Spring: How do we imagine the field of contemporary African art as a subject of curation within the museum? My feeling is that, while acknowledging the importance of defining contemporary African art, we have also to be very wary of creating hard and fast definitions, especially as African art has historically been blighted with definitions and suppositions, many of which have been deeply misleading. If Ottenberg really believed that the Afikpo artists (and all the other artists he took them to represent) were only prevented from becoming bona fide ‘contemporary African artists’ by their inability to ‘talk back’ or to understand the ‘interpretive language’ of the curator or the anthropologist, then surely we should be doing everything in our power to remedy this situation, rather than using it as a reason to exclude them from the discourse for ever more? I have to say that the Ottenberg anecdote is rather old fashioned in that it does not seem to take account of the increasingly loud voices of African artists who have been the subject of anthropological and art historical studies over the past thirty years. Of course the master weaver, the blacksmith or the mask maker is commissioned and paid for work produced, so perhaps does not feel the same need to ‘talk back’ as the artist preparing for the next biennale whose reputation may depend on producing something new and remarkable – or something which he/she believes may be to the liking of a particular curator, in which case ‘talking back’ may be inappropriate! In fact, the ability or the opportunity of artists, African or otherwise, to talk back and thus to define themselves as contemporary in Ottenberg’s terms is severely limited and is often at the whim of the curator, the critic or the gallery system.
That said, in recent years the biennale and the blockbuster touring exhibition have become important means of bringing the work of artists of African heritage to the world’s attention, but that should not mean that the work of contemporary African artists who do not perform on those stages is somehow less significant and less ‘contemporary’, less part of a dynamic continuum. It is essential that the definition of ‘contemporary African art’ does not descend into a sequence of tortuous taxonomies, but rather that the description remains as dynamic, flexible and fluid as the phenomena it attempts to represent.