To Be or Not to Be [African] Is That Even The Question, Identity in Contemporary Art Practice in Africa and the Diaspora

Benjamin Disraeli once said that “news is that which collides from the North, East, West, and South, and if it comes from only one point on the compass, then it is a class publication and not news.” Transpose the word news with ‘African’ identity, and then point the compass from the West,  and understandably the result would be a hijacked narrative based on the subject as ‘Other,’  one that preempts the protagonist from his or her own story.

© Athi Patra-Ruga. Even I Exist in Embo: Jaundiced Tales of Counter penetration # 7, 2007.
Photographer Oliver Neubert. Courtesy of Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town.


This has certainly been the case within contemporary art discourse and practice particularly for the diaspora. It has been a space where time and time again the geographical provenance of an artist has become the aesthetic value by which to define his or her work.

Undoubtedly it was this very assignation that lead renown artist Hassan Musa to decline the invitation to the 5th Biennale in Lyon back in 2000, a show curated under the thematic title  Partage d’exotismes (Sharing Exoticism). Musa wrote the following with respect to his declination:

“African art is an enormous ethical misunderstanding, which I try to take advantage of without aggravating; but this leaves me with only a narrow margin for maneuver. Personally as an artist born in Africa, but with no urge to bear the burden of the African artist, I know that the only opportunities open to me present my work in public outside Africa are of the “ethnic” type, where people assign to me the role of “the other African” in places designed for the kind of seasonal ritual where a certain kind of Africa is “in favour”. It is a situation which is not lacking in ambivalence, and which gives me the impression of being a hostage to this strange machine which integrates African-born artists into the world of art, while at the same time shunting them off into a category apart.” [1]


How can we eclipse the term African?


The use of the term Africa and its artistic production implications led to the question, ‘how can we eclipse the term African?’ Is it a growing trend for artists to counter such a word to define their practice or their person? This line of questioning, a continuation of Another Africa’s three part In Focus series on the contemporary art fair format where we field question to the very protagonists who like Hassan Musa may be affected by such narratives. We ask artists and art practitioners thematically and or aesthetically engaging with Africa to share their thoughts. Is the question to be or not be African after all.



Kisito Assangni | artist . curator


For me the term African as an identity is absolutely linked to how one understands the self through intellectual and psychological processes.


Kisito Assangni is a Togolese-French curator, producer and visual artist who studied photography, art history and museology. Currently living between London, Paris and Lomé, his practice primarily focuses on psycho-geography and post-globalisation impact on contemporary african cultures. His projects have been shown internationally, including the Whitechapel Gallery, London; Arnot Art Museum, New York; Torrance Art Museum, Torrance, USA;

Musée des Arts Derniers, Paris; Malmo Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow; Pori Art Museum, Pori, Finland; Motorenhalle Centre for Contemporary Art, Dresden, Germany; Stiftelsen 3.14, Bergen, Norway among others. Assangni was also member of jury of the Award LETTERS FROM THE SKY in Cape Town (South Africa) as well as the 28th Prix VIDEOFORMES in Clermont-Ferrand (France).


Godfried Donkor | artist


For me,there is no need to eclipse the term African.


Godfried Donkor is a Ghanaian artist living and working in London. He is known primarily for his work in collage.

He has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, both in the United States and in Europe and at the 2001 Venice Biennale and is in collections, such as the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution



Christine Eyene | art historian . critic . curator


It is not a growing trend. It has been on forever and we are all exhausted about this labeling. Take the example of Gerard Sekoto once again. When he first exhibited in South Africa in the late 1930s, the reviews were always torn between appraising his work as that of an “African” (Black South African) or as a practitioner influenced by European art. More so when he settled in Paris in 1947.

You find the same sort of debates pre and post-Independence with the advocating of various forms of African cultural nationalisms.

Closer to our time we have to acknowledge that, had there not been the first wave of curators who reclaimed our own voices as African practitioners, artists, critics, curators, we would still be fighting the same battle.

Yes today we can claim a professional legitimacy and relevance that goes beyond our cultural background. [And as I mentioned before,] that is why I always prefer to work in Africa because this question is not relevant over there. The African artists are simply contemporary artists.

