Contemporary African Art since 1980 - lecture by Okwui Enwezor
27 Apr. 2010
Jane Alexander - Butcher Boys, 1985-1986, copyright Damiani Editore

This book is not mine. It is a book written with a dear colleague. It is one of many collaborations I have had with Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is an art historian at Princeton University in New Jersey, but an art historian whose specialisation within the department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University is on modern and contemporary African art.
That for me is very important in how to set the disciplinary field within which this book was constructed. Because to nominate something as contemporary African art, and to institutionalise it, are two different things. This is our point of departure. Our point of departure for making the book is to focus not on African identity but to focus on a disciplinary field. So let me begin with a small quotation from the Congolese philosopher Valentin Mudimbe who writes "that we should consider African artworks as we do literary texts, that is as linguistic (narrative) phenomena as well as discursive circuits." This is very important, that this relationship between narratives and circuits of production, circuits of distribution, circuits of exhibition, circuits of analysis have come to mark what contemporary African art for us is as a disciplinary field, I would like to make this distinction of this field as a disciplinary field.

The last two decades have witnessed a surge of interest in the work of contemporary African artists. A major reason for this turn of events is due partially to the impact of globalization on contemporary art and culture. Like other artists who were once situated, as it was called at the time, on the margins of mainstream artistic narratives and circuits, African artists have been beneficiaries of the globalizing phenomenon that has included the rise of biennials, art fairs, and the boom in the collecting of art on an unprecedented worldwide scale. To be clear, the seeming largess of the international artistic contexts that have so readily embraced African artists and others, could be attributed less to a change of heart about the artistic competence of marginal regions, but more to a strategic repositioning and adaptation to global winds of change that blew down ideological walls throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. For us this is very important, to make this point clear and here we borrowed the theme of Harold MacMillan’s famous speech to the South African parliament in 1960. MacMillan had just become Prime Minister of Great Britain and gave this famous speech about winds of change, that decolonisation was inevitable, that the world of imperialism in itself was not a natural state of things. So, for us, the field in which contemporary African artists emerge in the nineties and in the eighties and currently is a field that in itself is also deeply marked by this transformation of change, these winds of change.

Every indication we have of the current situation of contemporary art reconfirms the important impact of geo-political reorganization of the global order, especially we could think of the financial markets but also the networks of information traffic, the technology that brings us the images, what I would call contemporary visual realities. The unmaking of a bi-polar system of power further contributed to the establishment of a series of dialectical and historical reconfigurations that remapped the cultural, political, and economic circuits which would have a profound effect in the globalization of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

In this time span, several major international exhibitions in which the work of contemporary African artists featured, have been pivotal in framing their global visibility. One of these exhibitions is now the infamous or famous and I must add very important exhibition Magiciens de la terre, organized at the Centre Pompidou, Paris in 1989. It is rightfully seen as one paradigmatic moment that helped break the border of marginality of not only African artists, but also artists from Oceania and Asia by presenting their work alongside the work of their international peers.

Since 1989, amongst the most important venues for the showcasing of contemporary African art are several comprehensive exhibitions. Exhibitions have played a very important role. Hence I might begin with the notion that for us to construct this disciplinary field or to understand contemporary African art, we have to sort of read artworks as Mubimbe suggested as not only belonging to a narrative which has very clear formal aesthetic and strategic structures but also as belonging to discursive circuits and these circuits are not just simply in Europe but also in Africa and in different localities. In my meeting this evening with the students I tried to emphasise that when we think of these discursive circuits in relationship to contemporary art, it is possible to think of contemporary art as really embedded in what I call the off-centre principle. There is no centre for contemporary art, at least not in the way we imagine or we think about modern art as having centres in Paris or New York. We had the ideological struggle, if you remember the book by Serge Guilbaut how New York stole the idea of the avant garde from Paris. How could New York steal it from Paris? But nevertheless they had to fight for who is top dog in this narrative of the places of art and so on.

But with contemporary art it is entirely different in the sense that this off-centeredness means this idea of simultaneity, this idea of production on a worldwide scale in different locations across the world, does not require only one central location in order to imagine the fact that there are such things as contemporary artists labouring in Dakar, labouring in Nigeria, in Jakarta, in Seoul, in Beijing, in Havana, in New York and so on. So this for us represents the circuit of production into which contemporary African art was constructed. But before we come to that, we need to ask ourselves “What is contemporary African art?” and to recapitulate the words of Geeta Kapur, the eminent Indian critic, “When was contemporary African art?”.

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