As the first African-owned art gallery in the UAE, Efiɛ may have to interrogate existing cultural legacies in the region, writes Nantume Violet.
On Monday 7 March, Efiɛ Gallery opened at Dubai’s Al Khayat Art Avenue, becoming the first African-owned art galleryin the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was a symbolic moment. But what significance could the gallery have beyond being a symbol of representation of art from Africa? Could Efiɛ play a role in facilitating an actual shift in the material world of cultural production and dialogue?
The exhibition of art from Africa is often commercially motivated, setting up situations in which artists vie to sell their works to best bidder. Aside from commodifying art, commercial galleries – for example, many of those in Uganda or Ghana – tend to have no driving curatorial rationales and their visions are geared toward foreseeing the next “marketable” art products. Because of the recent increase in demand for art from Africa, “marketable art” has been popular at trade fairs and auction houses, regardless of whether it bears any imprint of an artist’s rigor. Works that enter international markets are also rarely exhibited or experienced by local scenes or gain critical engagement from where they hail. They are not contextualized and internalized through critical thought and interaction with the public (beyond buying and selling). Because it has not been written about, it is not historicized. In this context the responsibility of interpreting the work is left up for grabs by anyone – namely writers, critics, and historians from North America and Europe. Beyond attempting to respond to the demands of the art market, these galleries and artists do not owe themselves accountability for their work. Thus many current important works of contemporary art from the continent will not be remembered within their local history.
There is a cautionary saying in Luganda: “you do not participate in a monkey dance if you do not want to be touched by monkey tails.” If Efiɛ Gallery sets out to participate in international commercial art scenes, where art from Africa is polarized through events such as All Africa Festival, Sikka Art Fair, and Art Dubai, and art practice is hinged on the portability and potential marketability of works like paintings, then it must also be ready to bear the responsibility for the denigration of art from Africa. Indeed, as philosopher kąrî’kạchä seid’ou (kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, 2021) has asked, what can one actually expect from the field of “contemporary art,” which in its conceptual ancestry, even while making feeble attempts to subvert the workings of late capitalism, has found itself helplessly plunged into the whirlpool of the neoliberal capitalist machine? Besides, would “African art” as a discipline survive without the intervention of the art markets? Whatwill happen when art market interests turn to the next geographical place?
By offering art emancipation teaching program to depoliticize art practice, the works of institutions like Ghana’s blaxTARLINES have consciously started challenging simplistic reproductions and representations. Will Efiɛ Gallery too take on this task? Efiɛ does represent voices from several fields as well as those with roots beyond West Africa, which has potential to bring together multiple layers of different value systems. It is double-floor gallery is located in the Al Quoz Creative Zone and it has three major spaces: studio spaces, a ground-floor exhibition space and mezzanine area, and a record gallery showing rare vinyl and shellac from West Africa. Herehe private collection of co-founder Valentina Mintah will also be made public for the first time.
Valentina Mintah is a renowned technology executive and collector who has lived in Dubai since 2018. In the UAE, she is part of a group of notable individuals engaged in advancing and cultural discourse. Another such individual is independent curator and software programmer Bayo Hassan Bello, who runs AJALA Project, set up in 2016 and focused on the intersection of technology and the creative economy. It has supported emerging artists in the UAE, mostly of African descent (Ammagui, 2022). The year 2018 saw the launch of the Africa Institute, an academic institution dedicated to the study of Africa and the African Diaspora, while strengthening Afro-Arab relations. Meanwhile the multidisciplinary Dubai-based think tank Fiker Institute, according to its director of research Saddan Al Hassan, sees the study of Africa as transcending the colonial heritage of area studies – it is defined globally, for it has a great global presence (Ammagui, 2022). The Fiker Institute hopes to advance intellectual discourse with a focus on global governance, foreign policy, neocolonialism, and culture.
Efiɛ ’s programming is supported by artistic direction of Ethiopian descent photographer Aïda Muluneh. Aïda is a founder and director of the Addis Foto Fest will help frame the exhibitions as form of art making. The idea is that the gallery space will seamlessly intertwine with studios and residencies hosting local UAE artists and artists from Africa, whose activities are to spill over into the gallery. The inaugural exhibition, Shard Song, focuses on early wood works by El Anatsui in his first show in UAE. It is curated by architectural scientist Mae-ling Lokko, who is concurrently showing her work in the exhibition Tomorrow Today at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.
Valentina Mintah says that there is a constant flux of people from all over the world into UAE. Dubai as an inventive city celebrating the new and the old – a rhyme without end whose beat is ever changing. It is no wonder that the UAE’s artistic terrain seems to offer possibilities for the convergence of international artists as well as opportunities for Afro-Arab intersections and collaboration (Mintah, 2022). While histories of commercial and cultural exchanges along Gulf trade networks span centuries, in the minds of many people from Africa Dubai is just “a shopping mall.” Can the UAE as contemporary periphery help re-center discourse, shift hegemony, and reconstruct cultural narratives? Could this be a way toward the logic of commons reclamation that kąrî’kạchä seid’ou speaks of, capital hacking and repatriation to reverse gentrification, invested with the promise of another art world economy, and therefore another art world?
In West Africa and Africa at large, group solidarities anchored in collectivism have developed as a resilience strategy to deal with adverse economic conditions and have been mostly led by women (Tamale, 2020). I hope that Efiɛ becomes an attempt to reclaim and advance the reconstruction of value systems of other civilizations in mainstream Arab historical narratives, to create new approaches, and to propagate indigenous ways of making and thinking into the canon. I hope it can aid subversions and transformation. This will only be possible if collaboration happens through real critical exchanges and reflections that interrogate existing contemporary cultural legacy of exchanges between the Gulf and West African and African countries.
Nantume Violet is a curator and director at UNDER GROUND, a gallery and contemporary art space in Kampala, Uganda. She has worked as cultural producer for several years and has had collaborations in Eastern Africa, Ghana, South Africa, and Germany.
Ammagui, N. (2022, February 27th). Creating Spaces for West African Art in UAE: Exhibitions, Institutions and Individuals. Retrieved from Fiker Institute: https://www.fikerinstitute.org/
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kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, b. (2021). On Stage-Crafting and Stage-Crafting Beyond Crisis. African Arts, 55.
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Tamale, S. (2020). Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Kampala: Daraja Press.