Kellner: In a recent article in the New York Times, critic, Holland Cotter opens with the following statement, “What happened to Africa?” an art-world friend asked. “It disappeared.” Cotter is referring to the number of major exhibitions of African art in big American museums, or rather the lack thereof. Two items emerge from Cotter’s article. He talks about young scholars of African art beginning to focus on present-day urban material culture rather than on an object-intensive study of rural traditions and secondly he refers to the Triennial Symposium of African Art in Los Angeles where “18 historians who were born in Africa and now work there, true stakeholders in how it is perceived and preserved.” I want to draw from Kinsey’s comment below, “how does ‘our’ desire… fit into ‘their’ articulation.” The our and their. The diaspora and the continent. In a sense, the representation of Africa and this would include contemporary African art, appears to be constantly mediated. Africa, the continent, has remained the site of production while the US and Europe is the site of reception. In this way, Africa is “imagined” from afar and “performed” to an audience outside of Africa. In this way, when a contemporary African artist speaks, it is often outside the site of production.
In thinking about what constitutes contemporary African art Christopher Spring’s notion of not wanting to create hard and fast definitions has relevance. I recall at the beginning of South Africa’s emerging democracy when the country opened up to the international cultural community, a number of South African artists presented themselves as contemporary South African artists and later in the African circuit as contemporary African artists. Once they had established credible international galleries, they simply wanted to be known as “artists.” The artistic disposition is one that doesn’t want to be labelled. It led me to think about the continent in Mudimbe’s sense of existing within multiple histories, geographies and temporalities. Reading from Cotter’s article suggests that there are still very strong inherent ideas about what Africa should or shouldn’t be which of course effects how it is represented.