October 13, 2015

The West Curating Africa

Last week the news was released that the Armory Fair is going to have a focus on African art, curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, editors of Contemporary And, which is a Germany based online platform for "international art from 'an African perspective'". Everybody got excited by the news and even more so because for the very first time apparently two women are appointed to curate an edition of Armory Focus. I don’t know why one always has to point it out: look, these curators are women! Women are always first of all women while men are beyond their gender. I actually found the whole thing quite conventional. “New York Armory Show Announces 2016 Focus on African Art”: so read the title of the feature in Artnet News. What struck me first was that two Europeans are going to curate this African Art Focus. I guess the Armory wanted to be sure, that whatever comes across well at the art market of the West, and as long as it’s the West defining what is contemporary art, will be shown? The title of Artnet News was, however, misleading. Armory's Focus, I read a little further in the article, is not about contemporary art in Africa as such, but the Focus promises an “in-depth look at both African Diasporic art and art from international African perspectives.” Diaspora involves a triangle of Africa, the Americas, and Europe - so I’m just wondering if the continent itself shouldn't be involved. And what is in the end “art from international African perspectives”? What is hidden behind this expression? Does it mean that the Armory doesn’t want the art to be too African? Does the "international" stands for Westernised - fitting for the Western market? That seems quite colonial to me.

It’s interesting to see the strategies the West uses when curating Africa. I’ve talked before about this newly opened show Xenopolis in Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin. Curated by Parisian Simon Njami, it’s about how we’re all strangers in the city, yet the exhibition starts with a photo of somebody in a black hoodie. Some are stranger than others in the city (the ones with the hoodies). Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle explained to us during the guided tour, that everybody could hide behind that hoodie, so you're invited to imagine who for you is the stranger. Right! The exhibition text starts with saying that Simon Njami “fundamentally changed our perception of contemporary African art”. Then it’s funny to see there is no African based artist in the exhibit. Njami apparently intended to show artists based in Berlin. OK, fair enough, I guess, then why make such a big deal in the wall text (first sentence!) about the curator being specialised in African art (is something trending here?). In the website text of the exhibit, artist Theo Eshetu is presented as Ethiopian, although he was born in the UK. The West likes to do that - it brings diversity into the picture. This kind of subtle racism is very present in Germany. Once a curator responsible of many exhibitions on African contemporary art in Berlin complimented my friend, who is Afro-German, that she speaks German so well. Flabbergasted again.

Or take this show opening soon at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin, it’s titled “Die schwarzen Jahre. Geschichten einer Sammlung. 1933 – 1945."” (The Black Years. Histories of a Collection, 1933-1945). I mean, they could have called it "The Brown Years", or also “The White Years” - because wasn’t it all about being as white as possible? But white is purity, it couldn’t be the years 1933-1945, could it?  More politically correct would have been probably the “dark” years, I’m guessing, but even then. I just read this great article in The New Yorker on Virginia Woolf, who said: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Rebecca Solnit extends on this thought some more: "Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed." And talking about writing, Solnit comes to the following conclusion: “"Nonfiction has crept closer to fiction in our time in ways that are not flattering to fiction, in part because too many writers cannot come to terms with the ways in which the past, like the future, is dark. There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the absence of exact information."

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