PRINT September 2016

Koyo Kouoh

Issa Samb, untitled, 2010, welded shovels. Installation view, RAW Material Company, Zone B, Dakar. Photo: Sophie Thun.

FOR THE LONGEST TIME, African contemporary intellectual output, and specifically artistic output, was framed in the context of colonialism and postcolonialism. There was also a necessary focus on inclusion, which led—especially in the 1980s and ’90s—to a kind of advocacy curating.

Curators such as Okwui Enwezor and others did amazing work during this period. We might cite, for example, the 1987 Ethnicolor festival, curated by Simon Njami in Paris; Olu Oguibe’s exhibition “Seen/Unseen” at Bluecoat in Liverpool in 1994; and, of course, two major shows cocurated by Enwezor, “New Visions: Recent Works by Six African Artists” at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, Eatonville, Florida, in 1995 and “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996. If we think of those curators as belonging to a first generation of important cultural producers, I consider myself part of a second phase, a second generation. Now, I think we are already seeing a third and a fourth generation.

Those exhibitions, as important as they were, all happened abroad, in New York, Paris, or London. For me, working in Dakar, it is important to engage with the ideas and issues that concern our region here first—to reflect on them and research them, write about them, show them—and to share them with the world only secondarily. That’s why I founded RAW Material Company. I feel that such a space is vital.

I started RAW in 2008 with a modest program—a general program. We didn’t even have a space of our own. It wasn’t until 2011 that we opened our first location, in a residential neighborhood in the Sicap area of midtown. We recently refurbished a modernist residential home from the 1950s to serve as a second location in the same area. Both spaces together provide us with a little more than a thousand square feet divided into galleries, studios, residencies, a library, and offices. I still consider us a small organization.

Dakar has several exhibition spaces since independence: state-run institutions such as the National Art Gallery, the now-defunct Musée Dynamique, and the IFAN Museum of African Arts, as well as foreign-service cultural institutions of French, German, and American origin. The artist Issa Samb has been doing amazing work since the early ’70s with his Laboratoire Agit’Art, which he cofounded with the filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, the painter El Hadji Sy, and the playwright Youssoupha Dione. It was the first-ever multidisciplinary artist collective on the continent and contributed to a wider understanding and appreciation of art that is independent of state politics.

But apart from the work Samb did, and the discourse he supported at his studio, there was really nowhere to discuss art the way I think it should be discussed—which is to say, in an analytic and social way. I wanted to really reflect on art, on artistic practice, and to contribute to the understanding of artistic practice as its own system of thought and as a mechanism for participating in visual culture, society, politics. I wanted to think of it as a means for proposing, speculating, investigating, exploring, experimenting. As a curator, I’m interested in critical artistic practices and how they play out in society, particularly societies like ours. I believe that context defines pretty much everything that we do.

The legacy of colonialism presents additional challenges to institution building: In the arts, the type of administration inherited from colonial systems and perpetuated by political and administrative elites in Africa did not emphasize private initiative. This is particularly pronounced in former French colonies, heirs to a centralistic model of the omnipotent and omnipresent state that considers its role to be those of initiator, regulator, controller, promoter, producer, and critic. The situation has fostered a culture that is not conducive to the development of a strong civil society or a thriving cultural private sector. To the contrary: It discourages any progressive effort to nurture models of artistic intervention that place knowledge production and critical thinking at their center and that work outside established spheres such as the university and the art academy. My concern is with institution building as a curatorial practice, a means to establish organizations that hopefully will survive anyone who started them and support professionals, artists, thinkers, writers, you name it, well into the future.

When you’re African, whether you like it or not, you’re part of a narrative that has been and continues to be determined by others; there is a strong need to retell and rewrite ourselves, to bring our own discourse into the field. So another important part of the work of RAW is the publications program. Within five years we have published a number of books and catalogues: These include Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa (2013), originating from one of our inaugural events; Chronicle of a Revolt: Photographs of a Season of Protest (2012), a publication accounting for eighteen months of political activity, viewed through the work of the activist group Y’en a Marre, whose members belong to the vibrant hip-hop culture of Senegal; and the one I am most proud of, Word! Word? Word! Issa Samb and the Undecipherable Form (2013), the first monograph dedicated to the artist’s work.

