This is how it usually goes. An e-mail arrives from some curator’s assistant or editorial intern informing you that Europe is interested in featuring Africa – in their magazine, on their museum wall, somewhere important. Oh yeah, you reply, if they want geography they can buy a spade and go dig for sand themselves. No, they reply, flustered, they want people, names, e-mail addresses, jpegs, contacts. For mahala (Zulu: free), because Africa is open source, has always been. After a couple of these familiar shakedowns, you get clever. You start doing what Lester Bangs did.
In 1975, “some skeezix” from one of the Detroit news dailies visited the offices of Creem, a now defunct music magazine edited by Bangs, a straight-shooting journalist with a Burt Reynolds moustache. “Where is rock going?” asked the cub reporter. “It’s being taken over by the Germans and the machines,” replied Bangs. He was right: Kraftwerk at MoMA and the Tate Modern. Who would have thought it in 1975? Bangs maybe.
Which leads me, sort of, to my response to an editorial assistant at Kaleidoscope, the Italian art quarterly that in the summer of 2012 dedicated an entire issue to art and culture from or related to the African continent. (It followed on similar continent and South Africa-specific issues from Vanity Fair, Icon, Dazed & Confused, Monopol and Blueprint, amongst others.) “Where is contemporary African art going?” he asked, more or less. To wit, more or less, “It’s being taken over by the Congolese and their dancers.”
The magazine’s editors opted to showcase Nicholas Hlobo, a star of the 2011 Venice Biennale, in its monograph section. That’s fine – he deserves the coverage. But I continue to believe that the raw collaborative optimism of Studios Kabako in Kisangani speaks more acutely and honestly to the contingency and informality of everyday life on the African continent than the poetic and freeform sculptural work being produced by Hlobo at his August House studio in central Johannesburg. It is a belief shaped by a particular bias.
In the early 1970s, when Benjamin Buchloh took over the reigns of Interfunktionen, a now defunct German art journal, he committed himself to showing that “painting and sculpture were really no longer viable operations,” as he phrased it during a MoMA symposium devoted to experimental magazines in 2006. It is an attitude similarly shared by many artists, curators and critics presently living and working in Dakar, Kisangani, Cape Town, Lagos, Lubumbashi, Tangiers and Johannesburg, myself included. Strangely, however, it seems that this unremarkable bit of news is not being heard elsewhere.
“Why do we never consider the achievements of those artists who at great professional cost and individual isolation have not only transcended but have equally transfigured the borders constituting the notion of Africanity?” asked Okwui Enwezor in a luminous piece of writing published in frieze in January 1996. His question is particularly apposite to Linyekula, who in 2001 moved back to the Democratic Republic of Congo from Europe, first to Kinshasa, latterly, in 2006, to Kisangani. For the most part, however, Enwezor’s question is roundly ignored, its motivating logic also conveniently sidestepped.
Why? I suppose there is some complicated theoretical answer buried in postcolonial theory, but in truth it boils down to this. Blind stupidity. Obstinate stupidity. Withering stupidity. Spectacular stupidity. Plain old dumbass stupidity. These five pillars of righteousness – routine tools of the trade for journalists (myself included) and curators – are at the core of the sham parade of wisdom and benevolence that routinely underpins the circulation and display of African creativity abroad. For all the activism, African modernity and contemporaneity – that ephemeral notion of being rooted in the actual, the present – is challenged by an enduring cargo fetishism.
“Strange cargo” is how Enwezor in 1996 described the stuff that the longshoremen of culture offload in the artefact warehouses of Europe. No doubt his metaphor was inspired by the work he was doing while preparing for the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. As is now well known – more so after curator Joost Bosland’s 2012 rewind-fast-forward project around Enwezor’s marginal biennale – Trade Routes: History and Geography functioned as a kind of workshop for modes of display and practice that Enwezor would later deploy at documenta 11. More prosaically, it turned him into a star figure, someone worthy of a profile in L’Uomo Vogue, which in May 2012 devoted an entire issue to the continent.
“Rebranding Africa” declared the silver capped lettering beneath a seated portrait of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon appearing on the Italian style magazine’s cover. On p.229, Hlobo, “the sculptor from South Africa”. On p.232, Okwui Enwezor, “contemporary art curator from Nigeria”. It’s funny seeing friends and allies – be they imagined friends or speculative allies – becoming the subject of their own critique. But to fixate on Enwezor’s celebrity alone is banal.
Writing in 1996, Enwezor speculated on “the sanction of institutional patronage” that made Cyprien Tokoudagba from Benin, the coffin maker Kane Kwei from Ghana, and KwaNdebele muralist Esther Mahlangu “the pride of contemporary African representation”. “How could anyone serious about contemporary art in Africa overlook the importance of artistic practices that breach the etiquettes of racial determinism and national origin, of boundaries and territories within Africa?” he asked. It is remarkable how often Tintinesque journalists, careerist curators and foolish editors ignore this singular and generative question.
The obvious policy is refusal. But where does that get you? “Speaking for myself and the situation in my country,” remarked Linyekula on a panel in Johannesburg in 2011, “there is no artist who can survive with their art without touring outside.” Artists and writers know this dilemma well. “What does that mean for us? What does that mean to our independence, if that is what we are?”
It gets compromised, I suppose, is the default answer. But what about the generative possibilities offered by collaboration across a known faultline? In 2006, Granta, that bellwether of the English literary establishment, devoted an issue to Africa. “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” wrote Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina in a now well-known tract on how to write about Africa for strangers. “Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.” He ends by offering, “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.” Thanks Binyavanga, I will.
Shortly after L’Uomo Vogue appeared, an exasperated reader wrote to the magazine and complained. “I searched for the Africa issue with excitement and interest only to be disappointed by seeing Ban Ki-Moon on the cover.” He isn’t African, she pointed out. “Maybe the team couldn’t name any Africans? But this is a poor excuse since we can always draw on Nelson Mandela.” Franca Sozzani, the platinum dynamo behind Vogue’s Italian franchise responded soon after: “Nelson Mandela posed for us already twice.” Ergo, the image bank of African attitude, poise and integrity had been thoroughly depleted.
In December 1993, a few months before he was elected president, Mandela guest-edited the Christmas issue of Vogue’s French edition. In agreeing to work on this special issue, Mandela was following in the footsteps of Marc Chagall, Frederico Fellini and Joan Miró, all of whom had previously guest-edited the publication. The Mandela special issue, which came on the heels of an issue edited by the Dalai Lama the year before, was conceived by style maven and then editor Colombe Pringle and included 92 pages devoted to Mandela.
Aside from an interview with the future leader of a non-racial South Africa, the magazine included an overview of his youth, articles on ethnic diversity and initiation rites – ‘…the Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe…’ Binyavanga reminds us – as well as a visit to Mandela’s home in Cape Town. Not known for his temerity when articulating his desires, it was reported at the time that Mandela insisted the issue also include a feature on African wildlife. In this half-truth resides a possible lesson in sedition: whenever participating in these mediated acts of foreign diplomacy, artists, writers, curators and readers should demand the unreasonable.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.