big. We didn’t get to see them in Nigeria – we don’t have a national allery of modern art. It was difficult, or impossible to see them outside of his studio space, which does have tall walls. Those works therefore found recognition in the West in 2007, during the Venice Biennale, ten years before they did here, (in Nigeria and South Africa),” observed Silva, who was among many curators and other industry specialists interviewed for the report.
Nigeria’s prominence as an African ‘centre’ for curated exhibitions was unexpected given the study found the art capitals in South Africa to be the most evolved on the continent. This was, however, largely due to the industriousness of Nigerian curators such as Silva, who in founding CCA Lagos (2007) was able to produce an impressive number of curated shows in her native country, and Azu Nwagbogu, whose establishment of the Lagos Photo Festival in 2010, provided a consistent platform to generate conversations about photographic art.
Establishing platforms for art, whether centres, festivals or journals, was fundamental to the practice of 40% of the top curators, the study found.
The top 20 African curators were not simply focussed on making contemporary art from Africa more visible in Europe. The study found that, perhaps as a result of this geographic pattern, ‘decolonisation’ was a dominant curatorial interest. The main concerns driving the practices of lesser known curators based in Africa were staging ‘survey exhibitions’ and advancing feminist interests.
The report found that from 2007 to 2017, Africa’s ‘top 20’ curators staged more exhibitions in Europe – 47% – than in Africa – only 37%