France: a platform for a conversation on contemporary African art?
Recent cultural events highlighting work originating from the African continent are not lacking in the French capital. Following a cancelled first edition, the contemporary art and design fair AKAA — Also Known As Africa — will take place this weekend at the Carreau du Temple in Paris.
Against the backdrop of exhibitions such as “Les Magiciens de la Terre” (1989) and “Africa Remix” (2005) and the thematic of ‘interpreting the emerging artistic scene in Africa’ at the most recent edition of YIA, African art seems to be entering a new era.
African art is virtually everywhere in France. Most recently, artists Kader Attia from Algeria, Yto Barrada from Morocco and Barthélémy Toguo from Cameroon were all nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, one of France’s most important prizes — eventually awarded to Attia. Elsewhere Njideka Akunyili Crosby was awarded the Prix Canson; Kehinde Wiley had his first solo show “Lamentation” at the Petit Palais in Paris; Dineo Seshee Bopape from South Africa presented Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] at the Palais de Tokyo; in 2015 the Fondation Cartier presented “Beauté Congo” whilst the work of Seydou Keïta was exhibited at the Grand Palais as part of a major retrospective.
Yet the discourse surrounding Africa and its artists differs according to the location: “Africa Remix” could not have been the same kind of event in Tokyo, Berlin or New York for example. Context is primordial. The contemporary African art fair 1:54 in London and New York does not present itself in the same language as AKAA: each fair brings their international interpretation to the event, inscribing themselves in a spatial-temporal framework which each intends to redefine.
By definition, contemporary art incorporates all work produced since 1945, the end of the Second World War. It is therefore important to note that at this time, a large part of Africa was under colonial domination. We should therefore ask ourselves if the temporality of this definition needs to be adapted in order to better understand the work we are confronted with.
The author Felwine Sarr speaks of a continued Westernization of Africa (Afrotopia, 2016, Editions Philippe Rey) that remains from a colonial epoch, depicting the contemporary African man as torn between a tradition that he no longer truly knows, and a modernity that has been imposed upon him as a destructive force that incurs dehumanization. It is from the heart of this sensitive duality that artists from the continent must experiment.
Badouin Mouanda’s firemen, Sammy Baloji’s stories of a colonial Congo; Evans Mbugua’s portraits; Kader Attia’s installations and paintings by Julie Mehretu — to name just a few — come together to form a diversity of new perspectives on the international contemporary art scene, from which these artists were ignored for too long.
Africa, like all continents, presents a large variety of cultures, histories and civilizations. This plurality must surpass the rigid appellation of “contemporary African art”. The movement has displayed an exceptional effervescence which has been helped along by the Internet and social networks which allow us to perceive the diaspora and the continent in all its diversity.
It is also worth noting that exhibiting African artists, even at reasonable prices, does not equal success. When auction house Piasa organized a sale dedicated to contemporary African art and the diaspora in June this year, the second of its kind, only 51% of lots were sold. Very few of the works that were actually bought managed to surpass their low-end estimations and the auction realized a total of just €44,000 for over 100 lots. The auction house will nonetheless give it another go, with a sale on 29 November.
The multiplication of exhibition opportunities and sales contributes invariably to the promotion of artists from the African continent and the diaspora, bringing their work to the attention of collectors and to larger audiences.
We are nonetheless drawn to the question of the representation of artists outside of the continent. What are the different dynamics that are emerging from Paris, France and Europe?
The biennials in Dakar and Marrakech are attracting more and more international art lovers, while the Kampala Biennial in Uganda is only just emerging with its second edition taking place in 2016.
Events such as ART x Lagos, with its first edition taking place this year, creates links between contemporary art and popular culture, the classical schemas present on the continent are invited to reinvent themselves and invite artists to be represented in a way that is closer to African realities.
Artists from the African continent have to navigate a whole host of stereotypes and preconceived ideas in order to lead them to the universal debate of contemporary art, allowing them to choose whether or not to draw from their origins within a system of art that slowly opening up.