close

Savvy Contemporary
A Commentary: Legitimising the legitimate
A self-reflective discourse – Part 1

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

www.savvy-contemporary.com

Whilst the art world purports to have expanded its otherwise picky and cocky tentacles in the last decades
and thus decentralized its point of gravity from a western to a more global focus, the claim of democratisation
and de-concentration of the art field still has to be questioned and reflected in various critical discourses
amongst art critics and artists, philosophers and sociologists, politicians and laypeople.
On the one hand, being a layman with at least an ear on the ground, eyes wide open and a loose tongue I engage into discussions with the supposed opinion-makers of my generation and alleged discourse-initiators in the art scene in Berlin (today’s self-acclaimed capital of the art world), where I gather that because there are biennales in Dakar, Havana, Sao Paolo or Gwangju and because there have been a couple of non-Western artists in the band wagon of some Western biennales, the art world has thus opened its arms to embrace the non-West. Well, he that believes and is baptized shall be savedi… but my experience on the field, and for that matter working in the grass roots, reveals to me every day that the discourses are still pillared in or seesawing along the Euro-American axis.
On the other hand, being a curator and writer who has worked in- and extensively with diverse international
artistic positions from the West and non-West (see Savvy Contemporary) and bearing a particular affinity to
contemporary African art and its critical concepts (see SAVVY | art.contemporary.african.), I more than often
find myself forced to be the advocate of the “other” and obliged to slip in the role of legitimising non-Western
positions.

Writing this article for the second edition of SAVVY | art.contemporary.african. with the title “(Re-) Mapping
the field: a bird’s eye view on discourses” I decided to lay focus on how I am re-mapping the field (with Berlin
as my geographical umbilicus) and thereby engage in a self-reflective discourse. While I could figure out one
more objective theoretical text on discourses, I prefer to take this journal’s current topic on a subjective note, which by no way implies singularity in its essence. This article will take you on a journey in the form of a commentary, giving answers to some of the questions and remarks that usually come to my notice concerning art from the non-West, e.g. contemporary African art, especially from some Western colleagues; incl. some ‘specialists’ in the field. Because all these questions cannot be treated in a go, this commentary will intentionally be left open-ended so as to continue with further points in future editions of this journal.
Some remarks to be treated in this series will include but are not restricted to:

1 Why do a journal about Contemporary African Art? Is that not contra-productive, disadvantageous and segregating? Why not simply a journal of art?
2 There is no such thing as Contemporary African Art. Many artists of African origin do not want to identify themselves with such labels and, by the way, there is no theoretical discussion on Contemporary African Art.
3 The concept of art, as it is, is something European and thus the idea of a global art is utopian. Africa is a construct of Europe, so Contemporary African Art is just a construct of European art.
4 The presence of non-Western artists in major biennales reduces the quality of the biennales.

In her article ‘Import-export: History of the history of contemporary African art’ Iolanda Pensa interestingly
states that „Differently from what happens in shows and publications focused generically on contemporary
art, most projects on contemporary African art are nourished by justifications. In most cases, in catalogues,
articles and press releases we’ll find an explication about why it is necessary to promote African art, why it’s
indispensable to change the perception of Africa and why it’s time to sustain intercultural dialogue.“ ii While
this statement is true for many cases, it is of importance to differentiate who the author of any justification is and what the intentions of these justifications are. This is the same with the need to change the perception of Africa. The crave and zest of wanting to change the perception of Africa or sustain an intercultural discourse, no matter how absurd that might seem in anno Domini 2011, is legitimate and probably dependent on any
author’s affinity to Africa, African art and reasons for this affinity. But this is not the concern of this article.
Taking Pensa’s supposition into consideration, this article is not intended to be a justification but rather a
rectification (a fine but important difference) of contorted images, misinterpretations, and refractions of
contemporary African art as seen through the prisms of Western critiques; be it due to a disinterest in opening the concept of art to other modernities or due to a blatant ignorance. But even if this were a justification, is justification not a part of the reactio, which comes as a response to every actio, i.e. the foundation of every discursus? As Foucault put it “whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say that we are dealing with a discursive formation.”iii This article is thus an effort to define some regularity between some statements and concepts about contemporary African art.

The first part of this article series will concentrate on the questions:
Why do a journal about Contemporary African Art? Is that not contra-productive, disadvantageous and
segregating? Why not simply a journal of art?
Half-truths and the non-linearity of art history “I can remember quite well how it was when we showed Amrita Sher-Gil in the Haus der Kunst Munich as well as in the Tate Modern, and many colleagues earnestly asked if I was paid by the Indian government. There is a similar reaction towards our current show on Arabic art in Munich.”iv This quote from the Monopol art magazine is by one of today’s most progressive curators, Chris Dercon, whose concept of showing art positions from all corners of the globe also inspired the art space Savvy Contemporary. This quote is a good summary of the reaction you get from many Western colleagues towards non-Western positions. This unwillingness to develop percipience towards other forms of modernity is deep-rooted in many of today’s art discourses. But this is nothing new and we do not intend to drift into the polemic discourse of the victimisation of the non-West by the West. Simon Njami writes in his article Ancient guilt, new toolv about an episode in 1991 where the then Documenta art director, Jan Hoet, stated that there was not such a thing as contemporary art on the African continent. Almost 20 years later another famous art critic and former member of Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 art directorate, Jean Christophe Ammann, reacts in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on the participation of non-Western art and artists in biennials these days: “…that is exactly the problem. The principle of the globalised exhibition (i.e. global art) eliminates our occidental culture…” vi These are just a few examples of a bastion of art critics and historians that still fight for the exclusivity of art from the West and still aim at keeping it as a standard. This clearly runs in the line of what Mary Douglas terms ‘matter out of place’vii. It implies both the existence and the contravention of an established order or system and of that which some find inappropriate in a given context, just to hold on to the old, the known, and the conversant and repel the “other”. This given context is the claimed linear genealogy of art history, which is still taught in art schools today and still prevails in the art discourses and media these days. We know that art and artists from non-Western regions were for a long time thought of as living in a time outside history, just as much as the colonies were removed by Hegel out of History, that for him was a strictly Western prerogative. viii This policy of de-historicizing the African continent has been well cultured over centuries and has occupied many African intellectuals, who have sought out not to justify their positions but to rectify these falsifications. Just as Cheikh Anta Diop, for instance, dedicated a chapter on the “modern falsification of history” in The African Origin Of Civilization.ix Diop showed how African history and its civilizations were systematically read out of the commentary of human history. He also analysed the role played by Western historians in the re-writing and distortion of world history in favour of the Europeans, in the last five hundred years. These historical, conceptual and perspective distortions do exist till today.
Thus, it will be more than naïve for anybody to think that the positioning, media coverage, advertence, respect and understanding of African artists or African art (or art from Africa; no matter how this is termed, the terminology is just a side note in this article) is self-evident. It is even more preposterous to think that
contemporary African artists or African art is treated and measured with the same standards as their counterparts in the occident. If we do agree that there is a disparity in the “objectivity” of the art world with respect to the geographical off-spring of artists, then it is more than important to have journals which
investigate on, reflect and position the discourses, developments and centres of gravity on contemporary African art but also journals which have the guts to rectify these half-truths and the non-linearity of historic
development.

