Contemporary African Art since 1980 - lecture by Okwui Enwezor
1980 - 1989
27 Apr. 2010
Olu Oguibe, And the Beast had the Face of One I Know - 1988, copyright Damiani Editore

Why did we take 1980 as the point of departure? 1980 for us is a frame of reference and I will give you a very short synopsis for its reasons. Most general histories of contemporary African art begin from the fifties and the sixties.
This is a very easy periodisation with the onset of the decolonialisation movement. These two decades, the fifties and the sixties, could be seen as the moment of the emergence of possibility, of self-governance, of emancipatory projects and of what we call post-colonial utopia.

This was really about the future, nation building, the emergence of the New African and all of that. There were very exciting possibilities. By the time Kenya became independent in 1963, thirty-four African countries had become independent. There was obviously a sea change as expressed by MacMillan’s notion of the winds of change. The momentum was with the African nations in this post-colonial movement. But by the nineteen seventies, I think we could all agree, cracks were beginning to appear on this shining, smooth surface of this post-colonial utopia, stagnation and so on. So the nineteen seventies are in many ways a kind of interregnum, an in-between period.

If you think back to the sixties, a lot of the works of the sixties in a very surprising way were not very political actually. They were actually quite conservative, formal, abstract, following the party line if you will. They followed the party line of the new nation states because it was about the creation of a new African identity, artists were to contribute to nation building. But by the seventies, with the predatory leadership, think of Mobutu for example, questions were being asked although they had not really moved into something.

But 1980, you could say, really marked an important sea change. This brings us to what we see as the shift from post-colonial utopia to what we call post-colonial realism. And this is the engagement with the everyday. How did this occur? In the early nineteen eighties the World Bank and the IMF introduced a macro-economic policy. It may seem weird to analyse works of art through macro-economic policies, but I think it makes sense in terms of periodisation here. This policy was called Structural Adjustment Programs. These were these policies that largely privatised and legalised the economy. Though they tried to reform stagnant economies through this shock therapy, it basically destroyed very fragile economies by removing subsidies from the state, selling of state assets and so on. What we saw immediately was institutional collapse. We saw, and I think, that years of this basically devaluation of currencies in order to make African goods cheap, made it impossible for Africans to participate in the global market, there was not enough money. In the context of art, it was also the beginning of the severing of institutional and artistic networks. So artists became more critical.

Let me run through some images, such as this, that engage with hunger, famine (1). The work was much more engaged with realism. We must also remember the eighties was a time of turmoil. The anti-apartheid movement, the rise of political Islam in North Africa, the assassination of Sadat and the overthrowing of Nyere, all of these things. Opposition politics became part of the norm in most African countries, as anti-Western sentiments grew with this critique of neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism.

Artists like Cheri Samba through to Sataia used painting as a surface of publicity. Here is a work from 1981 already, looking at the class relationship between the haves and the have-nots (2). Usually, when we look at a work like this, we call it urban art or self taught art, but a lot of these works from this particular period really function through a very strong position of social analysis of the various spaces.

This (3) is in Ethiopia. Of course, with the Marxist government in Ethiopia, the artistic practice became wrapped up in socialist realism. What we are looking at here is from 1980 and 1981. A lot of work from 1981-1982, Sue Williamson, Uzo Egonu, Samba, Paul Stopforth, the South African artist with this amazing series of etchings about interrogation and torture in South Africa (4), Sue Williamson’s iconic work on the great women in a gallery of great women in South Africa, Jane Alexander posing questions on incarceration and prison systems, this is Uzo Egonu, Sudan on political prisoners (5).

During this period there really was a very stringent critique of power, there was an incredible sea change. You all know this work by Marlene Dumas (6). I know she is a Dutch artist but she also belongs to us. Which is what I mean by these discursive circuits, it is not about one specific location and this is precisely what we want to mark out. When we say “African artist” it is not an ethnocentric term, it is not about black African artists, it is this complexity that represents some of the things we want to look at.

The Structural Adjustments Program was the impetus. What we saw was not only these economic conditions, but also the emergence of these very muscular, authoritative, great works of art that were being made in response to some of this stuff. Aesthetics and ethics were not opposed to each other. This for me is one of the most amazing pieces, by David Goldblatt. It is a fifteen year old boy, who had just been released from police detention with his two arms broken. This was from 1982. This is Jo Ratcliffe, photographer in Cape Town.

Then of course there are all these other debates about the body, about this tension between tradition and modernity and so on. Rotimi Fani-Kayode who is a queer artist, there is an element of sexuality into the work (7). And then of course the very amazing work of Ousmane Sow, many people may have been introduced to Sow through his participation in Documenta IX in 1992 (8). Kendell Geers’ work, his very early work, as still an art student I think, helping us think about violence, the neck lacing in South Africa during the last years of the anti-apartheid movement where mobs of activists will basically lynch their opponents in public and set them on fire by putting the tire around them and burning them on the ground. We have seen a lot of those images.

This is again a work of critique, of Babangida, the work of Olu Oguibe (9), who was a young artist working in Nigeria at this particular time, Jo Ratcliffe again, this image of distopia in Cape Town, these photo montages of wild dogs and landscapes. Penny Siopis, again a very potent series of works from the eighties, taken after Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the philosophy of history, where she made this work into a monument with this iconic African woman sitting on a pile of rubble that is the Apartheid state (10).

So for us it was a lot of intelligent work Rotimi Fani-Kayode did with again his exploration of the body and the self and ritual practices. Romuald Hazoumé from 1989, with his examination of the commodity. Then of course we have William Kentridge, Bodys Isek Kingéléz.

What you have seen is this scope of artists from East, West, North and South of the continent, a very small slice of what we were trying to engage with in this book.

So the eighties were characterised by this return to post-colonial realism.
The numbers in the text refer to illustrations in the top right corner.

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