RAW Material Company, Sicap Amitié 2, Dakar, 2012. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.

IN SENGAL TODAY, there is an emerging consciousness that is rooted in part in the ’70s, which was Samb’s generation. They were influenced by the liberation movements that followed World War II, when the defeat of France awoke a lot of Africans to their political situation. This was the time of Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Pan-Africanist idea of Négritude. There was real work being done toward constructing an African reality, a modern reality, a contemporary reality.

This was different from—how can I put it?—a current prevailing intellectual, literary, and artistic preoccupation with promoting Africa internationally and showing what Africans are capable of; Samb and Laboratoire Agit’Art never felt like they had to define themselves or justify themselves to anyone, or show themselves to the so-called order, the order always being Western, European, French, and so on. This is why Samb is such a seminal artist in our field today and why his work is extremely empowering.

I was heavily influenced by that generation—by their acuteness and their boldness. Similarly, people today have an incredible amount of self-assurance about being Africans in the world. I know that for the younger generation after me, it’s not even a question anymore of whether you are African or not. There is no need to prove oneself. What is important is the power of your ideas, your creativity, your talent. Anyone can speak three, four, or five languages. We are global citizens.

Pan-Africanism failed as a political idea, obviously, but in the past ten or fifteen years, we’re seeing that its ideological potential survived and is being revived by a new, interconnected generation. Partly this is a result of technological transformation. We all belong to an advanced technological order that places us in this limitless, boundless virtual sphere, and people really want to see that boundlessness realized in their own physical environment. This is perhaps why I rarely hear young people talking in nationalistic terms.It’s never a question of whether you’re from Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire or South Africa or Ethiopia. It’s about urbanity or nonurbanity. It’s about educated or not educated. It’s about cosmopolitan or not cosmopolitan. I don’t call it a front line, but these are the divisions that structure our political reality.

As for me, I was born in Cameroon, moved to Europe in my teens, studied there, and moved back to Africa. At that point, going back to Cameroon would have been the obvious thing to do. But I went to Senegal, and I’ve been living in Senegal for twenty years. I started an organization that though based in Dakar has a pan-African focus and an international scope.

Across Africa, the broken promises of independence engendered a consciousness that is reorganizing the landscape of artistic and cultural action. Senegal serves as an example in many ways. Whereas the older generation was educated to expect everything from the government, the current generation of artists and cultural producers is concerned with means of production, exchange, exhibition, criticism, and the market. The state-run cultural institutions of the past are now bankrupt and, for that matter, never really served their purpose.

Take the politically conscious and socially engaged hip-hop culture that emerged here in the late ’80s. There are rap songs about inequality and political corruption and, increasingly, Pan-Africanism. Xuman and Keyti, two prominent protagonists of that movement, set up Le Journal Rappé, an irreverent news show that offers a reading of national and world events unfiltered by media manipulation and geopolitical correctness. This is the kind of artistic expression that RAW is interested in and promotes. And with RAW Academy, the independent school for artistic research and curatorial inquiry that we are launching in October, we are adding another block to the edifice of social critique and political activism that the art scenes in Africa are generally rooted in.

THE WAY AFRICA HAS BEEN and continues to be portrayed in the media is extremely negative, and among the creative class there is a strong desire to correct this. For the longest time, I’ve felt that we were always talking to others, continually saying, “Look at us, we are able to do this, we are capable.” I call it the first-and-only syndrome. That is, whenever an African person achieves something, we always hear that he is the only African or she is the only African, or she is the first African or he is the first African. It is always extraordinary.

Now, the first-and-only syndrome is finally being challenged as a narrative. That, I think, is an important shift. It means we are talking to ourselves now, which is where the real discussions begin.

As told to Lloyd Wise

Koyo Kouoh is a curator based in Dakar.