Contemporary African Art: Beyond Colonial Paradigms

Work by Huit Facettes, as artists’ collective from Senegal represented in Documenta11 [courtesy of Documenta]

This interview originally appeared in print in ART PAPERS July/August 2002. 

In March 2002, Chika Okeke met with Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the “The Short Century, Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994,” in Lagos, Nigeria. Both were there for the Documenta11, Platform 4 (Under Siege: Four African Cities, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Freetown, Lagos) Conference. In this interview Enwezor, who was also director of Documenta11, discussed “The Short Century,” African artists, and his work as a critic, publisher and curator of contemporary art.

Chika Okeke: When you began Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1994, you criticized the notion of “center” and periphery,” insisting that what some refer to as peripheral, the work of African artists for instance, are necessarily “alternative perspectives of what constitutes excellence in the arts.” How forceful or useful is that argument today?

Okwui Enwezor: I have always worked against the notion of a “center” and a “periphery” to which certain critical ideas, practices or persons can be consigned or defined. Today, this is even less acceptable, especially as institutional borders maintaining such separations erode and crumble, and new concepts of sovereignty, agency, and subjectivity emerge that insist on the articulation of a global ethics for engaging with the residual effects of imperial hegemony. Therefore, accepting such a Manichean scheme as a predetermination for intellectual, artistic, or cultural production and their circuits of dissemination, historicization, reception, etc. erodes the subjective claims made through decolonization and de-apartheidization. From its inception, Nka defined a space for an intellectual agency predicated on a informed discourse that was mediated by a more complex understanding of modernity. My principal argument for doing away with these notions concerning the larger topos of contemporary African art was first, to see how complex and dispersed its methods were; and second, to analyze the divergence of the subjective practices that make up the discourses of African artists by creating a nexus for their critical reception in the context of a broader international and global discourse. I was also interested in the fact that it was no longer possible to work from a base that frames all ideas concerning contemporary African subjectivity through its identification with outmoded notions of pure and impure, authentic and non-authentic, which in any case are old paradigms of the colonial production of the native.

CO: “The Short Century” is arguably your must significant curatorial project to date. Why was it important that the show toured major venues in Germany and the USA? Is this one instance where you had to acknowledge the importance of the “center” as the site of legitimation?

OE: “The Short Century” is the most important curatorial project I have undertaken, as well as the most complicated, emotionally and intellectually. It is equally one of the most satisfying and conflicted. Many moments in its research were difficult to accept, such as the relative paucity of archives of the period available in Africa. And where such archives do exist, the holdings could best be described as endangered. So here we have a project celebrating monumental achievements, yet also seeming to be an autopsy of the postcolonial state’s body. The disappearance of the historical patrimony of twentieth century Africa is a project I would like to pursue in the future. There is a clear need to establish a fully equipped research center for the proper study of decolonization in Africa. So there was a constant relay between different modes of being.

I am reluctant to agree with you that traveling to so-called important venues in Europe and North America historically legitimates projects of this nature. Economic and institutional disparities make respectful dialogue between struggling, developing economies and those that are stable and developed often difficult, and at best uneven. However, I concede that the exhibition schedule of “The Short Century” makes the project more visible and locates the cultural history of decolonization in a broader global political and cultural context in a way that no other exhibition of modern African culture has managed. But it is a two-way street, framed by a dialectical interest in exploring the ruptures marking the serious analysis of globalization. The exhibition also has opened up new possibilities for a serious historical reckoning of how intertwined the West is with Africa through colonization and decolonization. In a sense, Africa ceases to be an elsewhere, a distant, remote region visible only though the hazy lens of ethnography and travel literature.

photo of a room filled with documents and a long rug on wood floor and a large arrangement of multiple objects on a white wall

Georges Adéagbo, From Colonization to Independence, 1999, mixed media [courtesy of the artist and Stephan Köhler—Joint Adventures Art Projects]

CO: A few weeks ago, a curator based in Atlanta wondered why there were no African-American artists in “The Short Century” given that, as he said, they were also sympathetic to African decolonization, as were some of the Europeans in the show.

