Anyone who saw the Guardian’s recent Edinburgh Festival review of Brett Bailey’s controversial installation ‘Exhibit B’ – featuring African men and women sitting inside cages, with labels stating “The blacks have been fed”, and others chained to chairs and beds in equally dehumanizing poses (seemingly to challenge audiences to reflect on the brutalities of European racism throughout the colonial era, and to specifically critique the violent practices and enduring legacies of the 19th century “human zoos”) – might be interested in the online petition that has been established to oppose and boycott its forthcoming display at the Barbican Centre in London (23rd – 27th September 2014).
The triptych, Quel Avenir Pour Notre Art?[What Future for Our Art?] (1997) by Congolese pop artist Chéri Samba (b. 1956) presents visual and textual representations of three significant stages in the artist’s life and career. Painted in acrylics in Samba’s characteristic comic strip style he combines self-portraiture, symbolic imagery and textual narratives to pose questions and offer personal perspectives about the history and politics of African art. This work is highly significant in terms of its content and its provenance because the scenes serve as a visual metaphor for the themes that lie at the heart of my doctoral research relating to the ‘othering’ of Africa within Western museums and galleries.
In the first painting Samba depicts himself and Pablo Picasso seated at separate tables, with the latter positioned in the foreground holding a pencil in his right hand next to an empty table covered with a geometrically patterned blue cloth, and the artist seated at the rear table which has four objects assembled on its florally decorated yellow cloth: two masks, a log of wood and a terracotta pot. The white text written above the scene questions the future of ‘our art’ in a world where artists are oppressed and also where, in order to gain international recognition in the art world, they (presumably Samba’s fellow Congolese artists, if not all artists of African descent, or from other areas of the francophone Global South) first have to be accepted in France. The statement closes with the question, ‘Isn’t the museum of modern art racist???’
The establishment of Dakar as a global centre for modern and contemporary arts on the African continent can be traced back to Senegal’s independence in 1960 and the particular interventions of Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor. By setting up a number of major national art institutions, and hosting large-scale international arts events in the capital city during the first decade of post-colonial independence, Senghor signalled that artistic modernism was to be one of the most prominent demonstrators of Senegal’s arrival as a ‘new’ nation-state on the world stage.
One of the most well written introductory texts exploring the significance of Senghor’s contributions to the development and consolidation of Senegal as an important geographical centre for contemporary (visual) arts in continental Africa is Elizabeth Harney’s work, ‘In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995’ (Harney, 2004). This book features succinct summaries of the major changes that took place during the first four decades of the post-colonial era – including the establishment of Dakar’s École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in 1960 and the hosting of the World Festival of Negro Arts (1er Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres)in 1966, through to the founding of the Dak’Art Biennale in 1992. More recent developments up to the first decade of the 21st century are also skilfully documented in Joanna Grabski’s Urban Claims and Visual Sources in the Making of Dakar’s Art World City (Grabski, 2009).
“The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me, there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western World.”
– Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), reflecting on life in Denmark during the CoBrA years, c.1948-50 (Obrist, 2010: 380)
In a similar way to the voices of anti-racist novelists, playwrights, performance poets and musicians from South Africa – not least the singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba, the novelist Mongane Wally Seroteand the poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, etc. – a number of contemporary visual artists have been highly influential in using art as a platform for commenting on the changing socio-economic and political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa.
Several early modernists whose work openly challenged the apartheid regime included the abstractionist and sculptor Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) – who was born in Johannesburg, but emigrated to study fine art in Paris, and later became one of the founder members of the influential CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) art movement; the abstract expressionist painter Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) – who in 1940 became the first black South African to have a painting exhibited in the Johannesburg Art Gallery; and the mixed-media illustrator and graphic designer Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba (known internationally as Dumile Feni) (1942-1991), who was often referred to as the ‘Goya of the townships’ because of the poignant monochromatic ballpoint pen drawings he created to comment on urban poverty and the struggles against apartheid (Peffer, 2009: 44). In more recent decades a number of new artists have also emerged from the Johannesburg art scene – largely as a result of the city’s hosting of two successful biennials in 1995 and 1997 that put South Africa on the art world map.
We met at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, where his installation piece African Icons (1987) was on display as part of a retrospective of works by UK contemporary artists – titled, As Exciting as We Can Make it:Ikon in the 1980s (2 July — 31 August 2014).
The focus of our conversation was an exploration and critical appraisal of the extent to which black British artists have experienced marginalisation and exclusion as regards their place within the nation’s contemporary visual arts canon, using Eddie Chambers’ own experiences of creating and exhibiting work since the early 1980s as a point of departure.