I think it is also down to what interpretation artists and art writers give of the work of African and Diaspora artists. And I am mentioning the Diaspora because the same question arose from Black art practices in Britain. I address this question in the conclusion of my essay “Embedded in the Fabric” published in the catalogue of “We Face Forward”:

“Contemporary African art has been present on the global art scene long enough for imaginary forms stemming from creative minds to be apprehended first and foremost through the intrinsic nature and the intricate relations between form, medium and space, before being loaded with the burden of history and cultural specificity.” [2]

One of the reasons I am currently focusing on artists’ creative processes ( in process: immaterial proposal) lies indeed in my interest in visual or sensory elements, and the process of art making, beyond limitative cultural enclosures, unless they are specifically relevant. The more we will produce such interpretative material, the more likely this labeling is bound to disappear. But I think it will take quite a while before we achieve this.


Christine Eyene (b. Paris, 1970) After earning a D.E.A. in History of Art at University Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne in 1999 with Philippe Dagen, she was selected for the Programme Young Cultural Professionals of AFAA (Culturesfrance) to train with French curator Nadine Descendre at the French Institute of Rabat, Morocco. There she worked on exhibitions of artists Christian Boltanski, Alain Fleischer, Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat and designer Pierre Paulin. In 2002, Eyene moved to London and worked at the Africa Centre alongside South African critic and curator Mario Pissarra. In 2004-05, she developed a number of events for Africa 05. From August 2008 to May 2010, she was consultant for puma.creative, an initiative of PUMA. Within this remit, she co-developed Creative Africa Network and initiated the partnership between puma.creative and the 8th Bamako Encounters (2009). An art critic, she is a regular contributor to French journal «Africultures». She has written articles for «Third Text», «Art South Africa», and essays in books and exhibition catalogues. She sits on a number of panels including the jury of the Fondation Jean-Paul Blachère Prize awarded at the Dak’Art Biennale and Bamako Encounters.


[2] Christine Eyene 2012, Embedded in the Fabric, p. 25 in We Face Forward : Art From West Africa Today exhibition catalogue, 2 June to September 2012, various institutions in Manchester 2012.



Yo-Yo Gonthier | artist


A difficult question. I am French, Vietnamese, Creole, African. All of these elements are part of me, so it is difficult even impossible to define the identity of an individual in rigid terms, which closes our way of thinking.

I prefer the idea of territories; to say that I came from somewhere. It suggests that there is a ‘path’ between that place (territory) and where I am in the present. To give a sense of journey is more accurate. We are all mixed to one degree or another but sometimes we forget this. I appreciate the African way used to present oneself; you say where your family comes from, and where you’ve lived. The Polynesians of Hawaii have a saying, that you are of a place, when you drink its water and eat its food. I am African, Asian, European and French.

The point is that we need to be sincere and clear about how mixed we all are. To see the richness inherent in our diverse origins and be deeply involved and concerned with the territories we each live in.


Yo-Yo Gonthier (b. 1974 Niamey, Niger) graduated with a Masters in Photography and Multimedia from Paris VIII University in 1997 and works as a freelance photographer, primarily based in Paris. The object of his work is the erasure of memory in a western world where the essential values seem to be speed, progress and technology. He seeks the sense of wonder, in a tension between attraction and repulsion, bringing his own interpretation to night-time photography and the use of light and dark/chiaroscuro. He is also interested in the remnants of France’s colonial past, investigating the friction between history and memory. He has exhibited at Trans Photographic Press, Biennale of African Photography (Bamako), Addis Foto Fest (Addis Ababa) and has been nominated for the Prix kodak de la critique, 2005.



Nicène Kossentini | artist . educator


As African artists are still barely known in Europe, or the USA and elsewhere outside of their own continent, inevitably they can not escape this categorisation.


Nicène Kossentini (b. 1976 Sfax, Tunisia) is a photographer/video-maker that lives and works in Tunisia. She is a graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts in Tunisia

and Marc Bloch University in Strasbourg, and has also studied at Le Fresnoy in Tourcoing, and Les Gobelins in Paris. Kossentini is currently an assistant professor of Experimental Cinema at the University of Tunis. She has exhibited frequently in Tunisia, South Africa, Mali, Switzerland and Norway. She is represented by Selma Feriani Gallery.



Mischeck Masamvu | artist


It is unfortunate that the term African is often loaded, perhaps artists should pursue a universal language.


Misheck Masamvu (b. 1980, Penhalonga, Zimbabwe) studied art with Helen Lieros at Gallery Delta in Harare and at the Kunstacademie in Munich. Masamvu’s haunting depictions question the continent’s current trajectory by

dramatically exposing psycho-social and political realities. His work has been shown internationally at Galerie Françoise Heitsch (Munich), Zimbabwe Pavilion at 54th Venice Art Biennale, Influx Contemporary Art (Lisbon), Africa Museum (Arnhem), National Gallery of Zimbabwe (Harare), Gallery Delta (Harare), Dak’Art Biennale 2006 (Dakar) and more. Misheck Masamvu is represented by Gallery Delta, Harare.



