Spring: I think it’s fair to say that some of the early exhibitions and publications of contemporary African art by curators who were not of African heritage were in danger of taking the field into some very problematic territory. African-born scholars and curators—together with one or two enlightened colleagues not of African descent—helped to ensure that the fledgling field was not appropriated by the West before it was ready to fly. I think they were guided by principles that ran deeper than scholarship in making sure that some of the strictures which had long circumscribed the study of African art were not allowed to take root again. Their “liberation” of North Africa, by including artists from this part of the continent, is a classic case in point because it fundamentally undermined the position of those who clung desperately (and some are still clinging) to the idea that not only North Africa, but also to some extent the Horn, Swahili coast, Madagascar and, dare I say it, South Africa were in some senses “not really African.” From there it was a short step to perceiving Africa and African art, in all their inclusive diversity, as global phenomena.
There is a danger that, in the battleground of academic, curatorial and theoretical argument, the voices of the artists who are at the center of the debate are no longer heard, and that their work simply becomes the research material which African art once represented to the colonial anthropologists of the past. Today curators of African heritage are just as prone to fall into this trap as are any of their colleagues; what Chika refers to as “the remnants of the colonial imagination” are deeply ingrained and can take many forms.
A couple of years ago I collaborated with Atta Kwami in setting up a Triangle Arts workshop in Kumasi. Atta’s work was at that time showing at the Metropolitan Museum and Grey Art Gallery in New York, and at the BM in London. I remember him saying that “the way forward” was for contemporary artists in Africa to help transform museums throughout the continent just as they had in the West. Atta is also an accomplished curator with a passion for museums, and his vision for the future set me thinking about ways in which he might be assisted in realizing this ambition.