Africa’s contemporary art change-makers – Who would feature at the top of your list?

A recent series of articles posted to the AADAT (African & Afro-Diasporan Art Talks) website features a selection of visual artists described as “14 Contemporary Artists Who Are Challenging the Definition of African Art.”

The listing was compiled by art historian Martina Dodd and (at the time of writing this blog) features the following 8 out of 14 leading lights  ( with the remaining 6 artists due to be published in the concluding section of the series later in the year):

Artwork from the series 'Tati. Self-Portraits' (1997) by Samuel Fosso, used as the title image for the Africa Remix (2004) exhibition catalogue (Hayward Gallery, London).
‘The Chief (the one who sold Africa to the colonists),’ from the series ‘Tati. Self-Portraits’ (1997) by Samuel Fosso. This artwork was the title image for the Africa Remix exhibition catalogue (Hayward Gallery, London, 2005).
  • Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  • Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  • Ousmane Sow (Senegal)
  • Sokari Douglas Camp (Nigeria)
  • Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) (Nigeria)
  • Romuald Hazoumé (Benin)
  • Hassan Musa (Sudan)
  • Ouattara Watts (Cote D’Ivoire/Ivory Coast)

Although not arranged into any particular hierarchy or rank order, the featured selection are nevertheless the product of the author’s own subjective musings about who should be considered as global change-makers and innovators within the context of contemporary African arts, and the list was deliberately not compiled according to a pre-determined set of aesthetic selection criteria against which prospective entrants might be assessed, compared and contrasted.

Writing in the introduction to the 4-part series Martina Dodd outlines its scope and purpose by announcing an intention to showcase:

“…14 contemporary artists who have and are still grappling with their identity as an ‘African’ or ‘Black’ Artist. The people on this list are as diverse in discipline as they are in culture.   Ranging from sculpture to photography, and hailing from Sudan to Cameroon.  Each artist, tackles personal and global topics of representation, identity, and self-discovery particular to Africa and those of the Diaspora. These 14 artists were chosen because they uniquely speak through their work to comfort and shock their audience into a deeper understanding of their heritage and contemporary life.”
– Martina Dodd – AADAT website, January 2014

Nigerian-British conceptual artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), photographed in his east London studio . Photographed for the Observer newspaper by Antonio Olmos (2012).
Nigerian-British conceptual artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), photographed in his east London studio . Photographed for the Observer newspaper by Antonio Olmos (2012).

Naturally, I agree with the inclusion of several  artists featured  in Martina’s list – not least the celebrated Nigerian-British Royal Academician, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and also Benin’s most avant-garde conceptual artist, Meschac Gaba – creator of the world-famous 12-room installation ‘Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002′.

Photograph of Beninese artist Meschac Gaba. Source of the image: http://www.bcomeblog.com/.
Photograph of Beninese artist Meschac Gaba. Source of the image: http://www.bcomeblog.com/.

 

However, I was disappointed that the introductory narrative appeared to elevate the artists’ contributions to identity politics above aesthetics as one of the key factors in the selection process (Surely, they are both as important as each other?); and I was equally also concerned by the presence of two familiarly problematic over-arching issues that  always seem to recur whenever African art enthusiasts based in the West survey the entire continent in such geographically reductive ways:

  • Firstly there is a prevailing regional bias towards West African artists in a selection which purports to be representative of a continent comprising more than 50 countries and island territories – with Nigeria the most over-represented nation. In comparison, there isn’t a single representative from southern Africa, the North African Maghreb region, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean island territories, or the eastern African nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
  • Secondly, there is a predictable bias towards male artists in the listing – with a 7:1 gender ratio established to compare and contrast the innovative work of seven men to one woman within the global arts arena. So, although I was delighted to see the Nigerian-British sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp on the list – and personally feel that her skill, vision and creativity as a metalwork artist are quite beyond comparison – she should not have been the sole female representative from such a vast continent that has an ever-increasing, internationally renowned pool of trailblazing, avant-garde women artists working across a range of genres, artistic media and aesthetic practices.
Artist Sokari Douglas Camp with two sculptures from the artwork 'Dressed to the Nines'. Photographer: Nate Boguszewski. Source: http://nbog.us/zewski/blogski/2012/10/light-moment-sokari-douglas-camp
Artist Sokari Douglas Camp with two of her sculptures from the artwork ‘Dressed to the Nines’ (Stux Gallery, New York). Photographer: Nate Boguszewski. Source: http://nbog.us/zewski/blogski/2012/10/light-moment-sokari-douglas-camp
Photograph of the Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu. in front of one of her abstract paintings. Source: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/visualarts/mehretu.html.
Photograph of the Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu. in front of one of her abstract paintings. Source: faculty.georgetown.edu/ irvinem/visualarts/mehretu.html.