Aïda Muluneh | artist . curator


We should strive to be artists first because no matter what part of the world that you are in an artist faces the same challenges, the same hardship and often it is the artist who is the mirror to his/her society. Hence, our focus should be on creating exchanges and collaborations with various artists from around the world… instead of only showing within the context of geographical location.


Aïda Muluneh (b.1974, Ethiopia) is an Addis Ababa based photographer and artist. Muluneh received her BA in film, radio, and television from Howard University in 2001.

She has worked freelance since, also founding DESTA (Developing and Educating Societies Through the Arts). Her work has been exhibited worldwide and a collection of her images can be found in permanent collections in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Museum of Biblical Art in the United States. She is the 2007 recipient of the European Union prize at the Biennale of African Photography (Bamako), as well as the 2010 winner of the CRAF International award of photography in Spilimbergo, Italy. She is the director of the Modern Art Museum/GebreKristos Center/Addis Ababa University, as well as the director and founder of the Addis Foto Fest.

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Victor Muteleksha | artist


Any concerted efforts to eclipse the term “African” especially by those associated to it in one way or another is like a double-sided sword; it gives those that are either lazy in properly placing an artist’s work or just damn right ignorant and will fall back on it just to be seen to be having an opinion the sense of owning that which is part of our identity. Generally speaking educated Africans know their geography better, unlike most of their Western counterparts and this is a human tragedy we can’t let persist. Africans have a duty to educate the world about themselves. Right now it seems we do not own the term, and by implication we do not own that which is part of our identity so we are unable to define ourselves on our own terms . We need to own the word whenever and however we see fit and by our actions and what we associate with it, it will get redeemed to eventually reflect only the best about us. It is true that when the word gets used as part of a definition of ones work, it almost automatically encapsulates the work within Western anthropological narratives about Africa or the common unfavourable Western media narrative about the continent instantly disassociating the complexity and sophistication otherwise intended by an artist. Complexity and sophistication are words nowhere close to the definitions of an ‘Africa’ owned by the
West, and so it is understandable that some artists of African origin working in the diaspora would like to disassociate themselves with it.

Just as William Ernest Henley said in his poem Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”. Africa is part of who I am; my very being, so I want to be it’s captain and chart its course no matter how rough the seas might be.


Victor Mutelekesha (b. 1976 Chililabombwe, Zambia) is an independent artist based in Norway. He is a graduated of Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce, Lusaka and National Arts Academy, Oslo holding an MA Fine Arts from the later. His work is informed by the hybrid nature of his educational background and moreover by a deep interest in the universal human condition. His work has been exhibited at the International Culture Centre and Museum (Oslo), Gallery Palazzo Tito (Venice), the Henry Tayaly Art Centre (Lusaka), the 10th Havana Biennial (Havana), Gallery Fisk (Bergen), Videoholica Video Art Biennial (Bulgaria), Gallery Kit (Norway), Dak’Art Biennial (Dakar).


Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, PhD | curator . editor


Why should we want to eclipse the term African? It is not about terminology or the notion of Africa, I must say. I am not of the opinion that artists are “countering such a word”, as I think that the artists are merely worried about being put in another box other than the box of the artist. This box, be it the African, female, male, left-handed or blue-eyed box, would meet the same repulsion from many artists. So, it is not about Africa, the essentialisation of Africa, or reducing Africa to a theoretical model, which has very aptly been deconstructed by the likes of V.Y. Mudimbe in The Invention of Africa and Kwame Anthony Appiah in In My Father’s House.


Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, PhD, is the initiator and editor-in-chief of the journal SAVVY | art . contemporary . african. He is also the founder and art director of the art space SAVVY Contemporary Berlin. He has been the curator of several international exhibitions and has published numerous catalogues. He studied and earned a PhD in medical biotechnology (Technische Universität Berlin).



Jimmy Ogonga | artist . writer


I do not believe the idea is to eclipse it, since to eclipse is to obscure. I believe that the term African has been given the spin over the years to either denote something negative in the first instance, and then it has been used in a condescending and patronizing manner in the second. In the third, and maybe in what concerns contemporary art the most, is the exoticisation, and subsequent misrepresentation of the continent and people of its origin. In my view, it just needs a more expanded, comprehensive articulation that is devoid of the baggage of historical, political & ethnographic Eurocentric profiling.


