Milbourne: In response to Chika’s latest ambitious questions, I concur with Khwezi’s thoughtful comments but there are some subtleties that bear teasing out; for instance, his comment that we should not always make an exception of contemporary or modern African art. This is true, but it is by no means limited to those associated with Africa. Increasingly as the art world becomes more globalized, art and artists are getting ghettoized. The labels used to be based on era or style; now they are determined by geography. Just earlier this week there was an interesting article about how contemporary Russian art sales were down while Chinese were up. The entire study broke the art world down by geography and perceived relevance—India made it in but Africa was not even represented, though The Economist ran a feature on the art market that looked seriously at artists identified as African roughly eighteen months ago. We all know that this is happening; the challenge is in how or whether we accept the labels and the assumptions associated with them. In addition to weathering the dueling challenges of the market—raising sufficient funds to generate meaningful exhibitions, acquisitions and programs, while also resisting or at least questioning the market-driven definitions of art and relevance— we need to insist on the museum as the place to question rather than endorse these processes. And I don’t mean this just in a didactic sense. How are we engaging with artists as agents rather than subjects? How are we creating exhibitions that show the complexity of what it can mean to be African or contemporary or modern? How can we keep “Africa” in perspective with the rest of the world?
To me this means that there is no one kind of exhibition that emerges as a priority. Quite the opposite. How do we generate more exhibitions of multiple types: single artist AND thematic, local and global, temporally focused and expansive…and in multiple spaces—encyclopedic art museums, science museums, Africa-focused museums both on and off the continent… It is here that I think exhibitions like Barbara Thompson’s upcoming exhibition on oil will be fantastic. Originated by an Africanist working with African artists, this multi-region exhibition will look at the timely and incredibly significant role of the oil industry from the perspective of artists around the world. At the same time, I think it is profoundly important that we erode the “traditional”/”contemporary” divide. Why is it still accepted that curators, scholars and artists working with the contemporary should be grounded in Rauschenberg and Courbet but historic knowledge of Africa is seen as “ethnographic?” We need to get past facile definitions of “traditional,” “modern,” “popular” and “contemporary.” These practices have all intersected and often occupied the same geographic and temporal spheres. The contemporary is not something that just happened to Africa. How are particular histories relevant to the present? How can these be shown alongside exhibitions where exposing such connections is not appropriate? We need to be careful to look for the places where we are inconsistent in our labels, displays and choice of words. Money and resources will likely always be limited but our minds need not be.