Farrell: With all due respect to my colleagues, I have a tough time buying into the notion of a “hybrid” museum. While I think we all agree that diverse offerings strengthen programming and reach the broadest possible audience, I’m not sure this qualifies as hybridity. Some of our colleagues have expressed a desire to have a curatorial footing in both the historical (potentially ethnographic) and contemporary art contexts. Yet the mission statements for some of these organizations and the types of shows they put on are clearly oriented towards a very specific vision and set of values that not congruent with these sentiments. Even though it is laudable to see institutions developing responsively to art of their time and the need to sustain support and an audience, one has to wonder why the positioning from these organizations seems so defensive. Is the defensiveness indicative of deeper issues that have yet to surface in our dialogue?
Contemporary artists from Africa have been featured in solo exhibitions around the world to great critical success for some time now. It is a bit shocking that El Anatsui didn’t realize greater success in the United States much earlier as he’s been a rising star at the October Gallery in London for some time. I believe Anatsui had his first solo show there 16 years ago along with an established exhibition history in Africa. It is undeniable that his inclusion in the 2007 Venice Biennale catapulted his career to a whole new level. However, it is important to note that many curators and collectors were well aware of his work through the October Gallery, David Krut (early on) and more recently through Jack Shainman, and exhibitions such as Africa Remix (2004-07), Africas: The Artist and the City and a series of group exhibitions at the National Museum of African Art. (As an aside, I’m not sure how Nick Cave factors into this discussion aside from the fact that his practice directly engages African references. Nick was born in Missouri and also garnered a great deal of critical success prior to the launch of his current touring solo exhibition.) European institutions have been considerably more progressive than American institutions in their promotion of artists from Africa as contemporary artists. The Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, InIva in London and Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in Kassel are a few examples that readily come to mind where artists from Africa were presented alongside their contemporaries – and these are just the tip of the iceberg. Many commercial gallery solo shows, institutional solo shows and performances could easily be added to this list. We are also mindful of the many contributions made by Camouflage, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Goodman Gallery, the Michael Stevenson Gallery, the South African National Gallery and the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo as African organizations that have long shown and promoted the work of contemporary artists.
Going back to the issue of translating art through a variety of contexts I am not sure that artists who have exhibited in an ethnographic, or Afro-centric context really do experience issues showing their work in other settings. Good work will always translate well in a multitude of contexts. Yinka Shonibare MBE once told me that he agreed to participate in Looking Both Ways because African Arts magazine had recently put him on the cover. He saw the opportunity to participate in an “African” show as a vehicle to help the younger generation of artists garner recognition. Shortly after the African Arts cover Shonibare also graced the cover of Artforum. Quality, consistency and conceptual rigor appeal to a broad range of curators, collectors, scholars and critics. How artists position themselves and their work also impacts the types of opportunities availed to them. Institutions can also be proactive through the promotion of emerging artists as well as the more established “usual suspects.”