Karroum: The relationship to the establishments or more exactly the rupture with the “official institution,” with its programmatic function that serves more the machine of established power than the spaces of expression, is a way for creating a different speed for the appearance of cultural production. I am not sure that the birth of a project like L’appartement 22, followed, in Morocco, by the Cinémathèque de Tanger and the Espace 150 x 295 cm, is something which can be encouraged by the establishment. But I believe that these small institutions have more impact on the active cultural scene and create an alternative to the structural deficit of establishments in the country. The productions that come out of these new spaces are born in the context of a tension between the “national identities” as postcolonial constructions and the “transnational expressions” as deconstructions of those ideologies orienting culture into a system of oppositions and combination of the old and the new. In many African countries, one can see museums and mosques which are built in a “confusing” architecture mixing ornament and design. The Museum of Contemporary Arts which is still under construction in Rabat is a “good example” that says a lot about the response of local officials to the birth of new independent spaces… In fact, rather than encouraging our initiatives, I find that the establishment, whether it is the Makhzen (central government) or the foundations, festivals, etc. under its control, makes greater attempts to submerge the “nouveaux souffles (new breaths)” of our new spaces.

Okeke-Agulu: An underlying motivation from your various accounts is the need to create or instigate the establishment, within your various locations, of artworlds that are more responsive to contemporary issues. In other words, there is a desire on your part to inject some dynamism into local contexts that appear—as a result of complex postcolonial political and socio-economic conditions–uninterested in the kinds of questions and ideas contemporary artists and their audiences around the world confront today. In a sense the work and the environment your centers encourage proposes a fundamental change in perception of and approach to contemporary art by the establishment. But this disruption of the status quo can elicit a range of reactions, ranging from acceptance to rejection; or not being considered as a serious “threat.” What has been your experience thus far with your local art/cultural establishments?

Bassam El Baroni: I would like to respond to this first question in a rather sparse manner. I sense a very positive tone in your intro and opening question which is very encouraging but that also makes me feel slightly uneasy; I hope that the reasons for this uneasiness will be slowly revealed through the proceedings of this online roundtable.

I studied painting at the faculty of fine arts, Alexandria University, graduating in 1998. In the period from 2000-2003 I went through what I call a period of intellectual-artistic schisms. The schisms began when my ideas as a thinker were quite advanced and my work as an artist could not really catch up with my knowledge. I stopped working as an artist and began thinking of the condition of the art student who like me was in a system that did not allow him/her to be in touch with the conditions and necessities of being a successful artist in today’s world. ACAF and a lot of my earlier practice was really about wanting to create the necessary environment where an art student could come into contact with live information about contemporary practice and understand what it takes to be an artist producing work that has impact both on a local and international level. It was also about unlearning the Egyptian academic tradition without taking it lightly. ACAF then had to be the opposite of this tradition, undefined to a certain degree, flexible, as non-authoritarian as possible (this in particular is the difference between how I work in Egypt and how I work elsewhere), and inviting. ACAF up until recently was about solving problems, vernacular artistic-intellectual problems, the problem of say the general misunderstanding that existed in the art-field (except for a small group of artists in Cairo) that contemporary art simply meant a change of media. Or the prevalent idea (although well hidden) that it was simply about getting the right look, feel, and process, that it was some sort of recipe, which in part is a quarter-truth, but no interesting and strong work comes out of this alone.

Anyway, after overcoming the schisms, and expanding my knowledge of how contemporary institutions work after I started traveling; I finally opened ACAF in late 2005.  But, I think I still look at things from the angle of the artist and try to build curatorial ideas starting from that particular but widely varied angle. Since this angle can be one of a highly intellectually and successful artist, the angle of an artist who has trapped himself/herself into the tight corner of identity representation, the young graduate artist from a place like myself who is trying to sense what to do and where to go with his/her career, the artist who naively puts all the blame for his lack of success on a mythically constructed character called the curator, the artist who made interesting work at first but then started repeating the same old boring institutional critique over and over again, the models are numerous and many, and I think generally I look to find what dictates the larger picture and paints the circumstances and conditions for artists to think and work the way they do. Deciphering, unpacking, and re-imaging these conditions is generally what I think my curatorial work is about in a very abstract sense.

