Mario Pissarra, 11 January 2010
This was presented at a meeting of Africa.cont (www.africacont.org) held on 5 December 2009 at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. It was prepared for a panel discussion that was intended to address the possibilities and limitations of Portugal as a location for Africa.cont. Alda Costa, Barthelemy Toguo and Paul Goodwin were also on this panel, which was chaired by Roger Meintjes.
Politics of place
African art projects that are established off the African continent risk perpetuating the peripheral position of Africa in world art.
They introduce an illusion of a plurality of centres – an illusion in that these centres are clustered in the west or satellites of the West. They reinforce the perception that for Africans to succeed they must gravitate or orientate themselves towards the West.
They anchor African identity outside the African continent. When in our supposedly post-colonial theory we speak of afro-politanism or the African diaspora the construction of these identities is centred on its relationship to the West. Diasporas in Africa are invisible, as is migration between African centres.
African projects in predominantly non-African contexts influence and shape practice on the African continent by signalling what kind of art is appreciated in the leading art capitals, because by definition such projects cater primarily to an audience whose perspectives are informed by the experiences of living in the so-called developed world.
Consequently, young artists in Africa spend more time familiarising themselves with leading curatorial trends rather than researching histories that relate to their own contexts, and asking what is it that needs to be done to improve things on the African continent.
By focusing on African ‘excellence’ or ‘exoticism’ in non-African contexts such projects inadvertently distract from the need to build art infrastructure on the continent.
They tend to fixate on the question of defining Africa, on what is and is not African, rather than what is it that is needed to develop art on the African continent.
They absorb resources that most African projects will never access, but which are given in their name.
Such projects privilege relatively mobile Africans living in the USA and Europe, who are successfully mediating their identity within predominantly non-African contexts.
Conversely, they usually ignore or overlook Africans living in the West who lack this mobility, those who struggle or fail to adapt to their new environment.
When they engage with Africans on the African continent they do so from the basis of wielding disproportionate power. Their powerful position makes it difficult for economically challenged Africans to engage them critically.
They usually corrupt the notion of partnership as a mutually beneficial proposition by their insensitivity to unequal power relations – even critically inclined Africans accept the most whimsical or mediocre of propositions from western curators simply because they present opportunities that many artists cannot see on their own doorstep, or in their back yard.
These are some of the risks involved in establishing projects such as Africa.Cont. The stakes are high, not only for those involved in establishing the project, but also for displaced Africans in Portugal, and not least for those on the African continent who lack the economic resources to realise their own dreams.
Pragmatics of place
Okay, so Africa.Cont has mobilised resources that African projects in African countries cannot.
Surely the entry of Africa.cont as an international project can enhance the prospects for Africa’s development by broadening the scope of cultural agencies concerned with Africa and its art?
The obvious benefits are that it increases the number of potential sources for supporting artists in Africa. It will surely be more sympathetic to lusophone Africans who are usually ignored by Anglophone and francophone curators.
Perhaps more importantly the entry of another player reduces the prospects for hegemony – if there is only one international agency in town one may be more inclined to bow to its agenda, whereas when these agencies proliferate they will have to compete for influence. This may serve to make them more open to genuine dialogue.
International agencies also have the advantage of being able to engage across national boundaries, they are well placed to identify trans-national interests, whereas projects locked into national identities risk parochialism, of failing to prioritise the need to think across borders.
Projects such as Africa.cont can encourage trans-national dialogue, opening up the prospects of a genuine internationalism, an internationalism that is not defined as visibility in the West, nor by its echo of colonial histories, but rather by its relevance for trans-national contexts.
How then to influence the direction of Africa.cont so that it does not perpetuate the global imbalances of political, economic and cultural power?
What would it take for Africa.cont to win the unambiguous support of Africans committed to the development of an infrastructure for art that is rooted in African contexts?
In my view Africa.cont will earn respect and win support by demonstrating a willingness to engage practitioners on continent, not as a once off gesture but as an integral principle and sustained practice.
It will be able to engage meaningfully if it appoints staff who understand the conditions and needs in Africa, and are sensitive to power relations. Appointing the right people will enhance Africa.cont’s prospects of developing genuine partnerships.
Establishing genuine partnerships will create a solid foundation for developing mutually beneficial programmes.
Where you are does matter. But perhaps not as much as what you do, and how you do it.
In a world whose very survival is threatened by an endemic culture of self-interest, it is critical to promote an international agenda. This agenda should not be driven by visions or memories of empire, and of extending the influence of specific self-serving interests but rather by the need to build a world where everyone has the means to realize their potential.
The convening of this gathering is a positive sign. It signals a genuine interest in hearing the thoughts and engaging the voices of a diverse group of practitioners. It has privileged intimate conversation over grand public gestures. We are here to listen, to exchange and debate ideas.
Grand gestures have their place, but all too often they come too easily for resourced organisations. And when elaborate showpieces are dismantled what is left standing?
That is the critical question.