So, aside from Sokari Douglas Camp, perhaps we should have also seen key names such as the Ethiopian abstract painter Julie Mehretu (shown right) and the Moroccan textile artist Safaa Erruas (shown below) – who are just a few of the outstandingly talented women who’ve been trailblazers for innovation and change on the African continent in recent years, and who have also used their artwork to address “global topics of representation, identity, and self-discovery particular to Africa” and the wider diasporas

Safaa_Erruas
Photograph of the Moroccan textile artist and installationist, Safaa Erruas. Photo: courtesy of the artist’s website at http://www.safaaerruas.com.

 

 

 

I’m not sure what is planned in Part 4 of Martina Dodd’s series…but the following women would definitely be on my list: the afore-mentioned Safaa Erruas (Morocco), the painter, curator and art historian Lubaina Himid MBE (Tanzania), abstractionist  Julie Mehretu (from Ethiopia, now based in the USA), the world-famous collagist, painter and sculptor Wangechi Mutu (Kenya), conceptual artist, photographer and installationist Mary Sibande (South Africa) and the textile sculptors Nnenna Okore and Victoria Udondian (both from Nigeria).

Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991), by Lubaina Himid MBE. Tate catalogue ref: T06947.
Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991), by Lubaina Himid MBE. Source of the image: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/himid-between-the-two-my-heart-is-balanced-t06947. Tate catalogue reference: T06947.

Equally, other male contemporary visual artists who would feature on my list of top 14 innovators from Africa (who’ve also had a significant global impact on aesthetic ‘turns’, art politics, emerging new conceptual art practices and representational techniques) would be: Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Joël Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), the “Master” El Anatsui (Ghana), Francis Pume (DRC), and the sculptor Cristóvão Canhavato “Kester” from Mozambique.

Throne of Weapons (2001) by Kester. Source: The British Museum - http://www.britishmuseum.org/.
Throne of Weapons (2001) by Kester. The artist used decommissioned weapons collected since the end of the civil war in Mozambique during 1992. Source: The British Museum – http://www.britishmuseum.org/.

In my opinion, this AADAT listing is not diverse or varied enough – in terms of artistic genres, regional/geographical representation across the African continent, techniques of application, range of media, or conceptual innovations, etc. With the notable exception of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, the listing is also a relatively safe and somewhat predictable presentation of established “usual suspects” drawn from the contributor lists and catalogue indexes of the major African art “mega-shows” that have been displayed in Europe and the USA since the late 1980s – including Magiciens de la Terre (Paris, 1989),  and Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (displayed in London, Paris, Düsseldorf, Tokyo, Johannesburg and Stockholm, 2004-2007).

Despite its predictability, this AADAT series still serves as a useful catalyst for sparking discussions and debates about the diversity, complexity and innovative brilliance of contemporary artists who have emerged (and continue to break through at a pace) from Africa and its diasporas.

Which artists would be at (or near) the top of your list of contemporary African art innovators and change-makers?

 

WEBSITE LINKS, FOR FURTHER INFORMATION::

To read more about Martina Dodd’s list of artists, please follow these links on the AADAT website to access the full-text of Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the 4-part series “14 Contemporary Artists Who Are Challenging the Definition of African Art.”

NB: Part 4 in this series is expected to be published via AADAT (http://aadatart.com/) later in the year.

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK).

5 thoughts on “Africa’s contemporary art change-makers – Who would feature at the top of your list?”

  1. Whao, thank you for this very important analysis of contemporary African artists. Now, I am deeply ashamed of myself for how little I know on this subject especially with women artists – must read up.

    Many thanks for enlightening us.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Folakemi. I welcome the opportunity to discuss contemporary art created by women artists from the African continent – and the wider African diasporas – on future occasions. I enjoy reading your blog posts – which are always insightful and informative. I am learning a lot from your social and cultural commentaries about Nigeria. With best wishes, Carol Dixon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Will Mr Okwui Enwezor @VENICE BIENNALE be really exposing ” THE CURRENT STATE OF THINKS “?
    and are the ” THE CURRENT STATE OF THINKS ” not connected to any Emergencies ? ( urgency ) would should address in real time

    The press release also mention : “How can the current disquiet of our time be properly grasped ” .
    Is n t the anwer the ART FORMATS ?
    Does the word “current “means ULTRACONTEMPORARY ( and not contemporary – in fact the contemporay as such is not curent at all )