The state of Critique
It goes without saying that the coverage of contemporary African art in the local media in African countries is
in many cases lacking and desirable. If they cover art exhibitions, the local press is more interested in the
spectacle than in the concepts of the exhibitions. Art and its discourses play little or no role in the feuilletons of many daily newspapers on the continent and the specialized media on contemporary art circulate and play in the global league and are often written in English. Many of the global league journals which have in the last decades set up a cutting-edge in art’s critique deal with African art, be it the Nka – Journal of
Contemporary African Art, Revue Noire or Third Text – Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture
(just to name the most prominent). They have built the foundation of critique on art from the non-West. Still,
these journals have been restricted to an extremely exclusive circle, due to logistical difficulties to get them
to the grass roots on the continent and beyond, as these journals can hardly be found in any press stores. On the other hand due to the relatively high cost of acquisition, these journals have been confined to a financially apt academic generation. But times are changing. The new media fever is contagious and has swept through the rooms and cellars of young and upcoming art critics who want to create platforms for discourse on old and new concepts of African art. This new and self-confident generation is armed with blogs and other websites, which are not only free of charge but also widely accessible. Even the aforementioned precursor journals have gone online.
The coverage of art from Africa or contemporary African art in the art journals in the West is less than a
‘deficiency syndrome’. Summer 2010 was an extremely good period for contemporary African art as a byproduct
of the football world cup in South Africa, with many journals fighting in a populist manière to get their
own piece of the cake. In Germany for example there were exclusive editions on contemporary African art
(mostly on South African art) in the journals Art – Das Kunstmagazin and Monopol but since then the
weather has been relativised to the reality of the years before. Discourses on contemporary African art are
almost inexistent in the art media in Germany and many other Western countries. Only something “extraordinary”,
like the nomination of Okwui Enwezor as the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, had to happen for art journals or the daily press to mention something on Africa. But even with this would-be positive news, the daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung, representative of the coverage of Africa in the daily media, published an appalling article with the title ‘An African in the Haus der Kunst’ which concluded with the quote “(Enwezor)… is a global player of art, no African art patriot but rather one with a Western perspective.
As curator of the Johannesburg-Biennial in 1997 he was rather interested in presenting Western art to the
world than African art. Such a thing is called ‘coconut’: brown outside and white inside”.x This article by
Ingeborg Ruthe is an epitome of the ‘objectivity’ towards contemporary African art, spiced by prejudice and inadequate research. As Jyoti Dhar rightly described it (although this article was focussed on art critic of art from the Gulf region, the arguments widely apply to art critic of art in general from the non-west) in the article on how international critics write on art from the Gulf region, they “display fantastic ignorance, intellectual laziness and shorthand everything into generalized responses based on categories of judgement that are problematic.” Dhar went ahead to give reasons for these faux pas, which included the perception of non-Western art through the prisms of European art history, and proposed that an “alternative and more relevant approach may be to contextualize these artists using other global contemporary artists (not necessarily from the west)” and that the responsibility of the critic should be that of a chronicler, “where one has to be sensitive to the sociopolitical and time-specific context of the art work, without making it solely about that.” xi
Another pertinent issue, when it comes to writing about the non-West, is the designation of experts. The
reason why some people are experts is still a conundrum to me. One has the impression that it has, more or
less, become trendy to be an expert on Africa in whatever field of life, be it on political issues, economic
matters or art. Anyone who spent his/her last vacation on the African continent, anyone who is chanced to
visit the Dak’art biennial or anyone collecting some masks could be interviewed as an “Africa expert” these
days. Thus, it seems as if almost any one can pose to be an expert, write an article or book and give a
comment on contemporary African art. I will like to conclude this first part of this article series by throwing a question into the room. Journals like American Art Review, Frieze-European contemporary art and culture magazine, Western Art & Architecture, The Latin American Art Journal, Nka – Journal of Contemporary African Art, Third Text – Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture or ArtAsiaPacific exist with all legitimacy and represent their respective positions… there are museums of American, European, Latin American, Asian or African Art… why should a journal as legitimate as SAVVY | art.contemporary.african. need any more legitimisation?
The next edition of this article will treat the questions on the terminology contemporary African art.

Dictionary