In spring 2016, Another Africa launched In/Visible Voices of Women, a long-term publication project. Conceived by Clelia Coussonnet and Missla Libsekal, it focuses on women artists operating within Francophone and Lusophone Africa. Read more articles in the series here.
Probing the possibilities of contemporary art, ultimately is a way for us to reflect on how our societies are constituted. We recall a concern raised by Nicène Kossentini. The Tunis-based artist, and participant in the forthcoming ‘In/Visible Voices of Women’ artist publication project, raised this pressing concern: “It is a sobering thought, many artists from the region [Tunisia] exhibit and become known elsewhere, more so than at home.” She goes on to describe that even if local citizens are familiar with ancient/traditional art, contemporary art is largely misunderstood. This point is not exclusive to Tunisia, but rather true in most other parts of the African continent.
As this misunderstanding relates to how women participate, or are held back from being full citizens — visible and audible within public life — we examine the disjunction between the global and local by asking 11 phenomenal women — fearless leaders working as academics, artists, writers, and curators — to join us for the 6-part Commentary Series of the ‘In/Visible Voices of Women’ project. By fleshing out a diverse terrain of thoughts and opinions, they name some of the most pressing concerns faced by women at large, and the states of being invisible, and becoming visible come to light.
#4 What needs to change for people to feel like contemporary art is theirs too?
Whether one is based in Africa, Europe or elsewhere, I can absolutely conceive that there could be a kind of virtual fence at several levels between a contemporary creation and any viewer. At the same time, I am convinced that these boundaries are not totally insurmountable, because I can hardly believe that emotions that can be felt, are strictly conditioned by the immediate environment. That said, to promote a good understanding of contemporary art in isolated or poorly educated areas, I think a fair number of wills determined to invest in culture (as well as any other form of learning) is to be gathered, and that they should undertake a vast mediated endeavour to familiarise the public with the different artistic languages. This involves the selection of a careful, and competent team capable of setting up community structures that adapt to the local rhythm. In fact, we rarely think about it, but, outside of urban centres, distance is one of the major obstacles to accessing culture. Also, with regards to transporting the public towards the main areas and concentration of artworks worldwide, measures to facilitate their circulation should figure amongst the international agreements aimed at improving the dialogue amongst peoples and civilisations. Without the ability to approach these works in a sensible and practical way, the hope to see them adopted by populations remain minimal.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Contemporary art should be brought to the people who cannot access it. It must be displayed in places other than in museums or in galleries, such as in schools, public spaces such as streets, or parks to raise awareness about contemporary art and to start educating people. Also, I think it is essential that Africa finds its own art ambassadors in different fields — like business, sport or art itself — who would contribute to promoting the art locally.
It is again about perception. How do curators talk about their projects (press release, public talk, writings)? Audience is a major challenge — not just in developing countries. Therefore, it is about how to communicate on an artwork, and on an exhibition. If the issue behind is what matters, then we should be able to talk about it in simple (but not weak) ways. If the audience feels that a PhD in art history is needed to understand an art project, then we will keep on failing. Communication is key, as well as the words we use.
People tend to ignore the average citizen. Art in public space is also a strategy to reach out to people. We have to build an audience and it will not happen overnight. Art education for kids, for the middle class and for the elite is what we should keep in mind. Otherwise we will continue to do art projects just for ourselves, and that is absolutely not the goal. We are all doing art projects because we have something to say and share with our audience.
It is true that there can be a disjunction between what is valued in the context of the global contemporary and what is understood or cherished in local, sometimes cut-off, communities and contexts. There is also a perceived tension between so-called traditional practices and skills, and those that are recognised as ‘contemporary’ or international. But the exchange between ‘indigenous’, home-grown or borrowed techniques and images has a long history, and it has always been hard to police clear demarcations between these invented categories. Let us look for example at Ernest Mancoba, to my mind one of the most important painters of the twentieth century to emerge from Africa. True he lived and worked in Paris. But his work is equally engaged with the iconicity of African totemic carving that haunts his paintings as it is with European Abstraction. Or take a more recent example of that, in which Meschac Gaba turns the African market place into a museum of competing modernities. You do not need to be versed in contemporary art to recognise the hybrid nature of these practices. Weaving, stitching, carving, pasting, moulding, cutting and covering may all be old skills, but they now cohabit with new technologies and virtual resources that belong to everyone, and this results in shifting ways of making and seeing. As the world gets smaller and the digital becomes more ubiquitous, the challenge will be to preserve the old skills and practices while engaging in an ever-changing contemporary field. Even if the institutionalised circulation of art as ‘contemporary’ is greeted with suspicion or incomprehension, this does not mean that new forms of creativity and ingenuity are not recognised. That is what is important, not the reification or protection of the latest commodity that is electable for Venice, Kassel or Istanbul.
Euridice Getulio Kala
The Keeping on Keeping on
It is perhaps our fault if audiences decide not to engage . . . maybe if we decided that art is no longer contemporary (a term largely used in Western art), and if we gave it a new name, from our local space, language, and energy, then audiences would engage. We have to be honest with ourselves: We are playing on the international field — one that is not concerned with the local, but reveals in larger discourses.
I make art that includes the local, but that also has the ability to travel. Contemporary art — as art — does not belong to anyone, yet, it has always been located in a privileged realm. What we call ‘traditional’ art today once was ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’, or whatever other denominations one may want to come up with. The only difference, in my opinion, is that due to our limited ability to venture out of our immediate space, it does not speak to as many people.