OE: One temptation with an exhibition of this nature is to try to be all things to all people. Of course, African American and Caribbean intellectuals and artists were very important and active interlocutors of the decolonization struggle: intellectuals like George Padmore, W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes; artists like Jacob Lawrence and Dennis William who worked briefly in Nigeria in the early sixties; and statesmen such as Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King who represented the United States along with the then vice president Nixon at Ghana’s independence ceremony in 1957. The Harlem Renaissance writers clearly influenced the Negritude writers, such as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Cesaire. All these are important artistic and intellectual histories. But the exhibition focused on the idea that the study of the decolonization was premised through a historical optics of African agency. It is not a question of essentialism, but articulating this agency required a rigoruous ground from which to understand what was at stake in the founding moments of the postcolonial consciousness. The number of Europeans in the shows has a clear ongoing historical relationship to the subject of African aesthetics and is not presented unproblematically.

CO: “The Short Century” is very complex. Many have told me they needed more than one day to see the whole show. Some complain of information overdose. Others appreciate the way it brings much hitherto obscured information and materials to light. Given these varied responses, would you have done it otherwise?

OE: The difficulty with exhibitions combining art with documents of social history is balancing the relationship between the document and the image, the archive and the art object, while providing each with conditions that serve the exhibition’s overall curatorial and historical procedure. Striking this balance often means subtly enhancing one, downplaying another, and privileging yet another. But what must be maintained at all times is the empirical and formal distinctiveness of each category of information in the exhibition by showing them in fresh ways, experimenting with different approaches of display and ordering the exhibition’s layout. Regarding the viewer’s experience and the sheer exhaustiveness of the material, I wanted the exhibition to be dense and complex, but still engaging. One must also remember that we are dealing with the concepts of history, and thus require just the right amount of information to make the exhibition intelligible. Nonetheless, the show has gaps, particularly the 1970s and ‘80s, which tortured me endlessly. I probably should have included artists like Obiora Udechukwu, David Koloane, Tapfuma Gutsa, Fodé Camara, Gift Orakpo, Atta Kwami and El Anatsui.

CO: You have in your curatorial work, but also as publisher of Nka, championed the work of several African artists, including Georges Adéagdo, Kay Hassan, Ouattara, Kendell Geers and Yinka Shonibare. How do you navigate the difficulty of presenting yourself as a curator of contemporary art and a supporter of African artists?

OE: I see no contradiction in my support of African artists. If anything, I see it as a necessary to my curatorial procedure to enlarge the discursive parameters within which contemporary art is understood in all its conditions and spaces of production, dissemination, and reception. The contribution of African artists in enunciating the complex dimension of contemporary art’s critical regimes in a serious global context makes it possible to disentangle curatorial and institutional practices from their timidity when looking at work being produced outside the framework of the dominant contemporary artistic networks. However, I’m not a missionary. These artists interest me because I find their work is relevant, stimulating and challenging. They articulate the ongoing transformation of contemporary artistic paradigms, by pointing out the limits of what historically has been uncritically received and institutionalized as avant-garde. The intelligence and conceptual and paradigmatic rigor of their work means, Africans or not, I would still be interested in them. But I work with far more non-African artists than African.

CO: You have a penchant for teamwork as a curator. In “The Short Century,” you worked with four curators, and in Documenta11 you are working with five. Why is collaboration important to your curatorial practice? Do you feel this model is ideal for curating contemporary art?

OE: There is no overarching reason why I have collaborated in many of my projects. Perhaps it is because my curatorial approach is framed more by discursive than museological interest. I have often thought about producing an exhibition as a drive towards the constitution of a public sphere through an interdisciplinary engagement. Such an engagement helps us explore the limits and gaps that mark all exhibitions. Moving towards the discursive lets me invite contributions from interlocutors who have quite distinct curatorial and intellectual biographies. In assembling a project of magnitude of Documenta11, the interdisciplinary methods in the expansive disciplinary models with which I fashioned the project, as well as many of my other projects, represent the gaps and limits within which contemporary visual practice has become territorialized. Finding collaborators committed to their own disciplines but engaged and open to the possibility of the transformation of their discourses in a context of open contestations and forging of affinities with others in one reason why I favor collaboration. Making exhibitions is about learning and producing new conditions for unlearning bad habits and assessing and challenging one’s intellectual development, as well as making new meanings. This does not necessarily make it the ideal model, but one of the many models within which I work.