The Horror, the Horror
"It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness" Joseph Conrad; "Heart of Darkness"
I live with the knowledge that I am a complete contradiction. In the first instance because I am a White African. My family has lived in South Africa for more than 300 years having had no contact with, nor knowledge of, any family elsewhere in the world and yet we remain foreign both in Africa and in Europe. Being Afrikaans I presume that my ancestors were Dutch and most likely escaping Holland as criminals or refugees.
I embrace the contradictory nature of my identity both as a heritage as well as a practice, for it infuses not only what I am but also what I do. Adding to the first contradiction is the fact that I speak as an artist who also writes about art, curates the occasional exhibition and earns a living as an art consultant. Having only recently emerged from a long and violent Revolution many of the rights and privileges that are taken for granted in the First World are simply absent in South Africa. We are living through a very exciting time of nation-building and must use every resource available to reconstruct and develop the infrastructure that was denied and destroyed by the Apartheid system in the name of "Law and Order." Thus, for the time being at least, art will continue to be considered an unnecessary luxury as the country focuses on the development of housing, healthcare and education.
Although it is impossible to generalise about a continent or speak as if the artists from the very different countries that make up a continent as extreme as Africa have anything in common, it can be said with confidence that there is neither the intellectual nor the economic space anywhere in Africa to develop the "Institution of Art" as it is understood in Europe. There is for instance not one single white cube gallery (or museum) anywhere on the continent. The galleries that do exist model themselves on the colonial British or French galleries and museums, complete with dado rails, carpets and on occasion even muzak.
The situation is on the one hand undoubtedly a reflection of the complete absence of any real patronage system, but even more than that it is influenced by the fact that it would be virtually impossible to create the suspension of reality necessary for a white cube gallery to exist within a context where the harsh realities outside have a nasty habit of invitingthemselves in without permission. Even in a country like South Africa where a semi First World infrastructure does exist, the art and art galleries are unable to escape the burden of history and art inevitably becomes political and politics becomes art.
This is not necessarily negative for it encourages the artist to think more carefully about what it is that he or she makes and why. Through their experiences the contemporary African artist acknowledges that art is not ideologically neutral, but that implicit in the simple object are profound political implications that extend far beyond the picture frame or sculpture base. In fighting for and creating a sympathetic context in which contemporary art can be exhibited the privilege of specialisation is denied. It is therefore not uncommon to find artists like Olu Oguibe, Donald Odita, Candice Breitz, David Koloane, Colin Richards or Penny Siopis who in addition to being practicing artists also write about art and curate exhibitions. By engaging with such multiple experiences of art and how meaning is constructed within the Institution informs the strategy that many of these artists adopt when it comes to producing their own work. I for one have become very conscious of the role that the curator or critic plays in the construction of meaning within a work of art beyond that which the artist may even be aware of. I realise why for instance the Multi-Cultural curator would prefer a "mute" or "naive" African artist who would as a result be entirely dependent on the curator.
It was the groundbreaking 1989 exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" curated by Jean-Hubert Martin that first presented the idea of contemporary African art to the world. Until very recently it was the only exhibition that had ever attempted to define what contemporary African art could be and more than that to exhibit work by such artists alongside work by leading artists from Europe and the United States. The juxtaposition did not however view the African artist in quite the same terms as artists from any other continent.
