Arts and Africa is back for the New Year and Writer and Curator Awa Konate states her case for Decolonizing African Art.
Fifteen years ago Mai Palmberg from the Nordic Africa institute published a book titled “Encounter images in the Meeting between Africa and Europe” in which she underlines the hierarchy of relationship based on images. Besides that, its title entails the power dynamics of European-African interactions are unarguable proven to still persist presently.
The recent ten-fifteen years as art-curator Bisi Silva elucidated has set forward a space in which the Black diasporic subject’s breaking free of confinements whilst being both the creator and simultaneously center of its own narratives. While there’s been a prompt emerging claim of space within the worldly art scene, the discourse of decolonization nevertheless still sojourns.
Questions regarding the position of power remains: What’s the purpose of an artist narrative; what’s acknowledged as art; and most importantly who is the art intended for?
Traditional African art has seen denigration since colonialism. Its creativity merely denounced to that of tribal conception. Indeed the imposition of constructed authenticities on African art had denied it both of history and the voice as to justify its exploitation.
The 20th century European “discovery” of African art further altered the status quo. Whereas European art was deemed sacred to encompass spaces of art gallery and museums, its African counterpart seldom had its expressions confined to anything but ethnographic museums.
It’s in this confinement that emerging European avant-garde artists such as Picasso, sought refuge in. These same authentic expression forms, which laid foundation for their success, serves to illustrate the double standards of the Europeans position of power within the art world. The raw authenticity they “discovered” meant that African artists were expected to cultivate an art of “tradition” regardless of the fact that the African art anthropologists had depicted no longer existed. Thus African artists were forced out of the dialogue European artists such as Picasso had sought influence in. Their art was only acceptable provided it was based on colonial imaginary or emulated western-modernism.
Fast forward to 2016, where the construction of traditional vs. primitive has been criticized by curators, writers, artists etc. Questions then arise.
Has the consequent shift at the face of gazing Western curators changed the dichotomy of African art for visual pleasure?
Art has a tradition of existing beyond visual pleasure, political issues for instance, be it one the artist either seeks to present or highlight, has set forward an apparent deconstruction of the embedded colonialism that engrains our notions of aesthetics and memories. Particularly those in cultural institutions, but if the status quo still equalizes successfulness to exposure in the Western galleries curated by Western curators, then where does the “native” artist, who’s still subdued by constructed conceptions which are inaccurate representation of own understanding of their work then fit into the narrative?
Does a “radical” break from constructed yet dominant expectations of African art lead to a decolonized “authenticity” which isn’t inadvertently created?
How does one reconcile “authenticity” and manufactory?
How does one decolonize arts in which decolonization is apprehended beyond the restrictive conceptions, which often limits the term to struggles for political independence.
One may simply even ask: Why the need to reconstruct African art?
Although known for the political juxtaposition of language use, “Decolonizing the mind” by Ngugi Wa’Thiongo present the radical discursive critique beyond that of political power.
Thiongo’s critique is conceptualized with “ language is the carrier of memory”. Although largely centered around the politics of language exertion and the memories it connotes, from an artistic objectivity, the authenticity he speaks of remains equal to our apprehension of colonial temporalities. It is precisely this lack of cultural memory that decolonisation must seek to “reshape” and resist. It’s the authenticity of the Voice that Ngugi speaks of.
A voice that creates a space, where the boundaries between the institutional and non-institutional voice meets, transforming the structure of constructed art and hierarchy, in which we enable to decolonize both African art and ourselves from the coloniality our thoughts are entrenched in.
My point here is that it remains pivotal to reclaim the authenticity that Ngugi speaks to impose on the constructed legitimacy, discourse of decolonising art must also be centered on questions of economic power.
Art in Africa has for too long been at the mercy of external forces. The objective of decolonising African art as well as reclaiming it must be developed within an African environment. Regardless of how noble the intention of curators and western based art institutions are, they too inadvertently have perpetuated the status quo that contemporary African art is catered for mainly a non-African audience, thus limiting both African viewers and African artists who aren’t institutionally acclaimed from engaging in the discourse.
Furthermore, the question of decolonization of art isn’t just a question of reconstructing a manufactured subjectivity, it’s pivotal for African institutions and curators alike to financially invest for a plausible art free of an external constrain.
Cover photo of Ben Enwonwu by Eliot Elisofon circa 1942-1972 courtesy of the The Smithsonian Institution via SIRIS Archives