Dis/locating Africa/s, or How Championing a Cause Lost a Continent

Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014

Note: originally published as editorial for Third Text Africa vol 2 no. 1, 2010

Few could argue that it has been critically important to unsettle dominant notions of Africa. When Africa was widely reduced to a stereotype of backwardness, to an unchanging land without history and differentiation, it was imperative to challenge and counter this image by presenting imaginative and inspiring alternatives. In the main this was done by casting off the boundaries of continent and by turning the binary between the West and Africa inside out.

This intellectual exercise had some genuinely visionary moments. But like any new movement it generated an orthodoxy that now makes sifting the valuable moments from the swamp of tedious re-runs a tiresome affair. It has also been marked by a tendency to privilege iconoclasm to the point that it sometimes appears to be an end in itself. And it generated its own ironies: The dislocation of a fixed Africa and its replacement by a plurality of Africas has translated into a new regime where Africa’s hearts now beat most loudly in big cities off the continent. Pluralism, it seems, begins abroad. Convenient too, that the art capitals of the world can now engage Africans by dealing with those on its doorstep, or in their backyard, leaving the continent in some remote hemisphere, too distant to resonate for this beast called ‘contemporary African art’.

Through locating Africa as primarily in Europe and the USA, the idea that the international somehow excludes most Africans has been perpetuated. For Africans labouring under colonial complexes it appears to make good sense to look to the fiscally-rich world for developmental models. With tourist-friendly biennales proliferating across the globe, one may well ask why not Africa too? So what if most African countries have no properly resourced museums, and have populations who are largely disinterested in the visual arts? Can these problems be addressed through the biennale model, or through other kinds of programmes? Does the biennale model introduce its own benefits that makes such problems irrelevant? Will the money spent freighting works and pampering over-indulged curators be better spent elsewhere, or will it only be raised in the name of a biennale? Who are these biennales really meant to serve, and who actually benefits from them? Should the biennale model be adopted, adapted or rejected? And where is the space for such debate to take place, when to ask critical questions is to immediately paint one as a spoiler?

This edition of Third Text Africa consists primarily of reviews and reflections on African biennale’s. They capture both the promise that these exhibitions can work for art and artists in Africa, and the critique that they are all too often simply exotic platforms where marginalised curators and artists get a precious moment to pitch to the movers in the art-world, hopefully enabling careers where it really matters, which you will have to struggle to locate anywhere on this giant continent, which remains, for the foreseeable future, Africa.

This edition also includes a few accounts of artists’ workshops. Unlike the biennale, artists’ workshops are generally low-key affairs that attract little public attention, and almost no exposure in art journals. For their champions workshops are sites of experimental practice that facilitate qualitative exchanges between artists. For detractors there is often little to show for them.

Interestingly both these institutional forms – the big spectacle and the hidden laboratory, inadvertently reinforce the idea that artists do, whilst the talking gets done by everyone else. While this model suits many artists, surely one needs to involve artists in designing projects that can relocate artistic practice as integral to human development.

And that goes for non-Africans too.

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