“Seven Stories About Modern Art In Africa”

Exhibitions based on ethnic interpretations of multiculturalism that arise from the current fashion for curatorial globetrotting have mostly failed to advance an understanding of contemporary visual art from beyond the Western metropolis. In Britain, a glance at recent exhibition reviews touching on such themes as “New Art from China (or India, Cuba, etc.),” is enough to confirm the suspicion that the esthetic concerns of individual artists continue to be neglected in favor of redundant assumptions about ethnicity or poorly informed comparisons with Western Modernism. Why this continues to occur may seem puzzling, but one factor that must be taken into account is the impulse of some poorer nations to “exoticize” themselves in order to gain a stronger footing in the Western art market. While many exhibitions are quick to contextualize non-Western work with anthropological anecdotes, historical context is usually missing from the equation. Without it, we cannot help but fail to understand the trajectory of global Modernism as it has evolved outside the West.

“Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa,” part of a multimedia jamboree called “africa95,” was the first exhibition to attempt to provide a historical context for African Modernism. This was largely due to the writings of artist Everlyn Nicodemus, originally from Tanzania, who has long criticized the way that certain Western collectors present folkloric African cultural products as the “African”art, thus reinforcing the West’s perception of that continent’s culture as exotic and intellectually backward. Nicodemus points out that by the early 20th century, cultural exchange between Africa and Europe was a two-way process; that as European artists were exploring the formal potential opened up by African art, African artists were experimenting with European-style easel painting and figurative representation. Also, as the colonizers gradually introduced their own style of art education, many African artists traveled to study in European art schools.

A paradox ensues: what was avant-garde from a European perspective was traditional from an African one, and vice versa. It is this multifaceted history of Modernism that remains to be written—and, with respect to Africa, the task is onerous and heartbreaking. On one hand, a lack of funding and will on the part of officialdom, combined with social and political distress, has over the years produced a lack of scholarship and conservation in many countries; on the other—it must be said—the relative isolation of African artists from avant-garde debates sometimes gives the work a rather conservative air to European eyes.

“Seven Stories” included work from Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Senegal, each section curated by an African artist or scholar. South Africa’s, curated by artist David Koloane, was by far the most thoughtful. A portion of it was devoted to works prompted by the murder of Steve Biko. Paul Stopforth’s mixed-media representations of the dead Biko, juxtaposed with the Ezrom Legae’s exquisite pencil drawings entitled “Chicken Series,” 1979, pressed home the point that under apartheid black artists were compelled to speak through veiled allegorical forms.

Allegory reappeared—not surprisingly, considering the scale of human tragedy suffered throughout the post-independence decades—in figurative paintings from Uganda, including M. K. Muwonge’s Misfortune, 1985, and Godfrey Banadda’s The Last Hope, 1984, canvases related to storytelling traditions and crowded with human and animal forms.

Meanwhile the work chosen to “represent” Kenya was anecdotal and stylistically miscellaneous, reflecting the isolation and poverty of resources for artists in a country with no national gallery and whose establishment largely sponsors “naive” art. A more self-conscious attention to crosscultural esthetics could be found in the sections devoted to the Sudan and Ethiopia, in part because so many of these artists are expatriates who trained in art schools in Europe or the U.S. By far the most disappointing sections were the self-indulgent installation from Senegal, and the work from Nigeria, where political instability over the past three decades has driven many of the finest artists and intellectuals into exile. It was good, nonetheless, to see work by Nigerian pioneers who sought to reinvent Nigerian esthetics by synthesizing African and European artistic languages. Projects such as the ’50s-era Zaria Art Society, which simultaneously developed a political consciousness and the languages of Modernism, are most capable of forming bridges between artists from different continents.

Jean Fisher