Jimmy Ogonga: First and foremost, I would like to thank you for inviting us to this roundtable. I would also like to extend my greetings to the other participants, and to commend them for the steps that they are making in their respective projects.

Nairobi Arts Trust / Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA) was founded in 2001, as a result of a continuous wave of cultural, social & political agitation and conversations arising from a stagnation and monotony that characterized the period around the early and mid-1990’s, particularly in Kenya.

We had educational, political & social systems which, years after independence, had continued to produce indoctrinated, class-oriented minds. As a result, there was uniform pressure on subsequent generations to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, business people – not for any fundamental purpose, but simply because these careers could ‘sell’ and be lucratively absorbed into the wage labor system.

In the universities, there was no art education, and in the years that followed, no structures were created for the arts in terms of spaces, galleries, publications, events or even education opportunities to develop artists, curators, writers, arts-administrators, and so on. The result was that the scene became some kind of ‘theatre of the absurd’, where everything was anything. There were no references, no standards, no history, no sense of direction. Culturally, we were in some kind of limbo. There were neither intellectual tools available in the mass of society to question the moment, nor any activities or scenarios that could encourage curiosity. The prevalence of irrational and illogical speech in the cultural field had reached the ultimate conclusion: silence.

Art, or any form of cultural expression existed as a trivial and scandalous enterprise. In such a society, to be an artist meant you were not serious. It was failure; it was plan B—an alternative to something else, especially given that there was no art education in Kenyan schools. The official government definition imagined culture only as something traditional and belonging to the past, notwithstanding that within official ranks, the idea of the past, was informed by the same redundant ideas about an Africa derived from colonial and missionary Christian religious education. Culture, for example, was invoked only in the same sentence as tourism or foreign exchange, or existed as “tribal” objects in glass cases at the museum, or as bare-chested young men and women with sisal skirts, some head-gear and painted bodies, all drumming and dancing at the airport for visiting dignitaries.

A 1999 commission formed to review the education system recommended that art and craft, music and home science be made “non-examinable” subjects in primary schools. These recommendations were adopted—effectively ensuring that the important foundation that opens up the child’s mind to a creative existence & curiosity about his/her environment was demolished. Previously, under the 8-4-4 system, at least there was art & craft, Home Science and Music in primary and secondary schools. It is these that have at least laid some groundwork for the current generation of artists—which explains why more than 90% of the current practicing artists in Kenya are around or below the age of 40 and are “self-taught.”

As young artists mostly living in or around Nairobi, and who had either just begun or were starting our careers, we found ourselves in an extremely hostile environment, since we were bearing witness to an ongoing criminality and dared to react. We saw how the ravages of new experiments such as Structural Adjustment Programs devastated our parents, neighbors, acquaintances and left them desolate, helpless, irrespective of how hard they worked. We saw the banking industry impoverish hardworking men and women, and subjected even unborn generations to a future of servitude. We witnessed the excesses of individualism, political oligarchy and a new elite that embraced these experiments. We saw how academia—intellectuals, schools, universities—became new frontiers for furthering & perpetuating the rhetoric for a new, re-packaged colonial order. We saw how our contemporary history was suppressed as soon as it occurred, and how it was disparaged sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter to the point where, in chaotic monosyllables, it became the only existing document of that era. We saw how an intricate machinery hijacked educational systems and, through popular culture, worked relentlessly on a systematic theology to perpetuate, popularize, and even validate amnesia. We saw how the law was manipulated and became complicit in this criminality.

