Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

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A sculptural installation and photographic print from the series “The Purple Shall Govern” (2013) and the more recent performance installation “Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017), by South African artist Mary Sibande. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House in London, between Thursday 5th and Sunday 8th October. Now in its fifth year, the event featured contributions by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, presented alongside a programme of stimulating talks and panel discussions led by arts scholars, curators, gallerists and cultural commentators drawn from around the world.

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“Wielding the Collision of Past, Present and Future” (2017) – detail from a digital print illustrating a performance installation by South African conceptual artist Mary Sibande (b. 1982, Barberton, SA). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Building on the successes of previous editions of 1:54, shown in London, New York and Morocco since 2013, this edition provided access to a broad range of new works by established artists and emerging new talent from 17 nations – including notable contributions from the celebrated painter and collagist Godfried Donkor from Ghana; textile artist and mixed media installationist Safaa Erruas from Morocco; metalwork sculptor and anti-war activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique; and the internationally renowned textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali, most well-known for creating breath-taking, large-scale ‘offrandes’ out of delicate fragments of fabric stitched together to create multicoloured fine art tapestries.

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Summer Surprise (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou, displayed in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House as a commissioned installation for the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In a similar way to the impression Zak Ove’s commissioned installation piece “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) created a visually arresting centre-piece for the courtyard at Somerset House last year, the major architectural installation shown in the Fountain Court was “Summer Surprise” (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon. This vast, wooden-framed structure is described by the artist as referencing and symbolising the function of a”Toguna” – a traditional public building native to Mali, built for the purpose of discussing community and constitutional issues, and usually located at the heart of village life to enable it to serve as a key meeting point for debate and intellectual exchange.

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Portrait of London grime artist and MC, Olushola Ajose (aka Afrikan Boy) , by Hassan Hajjaj, presented as part of the three-room installation “La Caravane” (2017) at Somerset House. Photo: Carol Dixon.

An important feature of this year’s fair was the interactive installation created by Morocco-born, UK-based artist Hassan Hajjaj, displayed in three rooms adjacent to the terrace on the ground floor at Somerset House. Titled “La Caravane” (2017), this work featured a series of large, full-colour photographic portraits and also a sequence of videos presented as interactive portraits along the length of the central gallery, showing musicians, dancers, singers and poets dressed in colourful outfits and performing extracts of their work in studio settings framed by customised textiles and soft furnishings. This central gallery was also designed as an auditorium, where visitors could sit and listen to the performances as though they were sitting in a Moroccan tea room being entertained by live artists. Continue reading Review of the 2017 edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London

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Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Exhibition view of the metalwork installation “Forgotten’s Tears” (2013), by the Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba (b. Kinshasa, DRC, 1967). Photo: Carol Dixon

During mid-August 2017 I was very pleased to visit the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille to view curator Simon Njami’s thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, paintings, films, sculptures and architectural installations by 30 contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the African diasporas. This spectacular and wide-ranging group show – Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope] (Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, France, 6th April – 3rd September, 2017) – was conceptualised and presented as the second chapter (or, ‘Episode Two’) of a curatorial project that began at the Grande Halle de la Villette in east Paris, and was later transposed and repurposed to fit this alternative setting of a disused freight goods railway terminal on the outskirts of Lille.

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The introductory information panel for the exhibition Afriques Capitales [Capital Africas], curated by Simon Njami, displayed at the entrance to Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille. Photo: Carol Dixon (August 2017)
At its heart, Afriques Capitales presented a series of inter-connected art-political, historical and geographical narratives about the push and pull of migration, the precariousness of trans-national journey-making, and people’s hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges as they strive to secure a better existence and improved life chances for themselves and their loved ones as a result of moving to different locations – and, potentially also, alternative environments assumed to provide increased safety, security, sanctuary and/or new opportunities.

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Detail from the architectural installation “I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Since first becoming aware of Simon Njami’s writing and critical analysis of modern and contemporary African art, his editorship of the celebrated art magazine Revue Noire, and his extensive international curatorial practice over the past two decades, I have subsequently followed his progress with keen interest – making regular visits to different exhibition spaces and institutional settings to immerse myself in the stories and assemblages he and his contributing artists generate to provoke new discussions and dialogues about aspects of the universal human condition. All these observations and experiences are, of course, considered and refracted through the complex prism (or ‘optic‘) of colonialism, and its enduring legacies in the present day – reflected upon at the site of the individual (as regards my personal, affective/emotional responses to each artwork); at the level of the nation-state; as a trans-continental conversation between Europe as the site of display, and Africa (including its diasporas) as the creative locus and originating point of departure for these featured exhibits; and also in terms of global discourses about travelling and journey-making to the many elsewheres represented in the featured displays – both near and far; real and imagined.

