The Significance of Language in Contemporary African Art Criticism
William Kentridge, detail from Untitled (Whispering in the Leaves), 2016. Indian ink on found paper.
9 drawings. 36.5 x 41.5 cm each. Goodman Gallery booth. Photo Another Africa/Joseph Underwood.
Since its debut in 1994, the Armory Show art fair has been known for dazzling audiences with the latest offerings of modern and contemporary art. For the 2016 edition, organizers commissioned Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, founders of Contemporary&, to curate the fair’s invitational section, the Armory Focus.
This year’s edition, entitled Focus: African Perspectives, featured fourteen African artists presented by their respective galleries, along with a three-day symposium and eight special projects scattered throughout the Pier 92 and 94 venues.
Although the initial urge when writing an analysis of a major art fair is to address the visual cacophony, such an exercise would result in little more than a futile laundry list of participants accompanied by trite descriptions of the flashiest exhibitors. But for many in attendance, the visual element of the fair was matched or exceeded by the lingual and textual conversations surrounding African art—the language used to frame it, describe it, dissect it, sell it. This observation led to what would eventually become my guiding question in analyzing Africa’s presence at the Armory Show: as we listen to the experts and elite—the curators, collectors, critics, and even the artists themselves—discuss these contemporary works, what message about “Africa” is being conveyed to a public largely unfamiliar with accurate, contemporary perspectives from the continent and its diaspora?
Based on the comments shared by Armory glitterati at the symposium, this was their first encounter with African art and the advances in the field that distance these creations from colonial tropes and modern stereotypes. Therefore, the language used in conjunction with African art now has great impact in defining the contemporary Western art circuits because there are still entire populations who require not only an introduction, but a sort of reprogramming in how to discuss Africa. As I noted how the so-called experts on African art framed the art and artists in the Armory Show and its corollary events, two main trends of language emerged—one being the inheritor of a troubling vocabulary, and the other a productive, complex network of locally-rooted perspectives.
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok. Close To Home exhibition installation view, The Walther Collection. Photo Another Africa/Joseph Underwood.
The first theme that prevailed at the Armory Show focused on African art as a booming new market, an exciting venture for the art world, and a promising investment for collectors—the latest chase. While this language is not surprising, given that the context is a multi-national art fair brimming with galleries looking to make a sale, the vocabularies are eerily reminiscent of colonial expansionism. Several recent articles highlight the rapid expansion of the market surrounding contemporary African art in the last five years and artists from Africa have been gaining traction with solo and group shows in major museums. The 2015 edition of the Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, garnered glowing reviews for its inclusion of artists of color or those from the Global South—with Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor at the helm of this critical reshuffling. Collecting is on the rise as art fairs, including 1:54, AKAA, and the Armory Show, choose to feature African artists, sometimes even represented by one of the galleries from the nascent art market on the continent.
The spirit of this new scramble for Africa greeted me at the fair registration desk as the attendant pointed out the “exciting” inclusion of African art and it continued to be most legible in the voices of certain gallerists and even some panelists of the symposium—a fact reiterated by the presenters of the well-curated ‘Writing About Art from African Perspectives’ session. Moderator Neelika Jayawardane, Arts and Culture Editor at Africa is a Country, and panelist Lerato Bereng, Associate Director at Stevenson Gallery, noted the recent excitement around Africa as a source of ingenuity but also the circular nature of the discussion that tries to define a monolithic, unitary “Africa.” They noted that the market’s current vocabulary surrounding African art is one of innovation, export, and neo-exoticism. Bereng implores those in the field to not only change the conversation, but to also find ways of engaging differently and crafting a new language. For her, “language fails so often” and yet remains a liminal space wherein the confusion and slippage might actually lead to new possibilities.
In a corollary event, Artur Walther, the notable collector of Asian and African photography, welcomed a score of VIP attendees at his Chelsea venue, The Walther Collection Project Space, an experimental branch of the core collection housed in Neu-Ulm, Germany. Walther’s presentation focused on his acumen as a collector, recounting the intrepid trek he made through Africa in the 1990s—accompanied by a young Okwui Enwezor. Repeatedly using terms like “found” and “discovered,” Walther’s words—intentionally or not—cast a pallor of conquest over his presentation of uncovering and acquiring African photography. There is a type of savior syndrome at play when a German-American collector insinuates that his actions have lifted African photographers out of ruin and obscurity and into the new canon of art—in glossy catalogues published by his own foundation. While this is not a critique against the exhibitions mounted by the Walther Collection, which are generally of exceptional quality and do indeed advance the careers and interests of African photographers, the self-congratulatory tone echoes the rhetoric of aid used by NGOs, or the voice of the authoritative colonial anthropologist.