In his recent book "Contemporary Art of Africa", Andre Magnin, the African curator for "Magiciens de la Terre", explains how the contemporary African artist will, for the purposes of his exhibitions, (and the Jean Pigozzi collection) always be black, residing somewhere within the sub-Saharan part of the continent and never had the opportunity to study art in any art school. The African artist he argues produces preliterate work that is outside of any occidental tradition and beyond the normal ranges of influence that artists living elsewhere in the world would experience. The North African Islamic nations are thus excluded on account that their work may have been exposed to European traditions, as are African artists who currently live in exile for similar reasons. Many African artists today travel, some more extensively than others, but according to the Magnin's criteria the exposure to new languages and contexts must not in any way influence the nature of the work they produce. Magiciens de la Terre remains one of the most important and visionary exhibitions presented this century. For all its problems it remains a counterpoint for both European and Non European exhibitions. Its strength lies in the fact that it did juxtapose art from the so-called Third Worlds with their First World contemporaries. In its wake the majority of exhibitions with a Multi-Cultural agenda that claim to have been inspired or at least been influenced by Magiciens de le Terre's curatorial principles have excluded all but the Third World artists, an exclusion that in effect ghettoizes particularly African art as an alien curiosity. The exhibition traditionally takes place within the white cube, somewhere in a European or American art capital and typically the traffic is always in the same direction: into the white cube gallery, which we all know is able to accommodate anything from a cow that has been sliced in half, to a traditional African mask or even canned "Artist's Shit") Placing the non-western object into this context without placing the accompanying western object into a non-western context is neither dialogue nor exchange, but rather a re-enactment of colonial power relations. Being present as a guest the non-western subject is expected to behave as such and respect the rules of the host, even if they are patronising or racist.
The African continent has always been represented by objects that within their cultures of production function in the same terms as western folk art, curios, or even utilitarian objects that once had very specific uses, be they sacred or profane, decorative or even propagandistic. As such they are not all that different from the images depicting Swiss Folk Art traditions regularly used as advertisements by the Zurich gallerist Bruno Bischofberger, except that the gallery does not exhibit, nor would probably even believe that the Folk Traditions depicted could be anything more than an ingenious marketing strategy, much less Art.
This double standard has its origin deep within the heart of the Colonial project. The missionaries and settlers made it their "God" given task to save the natives from themselves, destroying or perverting every tradition, belief and culture that did not subscribe to the Christian dogma. The first step in the process was to translate and transcribe the Bible into indigenous languages. These bibles were then used to teach the natives how to read and write their own languages, a sly and manipulative method of instilling "Christian" values within the native subject. Even if the native was not fully converted to Christianity the process was nonetheless instrumental in eroding the oral tradition, together with all the values and beliefs stored within that tradition. It did not stop there as natives were forced to learn and speak the Colonial languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc) and subscribe to the values implicit within those languages.( like the "assumption" that all things white represent purity and goodness, whilst black on the other hand is associated with evil, death and everything bad) On 16 June 1976 thousands of school children took to the streets of Soweto in protest against Afrikaans (17th century Dutch) as being the only medium of their tuition. At precisely the same time in Nigeria Igbo students were prevented form speaking their mother tongue and forced to speak only English.
In the colonies the urban design, city planning, architecture, clothing, social patterns and culture in general was carefully constructed to reinforce a belief in the supremacy of the European system. Even the map that was being drawn up of the world placed Europe at the top and in the centre. In the earliest maps of Southern Africa the area was called "Caffraria," being the place inhabited by "cafars" which literally translates from Arabic as "unbelievers." The towns and countries being "discovered" were all given names like New York, New England, Rosebank, Hyde Park, Kensington, Venezuela and so on, names that reinforced the principle that the rest of the world was being recreated in the image of Europe with White, Heterosexual, European, Man as the measure of all things. The "centre" was established as the standard by which everything else was judged. European values, languages, culture and traditions were presented as being normal and everything from art to fashion was judged according to their proximity to that standard. Even the infrastructure within the colony was designed to serve the centre as every main road, railway line or port was built only in order to supply the European capitals with commodities that would ultimately produce greater profit. The economic agenda of colonialism is best illustrated by the physical location in London of the South African and Canadian embassies on each side of Trafalgar Square, with only the National Gallery between them. The Golden Age in Holland that gave rise to artists like Rembrandt and Hals was only possible from the capital generated by the Dutch East India Company and its colonial projects in South Africa and the East Indies. It is not coincidental either that the old South African flag, symbol of Apartheid and racial terror bore at its centre both the Union Jack and the 17th century Dutch flags. It is easy to understand the prejudices implicit in so-called "good old fashioned values" if you were born on the wrong side of the globe into an upside down world.
The "good" native who subscribed to these principles was rewarded both financially and in terms of their social standing within the European model, but that respect only accorded relative privilege. It would still be a very long time, if ever, before the native would be seen by the European (or Colonialist Settler) as an equal. To this day in South Africa the word "Kaffir", a derivative of the original "Cafar," is used within racist contexts to refer to black people. The "good" native always understood this dynamic and remained in their "place," a silent presence that could be called for only when needed.
It is this "good" native that Multi-Cultural curators prefer since the subject is sufficiently well behaved not to embarrass the host or curator, but exotic enough to amuse the curator's guests and visitors. In the transaction the native surrenders him or herself to their host who in turn speaks on behalf of the artist, becoming the only voice and interpretation by which the artist is then known.
Africa remains, as it has since the time of Pliny The Elder, a dumping ground for the myths and fantasies of the European imagination, ("Always something new out of Africa") an empty signifier just waiting to be filled. Whether it is fantasies about the size of a Zulu man's penis, his wild libido or the notion of a pre-literate unspoiled continent of naifs and savants, Africa continues to be perceived through racist stereotypical prejudices. Sadly these stereotypes are as prevalent in Africa and African-American societies as they are anywhere else in the world. Given that these stereotypes are embedded so deep within the European languages and ideologies, it stands to reason that the African subject who grew up being taught these languages and thus coerced to subscribe to these ideologies will see themselves through European eyes without even being aware of it.
This was the problem with the mega Africa 95 exhibition held in London in 1995. It was the first large scale exhibition since "Magicien de la Terre" that attempted to define an African practice different from that proposed by Andre Magnin. Africa95 set out to present a Modernist Africa in which it was argued that African artists subscribed to the exact same values and practices as European artists. It is not coincidental that London, a former Colonial capital would host an exhibition of such work in 1995, precisely at a time when the entire European Modernist project had fallen apart and was virtually laid to rest. While the historical importance of acknowledging that a sophisticated Modernist practice not only existed, but thrived on the African continent cannot be denied, the exhibition presented this tradition not as historical but as contemporary.
The African artists and curators were so grateful to have finally been allowed entry into the hallowed halls of Institutions like the Serpentine, Whitechapel and Royal Academy that they failed to realise that their admittance was only because the work being exhibited seemed "exotic" from a British point of view and thus reinforced the idea that London (and Great Britain) remained "years ahead" of the "rest of the world." By attempting to prove to the British public that African artists could produce work in the same style and according to the same principles as Picasso, the curators only strengthened the Colonial conception of the margins as being nothing more than simulacrums of the centre. Unfortunately in the process the opportunity to acknowledge the historical importance of African Modernists like Ernest Mancoba or Dumile was lost, maybe forever.
Pablo Picasso was one of the first European Modernists to allow African art to "influence" his own work. In his hands these artifacts were however reduced to little more than two dimensional decorative signs that the young ambitious artist so desperately needed as the innovative, exotic and therefore challenging aesthetic solutions that would later make him famous. The facial features of the prostitutes in "Les Demoiselle de Avignon" for instance resemble African masks, a juxtaposition that links what was considered to be the primal and uncontrolled sexuality of the prostitutes with the image of Africa as an equally uncontrollable "dark continent." While Picasso may not have invented the myth he certainly understood how deep it penetrated the European imagination and thus took full advantage of its evocative power. Since then countless books and exhibitions (like Moma's "Primitivism in the Twentieth Century") have been devoted to analysing the influence of African masks on Modernism, but few authors have understood or even discussed the difference between the masks as they appear in paintings like "Les Demoiselle de Avignon" and the very same objects within their cultures of production.
In the catalogue for Pierre Guerre's collection of African art recently exhibited at the National Gallery in Cape Town, Marguerite de Sabran explains that "a Dan mask does not merely represent a forest spirit, it is that spirit." Traditional African art objects were produced to be used within a specific cultural and political context and their meaning was entirely dependent on that context. Sabran explains further that "it is impossible to attribute a specific function to a Dan mask without studying its use in context" and it is the evidence of this "use" (patina) that distinguishes the "authentic" mask from a curio (that could very well have been produced by the same person in the same village at the very same time, but for some reason was never "used"). Today these masks, many of which were never allowed to be seen during the day or by women, are displayed in glass and perspex cases that disinfect and sanitise them, imposing an altogether different meaning and function from that for which they were originally produced. It is a European conceit and sign of extreme arrogance to assume that these objects and their spirits would aspire to the condition we call art and that this status is the highest that any object can be granted. Within the art museum Traditional African Art is little more than the hunting trophies of past Colonial conquests, spirits forced to live a life in exile where their meaning, use, function and value are determined by the conquerors.
The historical importance that a work like "Les Demoiselle de Avignon" has been granted anywhere in the world, including, if not especially, in the former colonies, has meant in practical terms that most Modern and Contemporary African artists see themselves through Picasso's eyes. His colonialist interpretation is not understood for what it was, but rather as the ultimate compliment, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.
It is thus not surprising that the majority of artists participating in Africa95 presented work that had more in common with Picasso than with Africa itself. This "Idea of Africa" dominates the African imagination and translates into an Afro-Cubist style of painting illustrating romanticised African myths and legends conjured up out of some colonialist explorer's utopian vision of an idyllic lost continent of "innocents." In attempting to "prove" their "Africaness" many artists have resorted to stereotypical idealised images of African mask like portraits or stylised Earth Goddess figures. The cliched forms and romantic titles of such works embody and represent the colonial vision and its ideologies more aggressively than even the settlers themselves were ever able to.
The price being paid is that work which ironically may have much more in common with the traditions that have always thrived on the African continent itself is overlooked or disregarded as being "Eurocentric" as it does not embody or illustrate the cliché. The concept of producing art that has its origin in lived reality, taking into account the daily rituals of the culture of production may not be uniquely African as it is the basis of any Folk tradition, but it has on the other hand never been more romanticised than in relation to Traditional African culture. The European art world does not like to acknowledge that it too may be surrounded by, if not entirely composed of numerous Folk Art Traditions itself.
Having lived through and participated in a Revolution I am extremely aware of the potential that art has to effect change and the very real value it can possess for people beyond the confines of a narrowly defined art world. Art and culture were integral weapons of the struggle against Apartheid, often being the most effective way to draw the public's attention to events or situations that the traditional media were banned from outlining. In response it was not uncommon for the government to incarcerate and ban both artists and their work. Certainly much of the work produced under such circumstances could be labeled "propaganda" rather than anything else, but the experience nonetheless points to the potential of art and its ability to evoke emotions, stimulate discussion, parody power relations and inspire very real action.
I spoke earlier about the "good" native who so needed to impress his/her settlers that they denied their own cultures and beliefs. I would like to now invoke an entirely different image, that of the "Bad Native", who realising that he/she will never be welcome in the castle of his/her settler then devours them. In the spirit of Oswald de Andrade's cannibal, the culture, lifestyle, values, morals and beliefs of the Settlers are eaten, digested and assimilated by the subject. Having enjoyed the meal, only then to realise that it was never really cooked with them in mind, the cannibal excretes what cannot be used, recycling that excrement as the raw materials for his/her art.
Having grown up in the late twentieth century on a diet of Coca-Cola, MacDonalds, CNN, MTV, Face, Interview and Vogue Magazines laced with a heavy dose of political unrest and social uncertainty the African artist suddenly finds that they have a great deal more in common with Asian, Latin American and East European artists than they do with their former "masters." They are no longer isolated from the rest of the world, but rather regular citizens of the global village and active participants on the information super highway. They are schooled in the Western tradition at the same time as being all too aware of its shortfalls, having witnessed first hand the products of the same value system that created Modernism and its godparents the Enlightenment and Colonialism. Unlike their good native counterparts these bad natives know exactly what is expected of them and have very consciously decided to do something else, to misbehave.
They are "bad" because they are educated, articulate and do not need anybody else to speak on their behalf. More than that they know what they want to say because they know exactly who they are and how they fit in, or better still how they do not fit into the world. This is a "Third World" not of charity or aid, nor dark continents of lost souls needing to be saved from themselves but groups of individuals interested in breaking exactly the same laws and transgressing the same taboos that for any European or American artist would be considered a right. They speak as artists from former colonies, not as victims, but as the product of the worst experiment of social and political engineering this world has ever witnessed, as the embodiment of the best as well as the very worst of European values. Exhibitions like "Heart of Darkness", "The Raw and the Cooked," "Inclusion Exclusion" and culminating in the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale "Trade Routes: History and Geography" have only just begun to acknowledge the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the work of artists like Coco Fusco, Georges Adeagbo, Huang Yong Ping, Bili Bidjouka, Olu Oguibe, Chen Zhen, Kcho, Jose Antonio Hernandez Diaz and Pascal Marthine Tayou to name only a few. Many of these artists openly acknowledge the influence of artists like Ilya Kabakov, Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Jimmie Durham, David Hammons, Helio Oiticica or Gordon Matta-Clark, artists for whom Modernism's empty promises and grand statements did not quite add up as every aesthetic decision was also a political one. It is not coincidental either that most of these last mentioned artists were and are either African-American, Native American or attempting to forge a life in exile.
For most people growing up in the former colonies "Liberation" or "Independence" has not translated into any significant improvements. Post- Independence in an age of globalization is often just a change in the faces of the politicians, without any noticeable changes to the socio-economic conditions on the street. Post Apartheid South Africa, like Post Communist Russia, is not the paradise it has been spoken as, but rather the residue of ideological warzones. In Africa Post-Independance has more often than not literally meant only a collapse of the infrastructure that had been established towards London or Amsterdam without any adequate alternatives being established in its place. The resulting genocide that has become synonymous with countries like Rwanda had already become a way of life during the time of colonialism and easily shifted to nihilism with the infra structural collapse. Today Johannesburg competes with cities like Moscow and Bogota for the status of the most violent city in the world where you can die for what you believe in, or for the small change in your pocket. Cities like these which had been economically persecuted for good reason during Apartheid and Communism, today remain economically abandoned, forcing many of the former freedom fighters and so-called terrorists into a life of crime.
In what must be one of history's most complex moral switches, yesterday's archetypal terrorist and Anti-Christ (Nelson Mandela) has become today's Arch-Angel protecting us from yesterday's Arch-Angel who has in turn become the Devil incarnate (PW Botha). Everything that was considered "Good" has become "Evil" and everything "Evil" become "Good." In the terms of Wittgenstein's proposal that "ethics and aesthetics are one and the same" the moral relativism that seems to define life in the margins must surely influence the art produced. The subject and form of work produced under such conditions inevitably becomes politicised and the viewer is invited to locate themselves morally and politically. The work of art becomes a catalyst, the staring point of an ideological chain reaction in which the viewer becomes a voyeur and must accept responsibility for their prejudices and privilege.
The socio-political conditions for life in the margins are the grist for our creative mills as we digest, recycle, invert and pervert the images, objects, values and ideologies left behind by our former masters into the languages of our art, the argot and slang of the streets, perversions of the "Queens English" and Jacques Toubon's French tailored to suit a perverse reality. The artist marginalised by virtue of their birth has no other option but to function as a double agent interrogating and translating all the social processes around them into art. Theft, murder, violence, vandalism, crime and terrorism are our socio-cultural heritage underpinning everything that we produce, the Reality Principle that keeps Modernism's Pleasure Principles in check.
"The driver must have seen the silent watcher by the roadside, for, as the bus started up the road and out of the town, he smiled and waved to the man. The man watched the bus go all the way up the road and disappear around the town boundary curve. Behind it, the green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape: THE BEAUTIFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN."Ayi Kwei Armah
"The Horror, The Horror," Kendell Geers, Stopping The Process? Contemporary views on art and exhibitions, NIFCA, Helsinki, Finland, 1998, pages 163 - 173