Clarke: In my last commentary I briefly referred to a public program held in 1991 in conjunction with the exhibition Africa Explores organized by the Center for African Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC – this was, for me, a significant early moment in my engagement with contemporary African art. I want to expand on it here, as what resonated with me relates to this discussion thread.
I vividly recall an exchange between a member of the audience and one of the panelists (unfortunately, I can’t recall who the panelist was…perhaps Thomas McEvilley?). The discussion revolved around the work of Sunday Jack Akpan, a cement sculptor from Nigeria, whose work was featured in the exhibition and who was also a participant on the panel. There was some back and forth about Akpan’s work, its categorization within the exhibition as “New Functional Art,” and whether or not the maker considered himself an artist. As the exchange dragged on, Keith Nicklin (the British anthropologist and Horniman Museum curator) stood up and said something to the effect of “For god’s sake, the artist is right here. Why don’t we let him speak for himself?”
Chika has proposed that an artist who can “talk back” to us as curators might serve as a useful benchmark in understanding what constitutes contemporary African art, one that might allow us to move beyond categorization by academic background, media or location of practice. But I do think we need to recognize the power differential that exists between different discursive spaces. In reality, all spaces of encounter between artist and curator (and other players in the art world) are not equal, and this influences how contemporary African art is mediated on the world stage. As Khwezi has so aptly observed, what defines contemporary African art may have more to do with an artist’s proximity to global centers of influence than the work itself or the artist’s intent. Pamela McClusky provides an excellent analysis of how this plays out in the museum in Collecting the New, edited by Bruce Altshuler. Her essay compares two contemporary works acquired by the Seattle Art Museum, an installation by Yinka Shonibare and a masquerade costume by the performance collective AyanAgalu (both of which could be classified as “Yoruba art”) and traces the different trajectories of their accessioning and display.
I began with the story about Sunday Jack Akpan because it speaks directly to this issue. As curators, I believe we need to be sensitive to how international market forces have, and are, shaping public understanding of contemporary African art. Like Chris and others who have already commented here, my understanding of contemporary African art is broad and encompasses varied visual practices, not just those whose work is performed on the world stage. In fact, the cement sculpture of a policeman that Akpan created for the exhibition “Africa Explores” was my first acquisition for the Newark Museum in 2002, a gift from the Museum for African Art. Our collection of “contemporary African art” has grown steadily since then and does include work by artists whose work circulates on the international circuit of biennales and art fairs, ranging from art world stars to lesser known artists: Olu Amoda, El Anatsui, Owusu-Ankomah, Viye Diba, Sokey Edorh, Samuel Fosso, Marcia Kure, Senzeni Marasela, Sam Nhlengethwa, Yinka Shonibare, Twins Seven-Seven, Sue Williamson, and others. At the same time, I have also acquired other forms of contemporary art: glass beads by Cedi Nomoda, a “fantasy” coffins by Paa Joe and his workshop (Karen, we have a cellphone, too), an Iwayo costume for Egungun performances by Ayan Agalu, as well as factory-printed textiles (in this case, I would say it is the users, not the makers, who serve as interlocutors!).
I will end here by saying that how we imagine contemporary African art as a subject of curation is, I believe, partially determined by, or at least responds to, the context/s in which we work. As this relates to the second part of Chika’s question and our next discussion thread, I will expand on this later on.