It is in the interest, in my interest and that of the artist, curator, etc. to communicate that we are still very much defined by the local, and not to be afraid of demonstrating within our/my narratives, who we/I are/am, and why we/I are/am, and those will never be far off from the local, even if we are (and should) naturally be in opposition to our contexts.
I think this depends on the kind of art you are talking about. Across Africa, popular music is very much ‘owned’ by everyday people, from young women MCs in Dakar, to women house artists in Johannesburg, to wassolou singers in Bamako. Visual art seems to be the least accessible, given that there are still very few public art museums, and private galleries tend to be targeted at a wealthier clientele. There are exceptions, when people make an active effort to integrate art into people’s daily lives. In Ghana, a sister Sionne Neely and her partner Mantse Aryeequaye started the Chalewote street art festival which takes place in the Jamestown neighbourhood of Accra, making art accessible to everyday people and anyone else who wants to join in a creative experience in the streets. Artists can always find ways to make their art accessible and relevant in people’s lives, and by doing so it also helps build a wider audience and taste for experimental art, and not just for ‘pop’.
This is definitely true of Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwean contemporary artists in general. This is not a gendered problem. My view is that in Zimbabwe we have a number of historical factors emerging from colonial history, which persist in segregating visual art from other art forms. Historically, painting, for example, was introduced by missionaries and in a colonial context, and, unlike performing arts and music, was treated somewhat as an art form in the service of the coloniser. Zimbabweans generally prioritise the oral tradition and the philosophical in traditional practices and rituals, so again visual art is less integrated in the process. The more traditional art forms are carving and basket weaving and pottery, but they are all still intrinsically linked
to their utilitarian value, which makes contemporary art in the Western definition of the word difficult. With very limited government support for the arts and poor media training and very limited access to art education at primary and secondary school, it is easy to build up a picture in which the ordinary Zimbabwean does not connect with contemporary art. So we need to get to the grassroots of the problem to achieve long-term change — support art education, and support the professionalisation of art; right now art is not seen as a real profession and there are no international quality degrees in fine arts in the country, or graduate programmes. These things need to change.
This is largely due to a dearth of infrastructure to support art and artists on the continent. We need well-resourced programmes, arts education, but, also an appreciation for the importance of old, and new art and cultures in understanding who we are as a people.
In the past decade, there has been an increase in growth of art centres, auction houses, art fairs, studio residencies, commercial galleries, regional and international biennales, and the rise of a new generation of collectors. These all work hand in hand with the growth of contemporary art within, and beyond the continent.
The hope is that in the coming years, contemporary art in different parts of the continent will not only thrive in a sustainable manner, without — and this is very important — having to depend too much on the support of foreign agencies, governments, and institutions.
Unfortunately, we cannot make meaningful progress on that front without strong national economies, and stable governments and societies.
This is true here in Kenya. I feel this relates to the residual effects of religious conversion, and the political regimes that have continuously attacked, and undermined artists (visual, literary, music) for being subversive and outrightly critical of their patriarchal structures.
We do not have a strong understanding of our ancient/traditional art as this was wiped out during the colonial era, and our conversion to Christianity came hand in hand with a disregard, fear and demonisation of our previous practices. As such, we keep a fair distance from most of our traditional practices, excepting those rituals that relate to the coming of age, marriage, birth and death. Contemporary art, seen as an offshoot of these traditions, is often perceived as a practice of those outside of the norm, lacking purpose and future.
Within our local education system, Art and Music were the first subjects to be slashed following a reduction in school budgets, being described as disciplines without practical application. Multiple writers critical of our political leaders have been forced into exile or have mysteriously gone missing over the years. Organisations created to collect royalties for artists, have been under fire for syphoning the collected funds, leaving celebrated artists famous, but broke. As is the case in most societies, the value of our practice is often seen as directly proportional to the financial wealth that we can gain through its exploitation.
All these elements work together to undermine our contemporary culture, and place more value on art created by Western practitioners than our own. As such, it sometimes requires the celebration of our artists, by foreign institutions, to alert our local consumers to the value of our local work. Within niche groups, the creation of art is being celebrated separate from the financial gain it may, or may not, attract. Ultimately, for the majority, commercial viability is the indicator of value. Millennials are creating new ways of achieving financial growth outside of the traditional paths previous generations set. Art and tech fields are experiencing this growth as well, so, perhaps, art and money will begin to cross paths more often.
Mónica de Miranda
Contemporary art sets a relationship between the author of the piece, and the public. As the public of African contemporary art is often outside of Africa, it is important to foster the development of an African public that appreciates contemporary art. It is only when the author and the public have more in common, in terms of their identity and culture, that a sense of belonging can be felt and shared.
There is a need to invest in structures that can sustain and create a real art market in Africa for African artists. There is a need to invest in education too, as there are still countries without formal art education, and where almost all artists are self-taught; this is the case in Angola. As a result, the Western art system has marketed African contemporary art: African artists are being circulated in the Western art market because it has a demand, and a structure for it. However, it seems to be a trap . . . I do not believe that to create a feeling of belonging, the work you create needs to be circumscribed to a geographical place; it needs to circulate. To be shown only as “African” fragments your sense of being an artist. European artists are not confined to shows of “European art”; they have access to a wider range of possibilities. Why should African artists always be labelled and be prevented from accessing the same opportunities as their Western counterparts?
The same happens in Angola; contemporary art is viewed as foreign, and sometimes disconnected from our national identity. I believe that we have to talk about art, tradition and traditional art. I see neither art nor tradition as fixed constructions. These are historical and cultural constructions, therefore subject to change. I do not have an answer to what needs to change, but certainly an open and public discussion that brings together artists, curators, art historians and audiences could help.