Gule: On the issue of geography I would like to start by asking: what is Africa to Africans rather than only asking what is Africa to the rest of the world? During a panel discussion that I was part of last year Achille Mbembe observed that in the run up to the soccer world cup in South Africa, the government spent a lot of energy trying to convince the west that South Africa was able to host such a big event rather than in preparing for the actual event. To this I might add that they spent even less time in thinking about the perception of South Africa by other Africans.
My experience is that much like western attitudes towards Africa as a whole, South Africans tend to look at other African countries as spaces where nothing happens and places that one has little to learn from. This, despite the incredible contribution that those countries have made to South Africa politically, economically, culturally and intellectually. So for me the issue of geography is relative. In a sense a place like Cape Town is much closer to many people in Johannesburg than Maseru in Lesotho or Maputo in Mozambique or Gaborone in Botswana even though the physical distance is longer. As people often say it is easier for Africans to travel to Europe than it is for us to travel to another African country either because of lack of opportunities or because historical, business and cultural links are weaker.
A while ago as part of the Multipistes project I facilitated the travel of six African artists to another African country that they had not visited. While trying to arrange a flight for the Kenyan artist Jimmy Ogonga I found out that the cheapest and quickest route to get from Nairobi to Luanda is either via Addis Ababa or via Johannesburg.
For me the work of researching African artists by Africans themselves is paramount. And this work has to be undertaken in terms that are broader than nationalist agendas. The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) during Clive’s tenure acquired the work of a few African artists and I am sure it was due to his influence that a MTN, a mobile phone company in South Africa has a collection of contemporary African art. But where are the collections of Modern African art? Such work is not researched nor is it written about here in South Africa. Sometimes I wonder why it is that we must complain about under-representation of Africans in Europe and America when we don’t do so as Africans.
Of course one of the ways in which geography is played out is in terms of power dynamics. For quite some time I have hosted many curators from Europe. Many of them had come to me via the JAG and in most cases they were curating an exhibition of contemporary African Art. I have taken my time to show a number of curators around Johannesburg and I have taken them to various artists and sites around the city. The reason I do this is because I want them to appreciate the context: history, culture and politics of South Africa rather than just hunting for the coolest art they could find or simply gunning for the artists that are already on the biennale circuit.
I am of course using the hunting puns quite deliberately because there have been times when it has felt like curators come to South Africa as a shopping exercise with no intention of engaging with the country beyond whatever project they may be working on at the time.
It is true that Africa is grossly misunderstood by the West but it does not mean Africa has no currency. And I have witnessed my fair share of dishonest projects by European curators to come to the conclusion that some projects exist because there are funds available to pay for the travel and accommodation of the curator but not to pay for the production work or to pay the artist’s fee.
However there are those experiences that have been very positive. These include an exhibition I co-curated with, Gabi Ngcobo and Tracy Murinik and Elvira Dyangani Ose who was at the time curator at CAAM, Spain and more recently I co-curated Tracey Rose’s exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery with a New York based curator Renaud Proch. The show ended recently and will be travelling to the Bildmuseet in Umea to open in September. This show was largely made possible because Katarina Pierre who now heads the Bildmuseet has had a very long and sustained relationship with South African art, its institutions and its artists.
I would like to conclude by saying that the phenomenon of independent art centers that are growing in different parts of the continent has the power of disrupting the power dynamics I have referred to. Places such as the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos initiated by Bisi Silva, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum in Egypt founded by Bassam el Baroni, L’Appartement 22 founded by Abdellah Karroum in Morocco and the Centre for Historical Re-enactments which was started last year by Gabi Ngcobo in Johannesburg have been important not only in expanding the chances for local artists to be represented on the global stage but have also generated spaces for dialogue and engagement with writers, scholars, curators and artists from different parts of the world but more importantly within the continent itself.