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“I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

As soon as I walked through the entrance gates at Gare Saint Sauveur and saw the large-scale architectural structure of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s  installation, “I am Free” (2012), I knew I was entering a creative space where the curator had encouraged all the participating visual artists to be bold and expressive on a monumental scale: in other words, giving all the artists and collectives complete licence to think creatively without limits and, in turn, exhort and inspire visiting audiences walking through the exhibition space to respond in kind. In consequence, I required no prompting to run to the top of the temporary staircase erected at both ends of the white-walled, Minaret-like construction to stand on its central platform with my arms outstretched, enacting the declarative statement “I’m Free!” In doing so,  I was also able to imagine that I had become one with the vast, black painted bird’s wings, beautifully and fluidly drawn at either side of the neon lighting, and taken flight into a different realm.

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Calao (2016), by the Malian textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté. The Calao represents a mythical and protective bird that, within the Bambara cultural and spiritual traditions of the past, is believed to carry dead souls to the afterlife. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.

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Delegates at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, Linna Building, University of Tampere, Finland. 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The  conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy

The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.

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Professor Paul Gilroy speaking at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe. Continue reading African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

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An exterior view of the venue for Episode 1 of “Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas,” exhibited at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 23 March – 28 May 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The curatorial challenge Simon Njami set for himself when conceptualizing the exhibition “Afriques Capitales“[“Capital Africas”] was to provide a discursive, dialogical space where contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the wider global African diaspora(s) could come together to “invent the city of all cities: a city that belongs to no one but in which everyone can find their own personal bearings” (Njami, 2017: 19).

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“The Minaret” (2012) by Egyptian artist and arts activist Moataz Nasr. This illuminated sculptural installation was displayed on the ground floor of the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The results of this creative, cross-cultural and pluralist dialogue manifested in the form of  a large-scale, international group show of contemporary visual art presented in two episodes (or “chapters”) across expansive exhibition spaces in Paris and Lille:

  1. The first phase (or “Chapter 1”) comprised more than 100 works by 50 artists at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris – sub-themed “Afriques Capitales, Métropolis: C’est beau une ville la nuit” and  “Intermezzo: un projet stéréophonique, ” 23 March – 28 May 2017 (discussed in further detail, below).
  2. The second episode (or “Chapter 2”) – titled, “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance” / “Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope” – displayed work by a further 20 artists, combined with additional works by 12 of the same participants from the Paris strand of the exhibition, presented at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille (discussed and illustrated online at: http://www.lille3000.eu/gare-saint-sauveur/2017/), 6 April – 3 September 2017.
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Detail from the vivid red wall hanging “Alep” (2016) by Malian textile sculptor and painter Abdoulaye Konaté, displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017).

“Referring to Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 billion poems, Roland Barthes reminds us of that essential truth: there is never one city, but always several cities in one – a multiplicity of possible combinations.

[“Roland Barthes, en évoquant les 100 000 milliards de poèmes de Raymond Queneau, nous rappelle cette vérité essentielle: il n’y a jamais une ville, mais des villes.”]

Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, 2017)

Continue reading Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

Conference Panel: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

Carol Ann Dixon will chair a 90-minute conference session on decolonial scholar-activism by African and Diasporan artists, curators and educators working with collections of ethnography and works of fine art in Western museums. This session forms part of the programme for the 6th biennial network conference Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 – 8 July 2017.

Session title: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change

"Anthropomorphic head" (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon
“Anthropomorphic head” (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon

Overview:
High-profile museums and galleries in the West – such as the British Museum in London, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMA in New York – are continuously revising and developing new strategic plans  to ensure that their collections, cultural programmes and exhibiting practices are engaging increasingly diverse global audiences. At the heart of these developments are complex issues about the changing nature of acquisitioning, curation, display and interpretation of artworks and cultural objects described as permanent holdings. The policies and practices implemented by these institutions serve as catalysts for generating and sustaining a rich discourse that invites artists, researchers, curators, archivists, educators, scholar activists and other creative practitioners to question their own roles and responsibilities within such dynamic museumscapes.

In this panel discussion, museologists, art historians, contemporary artists, scholars, educators and cultural  commentators from around the world will come together to discuss these issues with reference to one (or more) of the following questions:
Continue reading Conference Panel: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation