‘Golden Theater or Gutted Whore-house?’

Grace Ndiritu, To Africanize is to Civilize, 2003 (Courtesy of the artist/Galerie Baudoin Lebon)

The latest issue of Savvy Journal (#3) includes an article, ‘Transcending “Africa”‘, by Emeka Okereke, photographer and founder of the ‘Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative’ (whose work we’ve been excited about here). It is an interesting contribution to debates about the recent successes of African art in the contemporary art world, which has been getting increasingly lively. In its first issue, Savvy published an essay — ‘Where is Africa in the Global Contemporary Art?’ — by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, a Nigerian academic based at the University of California. Ogbechie wrote a forceful and rigorous piece on the misrepresentation of Africa in the international art community, where the continent is substituted for its diaspora. Even more striking and bold has been an article by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu–an internationally-renowned painter working out of Takoradi, Western Ghana–who asks similar questions to Ogbechie, but in harsher language: ‘How could the “gutted whore-house” of yesterday overnight become the golden theater for the playing out of contemporary African art?’

Published over at African Colours in January this year, Wemega-Kwawu’s essay — ‘The Politics of Exclusion’ — rages against the privileging of diaspora artists over those working in the continent. The essay forms the sixth part of the Stedelijk Museum’s 1975 Project, which explores the relation of contemporary art to colonialism. Wemega-Kwawu’s essay claims the recent success of contemporary African art as “deceptively positive, but ultimately degenerate”. Wemega-Kwawu takes aim at a Western “coterie” in control of the international reputation of African contemporary art. Nigerian curator and critic Okwui Enwezor — Art Review’s 42nd most important person in the international art community — comes under heavy fire.

I am proud I was one of the first to hail Okwui Enwezor as far back as 2003, when few people knew him on the African continent. … But he is beginning to go crooked. And I am only being a voice of the worried observers, the voiceless masses.

A central point of the essay is a point of familiar tension between the diaspora and homeland: the accusation that the so-called exile is in fact an economic migrant:

For one man’s selfishness to justify his continual stay in the West, to protect a hard-earned empire with himself as Curator-Supremo, a whole continent’s art must be marginalized and subjugated through self-satisfying, idiosyncratic strategies. This is preposterous!

Wemega-Kwawu may have valid criticisms about the art industry, but his personal speculations about Enwezor and lack of evidence presents the reader with grounds for some skepticism:

Something in Enwezor has changed. Something has softened. […] He once offered piquant, scorching critiques in a very belligerent manner. In 1996, he said of Jean Pigozzi and his collection in the africa ’95 exhibition, that Pigozzi uses his money and connections to “legitimize and valorize many questionable artists (in his collection), pushing them to the world as the only ‘authentic’ artists from Africa”.

Wemega-Kwuwa notices that — even then — the artists Enwezor proposed (Bili Bidjocka, Ike Ude, Yinka Shonibare, Olu Oguibe, Folake Shoga, Kendell Geers, António Ole, Oledele Bangboye, Lubaina Himid, and Ouattara) were all based in the West. Enwezor’s sympathies move in the direction of a diaspora struggling to gain acknowledgment of the art establishment, but not for those who never left or, like Wemega-Kwawu, decided to return,

Enwezor’s declaration that “Africa is nowhere, Africa is everywhere” is a particularly hateful soundbite [though it would be useful to know where and when he said it], and Wemega-Kwawu’s argues that this kind of abstraction “should be challenged to the hilt”. according to Wemega-Kwawu.

The strongest — and most concrete — evidence for the politics of exclusion is the difficulty for artists with African passports to get visas to travel. El Anatsui’s Visa Queue (1992) crowns this argument. Last year the Guardian noticed that the UK visa system still excludes foreign artists. This has meant African artists have been less able to travel, and become internationally known, leaving them to become neglected by the international community, or await discovery by marauding international curators, who will never have sufficient knowledge of local communities:

A survey book on contemporary African art written today will be outdated in three years, at most. The creative energy of the African continent is simply overwhelming and has not been documented or theorized enough.

Wemega-Kwawu mentions an important survey — Nicole Guez’s 1992 L’Art Africain Contemporain — which catalogs over two hundred Nigerian artists, only a tenth of whom lived in the West at that time. Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s ‘Sketch for a Cultural Encyclopedia’, currently in The Ungovernables at the New Museum, is a recent engagement with the difficulties of cataloging.

Wemega-Kwawu argues that assimilation of Enwezor — and others like him — into the homogenizing culture of international contemporary art means that a “golden opportunity to present African contemporary art as it truly was, as authentically reflected from the ground” has been “lost”. If there is evidence to contradict this fatalism, it is the links being made between art institutions and curators and galleries in Africa.

Back to Okereke, who argues for a re-evaluation of African art according to a new understanding of trans-Africanism, which does not exclude or privilege the diaspora but takes the continent as a ‘departure point’ whilst calling for a ‘rejection of brain drain and blind integration as a dangerous disease but better still, embrace the schizophrenic nature of multi-experiences as an advantage in the human advancement.’ Okereke argues that ‘Invisible Borders’ represents a new attempt to confront the politics of representation. He lists a number of other initiatives which ‘echo’ the aims of ‘Invisible Borders’:

Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA) – Nigeria, Art Bakery – Cameroon, Art Moves Africa – Belgium, Mobility Hub Africa – Belgium, Creative Africa Network, Appartement 22 – Morocco, Doual-Art – Cameron, Centre for Contemporary Arts – Lagos, The Addis Foto Festival – Addis Ababa as well as artist-led projects such as “Do We Need Cola Cola to Dance?” [below] by dancer and choreographer Qudus Okikeku.

To add to Okereke’s list, writing from London, the first example that springs to mind is Tiwani Contemporary’s partnership with CCA Lagos, and the first two group shows at that gallery, which staged conversations between the works of diaspora artists and those living on the continent. Or the Serpentine Gallery’s On Edgeware Road project, partnered with the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. This project, which brings London’s Arabic community into dialogue with neighborhoods in Cairo and Beirut. The project celebrated its third birthday last month, and William Wells spoke about the cautious dedication needed to make such relationships real and reciprocal. Art should never be a golden theater. The representation of an Africa “authentically reflected from the ground”, which Wemega-Kwawu so passionately describes, is not yet a missed opportunity.

* A critique by Ogbechie of Enwezor’s practice was published by Aachronym in 2010.

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5 thoughts on “‘Golden Theater or Gutted Whore-house?’

  1. “The strongest — and most concrete — evidence for the politics of exclusion is the difficulty for artists with African passports to get visas to travel”. That is the same even if you live in the UK on an African passport – going to mainland Europe is always nightmare (including non-EU countries). Oddly, I have to say that if one is an SA artist initially your chances are better at getting international exposure by staying just where you are (as long as it is Joburg or Cape Town, or course – something which could well be likened to the central problem addressed by Ogbechie et al). Even worse than all of this is the ongoing curatorial policing of the content of works by African artists. If your work doesn’t obviously address well-known African issues (or, for that matter, look African enough) then you are not included in the bigger game of African art. But just maybe that is a good thing too – because it means that your work won’t end up in that particular gutter (though it may well end up in another – many great ‘european’ artists never get a break too and spend their lives making complete obscurity). Anyway, the daily process of living and working in Africa is much more exciting that being invited for cocktails at another grand exhibition about Africa where ceremony and pomp, issues and hotheaded opinions trumps the artwork every time.

  2. Quite an interesting review of my article, “The Politics of Exclusion.” I never suggested anywhere in the article that African art was a “Gutted whore-house.” The current title of the article, erroneously, seems to infer just that. I would rather you went by the original caption of the article, “Golden Theater or Gutted-whore house?” Your article, even though about African art, does not necessarily have to carry the phrase “African art” to generate any interest. It’s already generated great interest world-wide with the original title, which, in my opinion, is poetic and captures the content of your review; so why this sudden change of title? The present title totally misconstrues the real import of my essay. Thank you.

    • Hi Rikki, this criticism is perfectly just. The piece, and its original title, did aim to represent the complexities of your article accurately but the title was subsequently changed by one of the editors and does now misrepresent your views. Your image of the ‘gutted whorehouse’ was, of course, the platform rather than the art itself. We’ll change it back. Please accept our apologies.

  3. I read this article when it first came out. I also prefer the original title to this new title. The new tile distorts the content of Rikki Wemega-Kwawu’s ‘The Politics of Exclusion” and castes a slur on it.

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