A similar language of Western authority concerning contemporary African art was used by Romanian gallerist Catinca Tabacaru who spoke in the place of Zimbabwean artist Misheck Masamvu (just one of many participants denied entry by the U.S. Visa Office) during the symposium. She recounted her shock at discovering the quality of artistic production in Zimbabwe through the nation’s pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Upon returning to the space for the 2015 edition—only to be wowed again—she decided that her gallery, which she describes as “interested in authenticity,” would invest in the art scene of Harare. This initiative manifested as an artist residency collaboration which then led to the Zig Zag Zim exhibition concurrent with the Armory Show. Describing her role in the boom of the African art market, Tabacaru stated that “the West is looking at African art because it’s exciting… exotic.” Corresponding to the problematic history of Western art being rejuvenated by discovering African creations, she then discussed how African art is marketed in her gallery and more generally—it comes from a unique situation, carries political overtones, and responds against “art for art’s sake bullshit.” Tabacaru implies that Western art has become too dry, intellectual, and abstracted—the vocabulary she employs asks the listener to focus on the alterity of the African works and grasp not just the artists’ innovation, but how their innovation might be of use to Western consumers and collectors.
Though the theme of Africa as an exotic new market with a high selling point was one recurring theme, both in official Armory events and in countless fair-goers’ comments directly to artists, a second, more generative, language emerged in the discussion of African art at the Armory. These voices were concerned with specificity and took great care in defining parameters for an audience that remains oblivious to what Africa is and isn’t; some of these voices completely avoided the descriptor “African” in their vocabularies.
ruby onyinyechi amanze, The Gift [a room of our own], 2015. Graphite, ink, photo
transfers, fluorescent acrylic, colored pencils, 50 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Nengi Omuku, He wanted her to change, 2016. Oil on canvas, 120 × 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Curators Grosse and Mutumba provided some of the most interesting and effective vocabularies for discussing contemporary perspectives from Africa. Pushing back against the anachronistic images that haunt Africa in popular culture and parlance, they managed to create a space that facilitated dozens of individual, specific, complex histories, even within the larger cadre of a glitzy art fair. In their Curators’ Statement, they gave autonomy to the artists and educated the average fair attendee on the necessity of recognizing the countless experiences that define a contemporary African. “The artists included in Focus: African Perspectives are contemporary AND painters, performers, Senegalese, Nigerian-born, schooled in London, living in Paris. The combinations are endless and in constant flux.”
Beyond the official publication they produced for the Armory, Grosse and Mutumba released the 5th print edition of C&, dedicating this issue to the polyphony of perspectives that are reshaping the conversation—the most significant of which might be the artists whose response to ‘defining Africa’ is to not engage in the circuitous conversation. In an interview with Brooklyn-based artist ruby onyinyechi amanze, she acutely describes the problematic effects of consistently referring to black Diasporic artists and African artists:
“I think it’s dangerous territory that these “groups” even exist… The similarity of skin color (possibly) and, of course, the global and historic ways in which others have responded (and sometimes still do) to brown-skinned peoples are in some ways the only connection these two groups have (other than just being human)… I think there is an excitement about what Black and African artists are doing right now, but only in separation from what everyone else is doing. It’s tricky, because visibility is important, but so is inclusion.”
Holding equally tight to vocabularies of specificity and individualized narratives was artist Nengi Omuku. During the symposium, she addressed the threat of homogenization of style or content as a death knell to contemporary African art, stating that her work speaks only to issues tied to herself and her close circle. Distancing herself from being a representative of Africa at large, or even Nigeria as a whole, Omuku prefers the term ‘artist’ over ‘African artist’ for the historical baggage and unrealistic representation contained by the latter identifier.
Francisco Vidal’s installation (detail view), 2016. Mixed media. Tiwani Contemporary booth. Photo Another Africa/Joseph Underwood.
Through the framework created by Grosse and Mutumba, visitors were treated to a more nuanced definition of contemporary African production than the descriptor “African art” conveys. The selection of fourteen artists allowed distinct personalities to shine in each booth—from Francisco Vidal’s vibrant installation concerned with machines, reproducibility, and mobility in Angola’s nascent art scene, to Ato Malinda’s masking and performances that explore manifestations of queer identity in Nairobi and beyond. There was no single prevalent style; there was zero thematic homogeneity. Enriching the conversation beyond Africa of the last five years, the curators included acclaimed Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi and Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams as a resounding statement that arts from Africa have always played a role in shaping the modern global economy—both as firsthand actors in their unique contexts and as inspiration to the following generations of creators.