It is out of this chaos that Nairobi arts trust / Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa emerged. At the outset, the initiative was developed as a form of counter-strategy for this mess, especially out of a desire to simply articulate or tell alternative stories. We realized that if the situation is to change, we have to continuously develop the necessary structures that can cultivate new opportunities for contemporary expression; to continuously internalize these processes; document them, critique, theorize, publish and archive them, preserve them and share them – to the extent that the very concrete and psychological obstacles that kept us isolated—even from one another—are overcome.
Our preferred reference point inevitably was Africa, and we were surprised and delighted at how our own narratives interconnected with debates in other parts of the continent & diasporas. It was imperative that we connect with our brothers & sisters from other places, for through them, maybe, we could start imagining ourselves through artistic practices and discourse more clearly. Some of the ideas, discourses and conversations generated by major developments such as Dak’art, the Johannesburg biennials, Magiciens de la terre, the Short Century, the publications Revue Noir, or even previous initiatives such as FESTAC, just to mention a few, provided the fuel that sustained the fire. We were keen to originate within ourselves sufficient vocabularies that could coherently express our histories, predicaments & aspirations, to further our voices and present them in their varying complexities, both regional & internationally.

It is ten years since we made the step of forming this organization, and here we are…

Koyo Kouoh: First I would like to thank Nka for rebounding on the ball of independent art centers in Africa in the form of this roundtable that clearly provides a higher degree of reflection than any ten-minute slot in a public panel would do. I also take the opportunity to say that the “phenomenon” is not new—it is only starting to get the attention that it deserves. I must stay that if we were to speak of a “mother of independent art centers” in Africa, then Doual’art immediately comes to my mind (and this no Cameroonian nationalism!)   Didier and Marilyn will celebrate twenty years of existence next year—an unprecedented achievement in the field of independent contemporary artistic action on this continent of ours. Abdellah’s L’appartement 22 is also on the map since it is very close to ten years. So are many other less visible initiatives and artists collectives that work hard to provide spaces of artistic and intellectual freedom. This reality was also the source of my inspiration for the development of the curatorial statement geared towards art institutions and art scenes as opposed to individual artists for the contemporary section of GEO-graphics, a map of African art practice past and present co-curated with Anne-Marie Bouttiaux under the artistic direction of David Adjaye in June 2010 in Brussels.

Personally I like the poetry of saying that I stumbled on contemporary art by accident at a time when I began working on African literature and writing in general—having published an anthology of writing by women of African descent back in 1994. I have a banking administration and cultural management background from respectively Zurich Business School and University of Paris VII. Reading Senghor in my late teens in Switzerland awakened in me an interest for African art and a fascination for Senegal. I worked as a cultural journalist for various magazines in Switzerland and was involved in Zurich with a group of people dedicated to promoting African cinema through a biennial film festival. In the fall of 1995 the festival was preparing a retrospective of Ousmane Sembène. As the only “writer” in the group, I traveled to Dakar for the first time to meet Sembène for a feature in a local weekly magazine as well as to prepare for the festival. This was when I fell in love with the city and its people.

Back then it had already become clear to me since a few years that I wanted to move out of Europe. Moving back to Cameroon would lead to dull and obvious pattern that I was not interested in. Senegal just seemed to be the perfect alternative. The vibrant reputation of Dakar as a metropolis of art, culture and intellectualism has always attracted numerous Africans to this place.  As a site of knowledge production and creativity, nourished by two eminent figures such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Senghor, Dakar has played an important part in shaping the cultural production and artistic life of postcolonial Africa and its diaspora. It offers stability and a degree of sophistication that is not comparable to any other French postcolony south of Sahara. Moreover, the social climate is conducive to establishing a new life. I visited a second time during the Dakar Biennale in May 1996 and moved for good in the fall of 1996.

The initial project was to establish an artist residency and exhibition program to provide an independent private space for production and exchange. The project did not succeed for many reasons I will not elaborate on here. Both time and myself were not ripe. Yet I stayed. I became acquainted with the artist community and specifically with the whole Laboratoire Agit’ Art group, particularly with Issa Samb and Bouna Medoune Seye, whom I owe a lot for understanding the art scene and the social and political codes and processes at play. The catalog of the second Johannesburg biennial, directed by Okwui Enwezor in 1997, was a real mind opener for me in that it exposed me to a level of intellectual translation of art practice that I had never encountered before in relation to African artistic production.

