Gule: Where African art is concerned there are pitfalls at every turn. I think that one of the crucial factors that constitute contemporary practice (both curatorial and artistic) is the element of criticality.
I have often felt that many exhibitions of African art not only in the West but also here at home have only sought to historicize, contextualize and to make visible/known the work of African artists. While these are central to the function of museums I also think that, in the contemporary context, it is equally important to interrogate and complicate these histories and contexts and indeed the works themselves. In other words the work of contemporanizing has to be more than an act of inclusion of artists into a western canon or museums but must also involve an examination of what those works can offer by way of critique.
I have also had some misgivings about some curatorial projects I have witnessed recently which have been undertaken by curators of contemporary art in the name of social engagement and public interventions especially with projects involving the inner city of Johannesburg and sometimes in the Black townships. These to me have had more than a hint of ethnographic fetishism embedded in them. One such project took place under the auspices of the Berlin Theatre which commissioned contemporary artists and dancers to create projects in Hillbrow (inner city Johannesburg) and Kliptown (an impoverished suburb of Soweto). Despite some valiant attempts by artists to subvert the dynamic between the residents of those spaces and the visitors who had come to see the performances I could not help feeling like a voyeur and a tourist in what is supposed to be my city.
Similarly a number of photographic essays by photo-journalists as well as commercial and documentary photographers have been celebrated without question in contemporary art circles. Without wanting to foreground the political economy and thereby undermining the work that curators have done, it is quite clear that to be “contemporary” involves buying into a definition of the contemporary that would ensure that museums remain economically and discursively relevant.
There is nothing inherently progressive about contemporary practice unless it offers the space to engage with our world (art, history, geography etc.) critically.