    The response to the current will be EMERGENCY ART

    CONTEMPORANEITY [fr. contemporanité]

    Contemporaneity means essentially being in-time.
    Thus there can be no archive,
    no museum,
    no documents
    and no monuments
    of contemporaneity.
    Contemporaneity is essentially living.
    Or at least breathing.
    It is being in the sequel of events.
    Producing contemporary art means
    producing art now,
    today,
    at this very time.
    To produce art for a stock of works, is not contemporaneity.
    It is rather anticipating a rendez-vous of a future spectator
    in an archive of yesterday.
    Art is usually produced that way,
    continually evading the very moment
    of contemporaneity.
    At the same time, this is the moment
    in which the Emergency Artist wants
    to work.
    Thus the object for the Emergency Artist
    can be no archive or no museum.
    The object for the Emergency Artist is to establish a room or a space
    for exhibiting the works or pieces
    at the same day they are produced.
    In this sense the Emergency Artist is a performing artist.
    The Emergency Artist is performing his piece contemporary
    with it is being exhibited and it is being viewed.

    CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM [fr. Musée d’Art Contemporain]

    The Museum of Contemporary Art is a fake construction.
    There is no such thing.
    The idea is to fool the audience
    To make the audience believe that this hanged delay is “of today”.
    It is even worse
    It is a construction.
    To make us believe that the democracy generate
    it’s own critic
    in real time.
    But this is not true.
    We feel protected by having artist looking at the state of the world
    so we don’t spend time to be critical ourself
    Because we think they do it instead of us
    This is a fake safety.
    The contemporary is looking at nothing
    or is looking at past stuff
    or looking into it’s own navel.
    The contemporary museum wants to make us believe that the state
    (for instance)
    is interested in the problems of the suburbs
    But it is the opposite
    The contemporary museum is used to clean up the suburbs
    The contemporary museum is a diversion
    The contemporary museum is an abuse of confidence
    The contemporary museum is a scheme
    to inject killing confidence
    fake caringness
    and therefore apathy.

    http://www.emergencyrooms.org
    http://www.emergencyrooms.org/formats.html
    http://www.emergencyrooms.org/biennalist.html

    Like

    1. Thank you for responding to this article. You have posed a number of interesting and pertinent questions, which I welcome the opportunity to address – not with any definitive answers as such, but just a few observations and additional reflections to help take the conversation forward…

      With regard to your question about Okwui Enwezor, personally I don’t interpret his role as curator of the 56th Venice Biennale [http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/enwezor/] as one where he is tasked with “expos[ing] the current state of things”. On the contrary, the title of the 2015 biennial – “All the World’s Futures” – is expressed as a provocation (or an invitation) to artists and other affiliates to generate questions and explore fresh ideas that might be expressed in thought-provoking and stimulating ways. Enwezor is not attempting to impose any answers of his own (neither aesthetic, nor socio-political). The documentation published about the biennial openly states that ”All the World’s Futures” is a project devoted to encouraging fresh appraisals of “the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things”. “Current” in this context should not (and I believe does not) necessarily mean ultra-contemporary or emergent; it could equally incorporate retrospective reflections on the state of things that have already happened over a long period of time, as well as critiques on events in the present moment…across a range of contexts…and presented in diverse ways.
      All museums are constructions, and by prefacing this point with the term “fake” it appears to imply that anything other than the “museum of contemporary art” is somehow less than fake (‘authentic’ even?) Since their inception museums have been displaying artificial, imprecise, partial and partisan representations of what passes for reality for a privileged minority…merely holding up a mirror to gaze at reflections of ‘the Self’. Highlighting the artifice of the (Western) museum of contemporary art is precisely what Meschac Gaba does via his installation “The Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002” …and this is also the reason why Okwui Enwezor accurately describes the work wherever it is installed as “the cuckoo that lays its eggs in others’ nests” (for example, lease see the essay: Okwui Enwezor, O. (2013) ‘The Death of the African Archive and the Birth of the Museum: Considering Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art’, in Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary Art, ed. Kerryn Greenberg, London: Tate Publishing. p. 55).

      Also, when you write that “we feel protected…” by artists being responsive about the state of the world, who are the “we” you are referring to in this context? This is certainly not my view, or my experience… as artists seldom speak for (or even about) me in ways that could ever make me feel protected.

      I am grateful for the links you have provided to the EmergencyRooms.org web pages, which I have read with interest and will continue to (re-)visit in the future.

      Best wishes and thanks, once again, for contributing to the discussions on Museum Geographies. Kind regards, Carol Dixon

      Like

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