Another poetry that I like is to say is that I became a cultural producer out of necessity. The necessity of putting forward ideas and methods that go beyond the usual borders; the necessity of exposing people (especially art students) to practices and other people that challenge their intellectual comfort and creative confidence; the necessity of questioning the confiscation of the public arena by petty politics and phony religious fervor; and the necessity of re-polishing the image of the artist and the thinker in the society. It is from those perspectives that the genesis of Raw Material Company is to be understood. By the year 2004 it was clear to me that Dakar was losing its reputation and attraction—this is in many ways thank to the often mediocre roll out and roll up of the Dakar Biennale. While it is important to pay respect to the government of Senegal for funding and keeping this event alive, it is just as necessary to analyze its impact on the international artistic map as well as the countless opportunities that have been missed to make this event a federating and powerful tool that I believe it should be. Predictably, the OFF biennial has become much more important and interesting than the biennial itself.

Raw Material Company is a space that works in the interstices of what is stated in the paragraph above. The name itself borrows from the reality of Africa as a provider of raw materials for global industry. It is also a philosophical interpretation of art and intellectualism as necessary raw materials for human development. Company is on the one hand an indication that the project sets itself in an entrepreneurial trajectory and on the other hand it suggests the collaborative approach in the sense of togetherness. As a center for art, knowledge and society, it uses the idea of “dig where you stand” as a leitmotiv.

Abdellah Karroum: Thank you for your introductory question to this forum. I would like to take this opportunity to say hello to my friends and colleagues around this table, as I have met almost everyone in his/her own space on the continent. The visits I made during the last few years to Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, and Kenya were very instructive. I could see the similarities and the differences in the position of our curatorial research and work and the ways we all deal with the context of action. And meetings during the seminars at The Clark, The Tate Modern or MoMA were simply complementary occasions to exchange ideas about what we see in these capitals. The idea of Nka Roundtable for me is also a space to continue our professional exchange and intellectual discussion. Even if I initiated L’appartement 22, I consider this space a result of collective effort by people directly involved and others unaware of its existence. This is why sometimes I use “we” when talking about L’appartement 22. Nevertheless, I would like talk a bit about the context and the intellectual project of L’appartement 22.

First, I would like to start by introducing the social and political context in which L’appartement 22 opened. In late 1990s, The Kingdom of Morocco started to introduce the idea of participation in the political system and to bring the elite who, in the 1960s and 1970s, was in the opposition and proposed alternatives to the center of power. Abraham Sefarty returned to Morocco, as well as Abdellatif Laabi and many other intellectuals and voices with a potential to continue their opposition. At this time, building a new Moroccan image of political transition was not possible without including these oppositional forces excluded by the Makhzen (central government) twenty years before. Many intellectuals, who had previously been marginalized because of their progressive ideas, were increasingly integrated to different universities, bureaucratic posts, and national companies. Abdelkebir Khatibi took over the scientific direction of the IURS (Institut Universitaire pour la Recherche Scientifique) at the University of Rabat. Moreover, the leader of the opposition, Abderrahmane Youssoufi returned and became the prime minister under Hassan II. Thus the country officially began the so called “”Alternance politique” et “transition démocratique.”” The new situation is also connected to the free trade agreement between Morocco and the USA. The so-called “advanced state of Morocco in the European Community” was unattainable without the apparent openness of the Moroccan system to the ideas coming from the internal political opposition. I must say that the times coincided with the internet’s development, which made the censorship of intellectual production more difficult, while at the same time facilitating circulation of knowledge in every domain. The new aspiration of Morocco was to enter global system which required the mobilization of every economic and political force within the country. It is within this context that the visual art production began to receive official recognition; the same paintings associated with the opposition or new ideas in the 60s and 70s now became important objects collected by the economic elite since the 1990s.

