Gule: At the risk of stating the obvious I think that one should not always make an exception out of African art, whether contemporary or modern. In some ways the issues that artist from African countries have to face apply to artists everywhere, even in the west.
We might say that African artists face greater problems in terms of visibility and in terms of access to resources and platforms as well as misreading of their work, not to mention having to battle old prejudices, but there are bigger challenges facing the art industry especially museums. One such issue is social relevance.
So I see your two questions as linked. Because of the fact that our contemporary reality has enabled us to experience several revolutions within our societies and cultures; by extension institutions of culture have had to transform themselves constantly.
We have witnessed the end of colonialism, the end of the cold war, the emergence of the information society and more recently revolutions in Northern Africa and the emergence of “new” superpowers and power blocks. One of the more interesting situations that museums will have to face is the emergence of relatively new global players such as India and China, and new ethical challenges.
Museums have had to fight for their material and metaphysical survival which has also been played out in how museums have aligned themselves ideologically and to some extent with particular political interests. There are many competing demands on museums which include being standard bearers of excellence in an era of an increasingly contested and ever expanding notion of art, unstable sources of funding, the demand that museums acquiesce to populism, in addition to carrying out their traditional roles such as conservation, education, and knowledge production.
In countries such as South Africa where museums are so dependent on public funding for both operations and programming there are significant pressures to play it safe. When we were hanging the Tracey Rose exhibition at the JAG earlier this year there were some concern about the sexually explicit material in the exhibition. But it is worth noting that the audience that came didn’t have as much of a problem as did some JAG staff.
Another possible danger is that in their fight for survival museums can become virtual proxies for commercial interests. In an age where universities and museums are becoming corporatized it might sound antiquated to say that these institutions should resist the encroachment of the market on their work. Museum professionals should not simply validate popular trends or bend to the demands of dealers and commercial galleries that want to have their artists represented in collections or to have solo shows.
Museums have a responsibility to research and foreground ideas, discourses and particular modes of production. To do this they have to have a sustained engagement with their chosen field. I often feel that much of what is produced in contemporary art circles has not been properly researched and is repetitive. It is important to develop new critical tools that can help us deal with our ever-changing political and creative environments and move beyond our limited perspectives.
Failure to do so would mean that we are relying on critical frameworks that have no more use which I think inevitably leads to the kind of conservatism that has sought to marginalize African art or even to mobilize it to reactionary ends.