Ed Young, ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN (front and rear views), 2015. Mixed media installation.
Courtesy of SMAC Gallery. Photo Another Africa/Joseph Underwood.
Two of the special artist projects installed throughout the Armory venue directly employed language as a means of pushing back against the commodification of the label “African” and challenged viewers to adopt a more nuanced language. Ed Young’s ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN was hung at the entrance of Pier 92 and its boldface declaration might have been the most instagrammed sight of the fair. The explicit phrase decries the persistent Western homogenization of Africa as a mythic, monolithic culture. Young demands that his audience confronts their unrelenting tendency to condense the label “African” to derogatory stereotypes of lagging behind the modern world. The reverse side, initially conceived to read BLACK PUSSY as a critique of the Armory’s exoticizing exploitation of African art, states NOT ME IT’S YOU. Antagonizing the elite fairgoers, Young lays the burden of responsibility on them to reassess their vocabularies and antiquated categorizations. It’s an assertion that the means of remedying the tired and inaccurate representations of Africa lie heavily in Western audiences and institutions. Poignantly, the audience interaction with the work consisted of either those who amusedly snapped a photo, or those who failed to notice the installation at all.
Karo Akpokiere, Alternate Art Fair (front and installation views), 2016. Mixed media. Photos Another Africa/Joseph Underwood.
The other specially curated project was an interactive installation by graphic artist Karo Akpokiere. Alternate Art Fair offered a space for biting sarcasm and playful critique of the model of the art fair and its problematic framework, and especially how they employ artists of historically discriminated populations as exotic fodder for bored Western audiences. The curators’ method of combatting neo-primitivism resounded successfully as Akpokiere employed text—such as “ALWAYS EMERGING/NEVER ESTABLISHED”—illuminating the marketing slogans that cast Africa as a site of innovation. However, such language doubly function to keep minority producers from becoming too mainstream, or guarding their supposed authenticity from foreign contamination. Akpokiere’s work also speaks directly to language as a means of categorizing contemporary Africans as Others. “DER, DIE, DAS… NO MATTER HOW WELL YOU MASTER YOUR GRAMMAR AND PERFECT YOUR PRONUNCIATION, YOU WILL FOREVER REMAIN AN AÜSLÄNDER” (sic). Sitting stalwart opposite the Pommery champagne bar, Akpokiere’s piece evolved over the four days of the fair, resolutely speaking to the difficult tensions between African art and the language employed by the art market.
In privileging the voices of talented, thoughtful artists, Grosse and Mutumba carved out spaces for genuine reflection on the ways the contemporary art market thinks and speaks about African art. By encouraging vocabularies related to specific sites of art-making that constantly collide with the larger global context, the curators enacted a constant fragmentation of monolithic Africa. While the Armory and most of its public remained heavily rooted in the problematic language of Africa as a site for investment, profit, and collectability, the Focus section actually seemed to complicate how we situate African art’s value—an endeavor with multiple layers in the context of an art fair. The importance of contemporary criticism and language surrounding African art was embodied in the observations of Emmanuel Iduma and Sean O’Toole, the other panelists from the ‘Writing About Art from African Perspectives’ session. Iduma, member of Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project and managing editor of its related publication, spoke about criticism as a gift and a labor of love. Words are extremely valuable and he asserts that we must mine the language of the past in order to know how contemporary speech should be crafted. O’Toole, veteran art critic from South Africa, framed silence as a necessary skill when crafting language about art; once in a place of silence, then you have a platform from which to speak. Interestingly, both speakers warned of oversimplifying language in an attempt to reach every potential audience. One is “giving up the gift of language if you are too simple and accessible,” cautions O’Toole; Iduma echoed that it was “a disservice to language to think everyone should be able to read it.” To speak about and define the arts of Africa—whether it be the context of a commercial art fair, an academic publication, or popular museum exhibition—is indeed a formidable challenge, and the vocabularies we employ not only shape the expectations of present and future audiences, but also have the power to conjure old demons or put them to rest.
Written by Joseph Underwood.
Editor’s Note (2015.05.09)
This article was modified to address factual inconsistencies on comments made during the ‘Writing About Art from African Perspectives’ panel. A description of the market’s current vocabulary being genocidal and imperialist was incorrectly attributed to panel moderator Neelika Jayawardane.