Jimmy Ogonga (b. Nairobi, Kenya) is a self- taught artist who began by drawing portraits; these images were often of political figures, the people whose stories and activities he was exposed to whilst growing up in East Africa. He has traveled to many countries, exhibiting in African and European art galleries. He considers his mission to be the project of recreating African heroes through art. Ogonga started his sculptural works in the 1990s, and ten years later many of the collectors of his work have been drawn to his curved-wood and welded-metallic images. He founded the Nairobi Arts Trust in 2001.



Olu Oguibe | artist . author . curator . educator


There’s nothing essentially wrong with the term “African”. What can be problematic is its misuse or misplacement. For instance, it’s rather unusual that a British or Dutch artist would be referred to as “the European artist” at every turn and on every possible occasion, although, obviously they are European. If each time we read about Damien Hirst, he’s referred to as “the European artist Damien Hirst”, that would grate after a while. Also, if every time Hirst’s work is viewed, reviewed or described, it is put through the prism of a phantom “European” tendency rather than located within the specifics of his language and practice, that would obviously raise issues, too. In effect, what artists reject or recoil from is excessive or outright dumb tagging with the term “African” when there’s little or no logic or justifiable context to it. People are aware and quite proud of their Africanness: they don’t need to have it branded on their foreheads or collared around their necks like a dog tag.

How to address the issue? Simply call artists by their given name and situate their work within appropriate genre or stylistic currencies that align them with other artists working in same vein, without feeling a need to slap on the continental leash. Often that leash is unnecessary.

And, by the way, the same applies to national tags as well. These things change in practice. Obviously, the more prominent and globally successful an artist is, and the greater name recognition they gain, the less people feel compelled to prefix their names with the national or continental tag. However, if we should take the lead and begin to relegate those appellations, in time others might follow.

I would like to reiterate that there is nothing essentially wrong with these terms: what’s wrong is redundant use of the terms.


Olu Oguibe is Professor of art and African American studies at University of Connecticut, and a practicing artist and occasional curator.



Michael Tsegaye | artist


The more African artists there are in the global art market, the less need there will be for others to categorise us as such. It is more a question of volume than anything else.


Michael Tsegaye (b. 1975, Ethiopia) lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He graduated from Addis Ababa University’s School of Fine Arts and Design with a diploma

in painting in 2002. Tsegaye subsequently found his passion and particular voice in photography. He has exhibited around the world, at the Biennale of African Photography (Bamako), Photoquai 2011, Musée du quai Branly (Paris), Aksum Rediscovered: the Reinstallation of the Obelisk, UNESCO House, Snap Judgments : New Positions in Contemporary African Photography and more. He is represented by Galerie Sanaa, Utrecht.



Rikki Wemega-Kwawu | artist. writer


There should be no attempt, whatsoever, to eclipse the term ‘Africa.’ We are Africans and I really do not see why we should rather not be extolling our identity as Africans. Chinese art and artists are referred to as Chinese. This goes for Japanese art and artists, Indian art and artists, Iranian art and artists,. Australian art and artists, Russian art and artists, Latino art and artists, the list goes on. I do not see anything condescending one-bit about being referred to as an African artist, which, of course, we are, unless, probably, you have renounced your African citizenship. If a monkey is called derogatorily “a monkey,” it does not go hiding its long tail. It rather proudly shows the tail. It is imperative we embrace our Africanness and African identity..
We should rather be proud to be referred to as the “African artist.” Being an African artist does not debar you from being a global player in art. There is the example of the world-renowned Ghanaian sculptor, El Anatsui.


Rikki Wemega-Kwawu is an internationally renowned Ghanaian Painter and Installation Artist. He also loves to write on art, engaging in social and philosophical discourse. He is an alumnus of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, U.S.A. In 2008, he was an Adjunct Professor in Art at the New York University – Accra, Ghana Campus, where he taught Post-Colonial Studio Practices. He lives and works in Takoradi, Ghana.




[1] David Elliot , Africa, Exhibitions and Fears of the Dark … , p. 34 in Africa Remix Contemporary Art of a Continent exhibition catalogue,  published on the occasion of the exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg 24 June – 30 September 2007.



The In Focus | art and commerce series has been co-edited by Stephanie Baptist and Missla Libsekal.






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