Berns: I would like to respond to this last query from Chika by taking a rather practical approach to the matter of how we operationalize a “geography of contemporary African art” in our programming. I write from the point of view of a university museum that has a very broad geographical and temporal mandate and has done a wide range of projects that engage the contemporary, and I have articulated some of the breadth and fluidity of our approaches earlier. Even though I have curated a number of exhibitions—large and small—I mostly sit in an administrative chair and have not devoted the time curators do in looking at art, meeting artists, visiting studios and galleries, and generally keeping up with a field I perceive to be so vast as to seem nearly impossible to comprehend in all its breadth, diversity and dynamism, both on and beyond the African continent. Having worked in a more general university art museum, I always found the pressure on contemporary art curators to be “in the know” as extremely challenging, even though choices do get made, opportunities are exploited and special relationships are forged with artists in the making of exhibition projects based on institutional priorities and personal research interests. The realities surrounding this scope of expectations explains why many contemporary art curators with a Euro-American focus have only limited knowledge of African contemporary artists and use the biennales and other high profile group shows as a powerful filter. I suspect that if one studied the trends in who has been shown, and where and when, it would reveal the artists who have reached the greatest popularity and exposure internationally and whose identities and intentions have been manipulable and why, as Karen has pointed out. I would also add that for curators, convincing their museum’s administration and board of the importance of showing particular artists (who may not be widely known) often relies on international forums for validation.
For curators of contemporary African art in institutions where its presentation is a mandated priority, the effort to comprehend the full geography of production, especially when we continue to contest any fixed definition of what constitutes “Africa,” is no easy task. We should not forget the very real practicalities of knowledge and access. What are the strategies we use to know who is doing what and where? How often can we travel? What kind of resources do we have to allow for global travel? How can we strategize efficient research approaches in the current economy of restraint? It is not enough to rely on the Internet to chase down artists, although this has surely enhanced access to information in major ways. To see the work is a different matter as are opportunities to meet the artists who make it. Practicality has to be a limiting factor in the scope of our work, whether we can travel to New York, London, Paris, Dakar, Johannesburg, Lagos or beyond. (Khwezi has just alluded to the problematic of how some European curators “do” Africa.) It is not surprising that the major biennales have become so important and why, in particular, Venice has become the international event. This year there will be four African national pavilions (Congo, Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and curated by people on the ground from an African vantage point) and at least seven Africa-based artists were selected by Bice Curiger, the curator of the main group show (admittedly, according to the Biennale website, all from North African countries or South Africa). It would seem from what I could ascertain from the website that nearly all of these artists live on the African continent, even if none seem to be from West or Central African nations. Such inclusion can make an artist’s career as we saw with El Anatsui in 2007 (who I understand will do a command performance this year in Venice too).
At the Fowler, given the range of curatorial responsibilities and scope of projects, it is hard not to take advantage of such events. With limited resources and time, we have to strike a balance between the practical and the theoretical. Both Gemma Rodrigues (the Fowler’s new Curator of African Arts) and I plan to go to Venice (I have not missed one since I began attending in 1999) where we hope to discover artists we don’t know and who we may want to learn more about. This has certainly happened in the past and we acknowledge that the selection process leaves only a very narrow view (and definition) of contemporary artistic production. Beyond taking advantage of the broader perspective such an art event can provide, I also fully endorse the more narrowly focused projects that would take Gemma to particular locations in Africa and would find the resources to support the travel and research. And, there are other creative solutions to pursue to gain knowledge of the wider terrain of contemporary production, and that is building partnerships with curators working on the continent. As Khwezi described at the end of his post, the new independent art centers emerging there offer possibilities for collaborations of mutual benefit to artists and curators working in and out of Africa. And, I know that with creativity and pluck there are ways we can keep the “geography of contemporary African art” both wide and deep, and within reach.
And, as a postscript, I could also respond to the last question in Karen’s posting since the Fowler has long “combined so-called traditional works with the contemporary” in its exhibition projects. So, in my view, not “shame on us.” But, I think I have said quite enough now and perhaps this issue will re-emerge later.