The opening of 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa In and Out of Africa' at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001 marked a vital moment in the history of exhibitions of African art. Curated by Olu Oguibe and Sallah Hassan, ...
The opening of Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa In and Out of Africa at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001 marked a vital moment in the history of exhibitions of African art. Curated by Olu Oguibe and Sallah Hassan, the exhibition made an unignorable statement for the inclusion of African artists within the hitherto Western-dominated structure of the Venice Biennale, and also within the similarly exclusive narratives of conceptual and postmodern art practice.
In a joint curatorial statement in the accompanying catalogue Oguibe and Hassan positioned the show as ‘both an intervention in the patterns of narration of contemporary culture, a re-insertion of passages otherwise likely to be left out, as well as an effort to assume responsibility in telling one’s own story.’
Critical texts collated in the catalogue point towards a conceptual practice in Africa taking shape in the post-independence decade of the 1970s. In Sudan, Muhammad Shaddad was forming a conceptualist practice from as early as 1971, as a means of critiquing an older generation of Sudanese artists, questioning the value of the art object and asking his audience to participate in his work. Shaddad was co-founder of the Crystalist Group and co-author of their Manifesto, envisioning the universe as a crystal cube within which ‘human beings are prisoners of an absurd destiny’. In a seminal exhibition held by the Crystalist Group in 1978 Shaddad is said to have ‘exhibited piles of melting ice cubes surrounded by transparent plastic bags filled with colored water’. Including such materials suggests a combining of aesthetic and conceptual concerns as Shaddad posits that the work of art encompasses much more than the sum of its parts.
The story of conceptual art practice in and out of Africa remains a productive terrain for artists who continue to agitate and complicate ideas of identity, gender and social standing. The 2001 Venice Biennale and in particular Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa In and Out of Africa provided a foundation from which artists working today are able to continue their narrative and affirm their position within the history of conceptual practice. Presenting the work of seven artists from Africa and its Diaspora, the exhibition made highly visible the constant exchange between Africa and the West, in part embodied by the prevalence of artists assuming multiple perspectives through living and working in Europe, the U.S. and Africa. Works by Willem Boshoff, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Godfried Donkor, Rachid Koraïchi, Berni Searle, Zineb Sedira and Yinka Shonibare were selected as the ‘most recent conceptual interventions in contemporary African art’, and in 2001 the need for this ‘insertion’ was clearly documented by an almost total absence of African artists in the global arenas of art. The story of African conceptualism furthered by these artists, and validated by a presence at the Venice Biennale, is one that is deserving of a continued exploration as artists in and out of Africa continue to practice conceptual art in the form of performance, installation, photography, video art, and sculpture.
To focus here on the work of Berni Searle provides one of many routes in to the journey of an African conceptualism presented by Authentic/Ex-centric. By implicating her own naked body in the ‘Colour Me’ series, 1998-2000, South African artist Berni Searle places the African female body at the centre, whilst questioning the hierarchies of skin colour dominant in South African society by drenching superficial layers of coloured spice across the surface of her skin. Bringing together the materials of spice, skin and the body, with signified colours of red, white, brown and yellow, the artist recalls the colonial history and mixing of heritage set in motion by the East India Company, and the separation of people based on skin colour imposed by the apartheid regime. By directing her gaze out to the viewer Searle is unapologetically confronting us with an image of trade, sexuality and conflict. This focus on the body, through its inclusion as subject and/or material of the work, has continued to be a productive means for artists working to problematise the framing of the female body post-colonisation.
The ongoing installation series Contained Measures by Otobong Nkanga can be seen as a continuation of the African conceptualism of Shaddad and Searle as the artist reflects on the transience of seemingly immobile terms such as ‘identity’. In Contained Measures of Shifting States (2012) Nkanga engaged in conversations with her audience for a number of hours as structures of melting ice, felt and ink and steam and glycerine became transformed throughout the performance. Artists such as Ato Malinda, Jelili Atiku, Nathalie Mba Bikoro and the collective Ingrid Mawangi and Robert Hutter, to mention just some of many, have each developed a conceptual practice that continues to respond to the contemporary African experience, often with the presence or image of the artist’s body at its centre.
Loren Hansi Momodu is Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, London. Recent exhibitions and live events include Word. Sound. Power., Ellen Gallagher: AxME, Across the board, Art in Action and Damien Hirst.
 Salah Hassan, Olu Oguibe (eds). Authentic/ Ex-centric: conceptualism in contemporary african art, Forum for African Arts, 2002, p 8 [[Amazon.com lists the title as Authentic/Ex-Centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art.
 Ibid, p18
 Ibid, p18
 Ibid, p 19