My second point regards the conditions of appearance of L’appartement 22 in Rabat as a space of recognition of artists and expression of other individuals beyond the art field. In that context of transition, the Moroccan schools and cultural development centers were seen as producers of basic manpower needed by the multinational enterprises, and by the tourist industry. The universities are still under the regime in which human science are only fixated to knowledge about the past, and the application of law, whether it is Al-Shariâa (islamic law) or French law (droit français). Research is oriented to the past, more than to the future. In 2000, the country still only had two fine arts schools: the Institut Supérieur des Beaux-Arts in Tétouan built by Spain during the colonial period and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca build by the French during the Protectorate. These two institutions move very slowly, as they depend of the “good will” of the person in charge at the city council of Casablanca or of the Ministry of Culture. This situation says a lot about the degree of interest in education and culture as tools for planning social life. In 2002, the European Union offered aid to Morocco to build twenty-seven houses of cultures (maisons de culture), but only a very few have been really active in the years that followed.

From 1996 to 2001, I was continuously traveling back and forth between Morocco and France, meeting artists and scholars in both countries, before I completed my PhD in 2001. Then when I decided to work in Morocco, I realized that the majority of the young artists coming out of the two art schools were unable to formulate simple sentences or concepts to express who they are and where they want to go with their work. Then I imagined that the best way to make my contribution in Morocco would be to create a department of art at the university, based on personal development and sharing knowledge by inviting multiple participants. In order to make this project real, I met with Abdekebir Khatibi at IURS, and discussed starting research about “teaching art” in order to write the project and propose it to the University of Rabat… I was promising to build a new generation of artists in four years. But after a few meetings, and very fruitful discussions, we had to face the bureaucracy and I realized that it was impossible to translate this research into action within the existing system. At the time I rented an apartment in Rabat in order to be closer to the University we were trying to build. Following my disappointment that this did not seem possible, I decided to establish the program in my apartment situated in 279 Avenue Mohamed V (apt n°22) in Rabat, Morocco. I started by inviting two young artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and dancers to teach their experiences and, eventually, to show part of their work. The place is private, but it became public with the groups who attend or contribute to its program. The first series of program were talks called “leçon de… (lesson of…)” or exhibitions “JF_JH”…

With L’appartement 22, we wanted to make a statement using the evident intellectual rupture between the past and the present, and then to define a strategy to draw future projects as contribution to the new society. We believed in this new reality of transnational research and local action, and these projects were also complicit with many other individuals and groups beyond our borders.

Only a few months after L’appartement 22 opened in Rabat, other spaces opened in other cities…

Chika Okeke-Agulu: You are all welcome to this Nka Roundtable IV focusing on independent art centers in Africa.  There is no doubt in my mind that all of you are part of a significant phenomenon, without which progress in the field of contemporary art within the African continent is frankly inconceivable. My hope is that this forum allows us to discuss, debate and examine the necessity of projects such as yours, the challenges of establishing and operating such initiatives in Africa, the difference such programs have made or can make in your local environments, opportunities of international networking, questions of funding and sustainability, etc.

Let me begin by noting that I am fascinated by the work you all are engaged in in various parts of the continent and I am struck by the unprecedented intensity, variety and different emphases in your programming and goals. This is a clear indication of the increasing sophistication of the field of contemporary African art within the continent. It also suggests to me that each of you got involved in your present work in contemporary art for diverse reasons, and with different goals. One thing that seems to underlie all your work, however, is the desire to make a difference, to reimagine the conditions for the production of and discussion about contemporary. In other words, you all seem to want to offer possibilities that did not exist in your localities and in the continent.  But before we go on to core issues outlined above, could each of you talk briefly about your career backgrounds and why you established or became involved in your various art centers.

The fourth installment of the Nka Roundtables which focuses on independent art centers in Africa will commence by August 29. Participants include the founders and directors of some of the best known and most active contemporary art centers in West, East, North and Southern Africa. The roundtable will be an opportunity to discuss, debate and examine the necessity of these centers, the challenges of establishing and operating such initiatives in Africa, the difference such programs have or can make within their local environments, opportunities of international networking, questions of sustainability and funding, the place of contemporary art in their locales, global pressures and opportunities, art and national identity, and relationship between such initiatives and local art industries/markets.

Moderator: Chika Okeke-Agulu, Princeton University

Participants:

  • Marilyn Douala-Bell, Doual’Art, Douala
  • Bassam El Baroni, Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum
  • Mia Jankowicz, Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo
  • Abdellah Karroum, L’Appartement 22, Rabat
  • Koyo Kouoh, Raw Materials Company, Dakar
  • Moataz Nasr, Center for Contemporary Art and Culture , Cairo
  • Gabi Ngcobo, Centre for Historical Re-enactments, Jo’burg
  • Jimmy Ogonga, Centre for Contemporary Art of E. Africa, Nairobi
  • Bisi Silva, Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos

Okeke-Agulu: I want to thank each and every one of us for taking part in this memorable conversation on a topic–or rather range of topics–that I am sure will continue to preoccupy students, practitioners and scholars in the field of modern and contemporary art. What is clear from our deliberations is that these issues have important resonances to the way museums engaged with art today do their work or imagine their place in the age of globalization. Recent economic, political and sociological trends, particularly in Euro-America with their tradition of well-constituted museums of modern and contemporary art, have dictated a re-thinking of museological approaches to normative fields of art and even more so to new vistas that have opened up since the last decades of the twentieth century. And this is where, I think, art from Africa and its Diaspora, and from the “peripheries” have contributed in changing—even if slowly—the art museum in unpredictable ways.

On the African continent, the link between strong economies and modern cultural institutions such as the art museum is so utterly obvious (one needs only look at South Africa), and the challenge going forward is how modern and contemporary art can continue to be relevant to knowledge production in the many African countries that lack proper art museums. Will Africa have to rely, as seems the case at the moment, on the unquestionably vibrant, though small, independent spaces–many of which depend on overseas funding–that have mushroomed in the past few years across the continent?

While there is no doubt that great strides have been made in terms of visibility of work by African artists in western art museums, I am less sanguine about an upswing in the establishment and support of art museums inside Africa, and even more so in the possibility of the relatively more endowed national ethnological museums engaging in the kinds of “experiments” with contemporary art such as we see in the west and Japan.  Ultimately, these issues will continue to haunt the way we think of contemporary African art as an important facet in the cultural life of the continent, and as a vital element 21st century global imaginaries.

I wish to thank each and every one of us for sparing the time, especially during these early summer months of travels and exhibitions to participate in this conversation. It has been a learning experience for me, and I am honored to have been able to bring this august group together despite the great distances. Thanks also to those–a shout out to Anitra Nettleton and Antawan I. Byrd–who sent substantive comments to the blog, and to the many, many silent readers that have followed the discussion online.

Farrell: A progressive step forward with exhibitions can be made through dealing with the work first and the nationality of the artist as a secondary consideration.  This is perhaps the limitation to be overcome by museums dedicated to a geographic region. Curators working with modern and contemporary African art can make strides forward by maintaining an awareness of global modern and contemporary art practices and using their expansive knowledge of Africa and its various geographies to create innovative and informed exhibitions.  I tend to disagree with the position that museums need to focus on asking questions rather than taking a position and offering information to promote dialogue.  When museum visitors pay an admission fee they ought to reap the benefits of the various levels of expertise working behind the scenes at the institution.  Questions can be a dynamic part of the dialogue but should be posed as one element of an enriched viewing and learning experience.  Let’s do the research, collaborate both with artists and across institutions, and make every effort possible to let the art speak for itself. Institutions have mission statements, agendas and stakeholders that guide exhibition protocol analysis. Perhaps the next step forward could be a study on how our various institutions are shaping how we look at and present art.

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