The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary African Art

Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, 23 June 2010

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I presented this essay recently at the University of California Santa Cruz, at a conference titled The Task of the Curator. The general audience reception to my presentation showed me that the issue discussed here is being very much debated in the field of African art history. However, few people have written about it. I think formal critical analysis of our work and positions are very important for a field to grow. I am posting it here in the hope that it allows us to start discussing the important issues it touches on.

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“Made in Africa” Biennale: Afrika Heritage and the Politics of Representation

by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

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The baggage of post-coloniality continues to weigh-in strongly in the discourse of contemporary African art, moreso when this discourse is coloured by the politics and economics of representation. In the 1990s, the contest that ensued in the global art space with regards to African art was one of representation and authorial spokesmanship that was engendered as a result of the seminal but hugely controversial Les Magiciens de la Terre exhibition of 1989 curated by Frenchman Jean-Hubert Martin. The blockbuster show undoubtedly reconfigured the reception of modern African art in the West. But beyond that, it helped to facilitate the emergence and acceptance of contemporary African art on a large scale in major cultural institutions of the West. This to borrow from Olu Oguibe, set the tone for reclamation of author-ity and reversal of imposed anonymity on the native, perpetrated by ethnography that effectively bars claims to subjectivity and normativity.

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Dirty Laundry: Can we think beyond Venice?

by Mario Pissarra

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I have previously argued that Africa’s representation in Venice is irrelevant when compared to the need to develop alternatives at ‘home’. In essence my argument is that we should not judge the success of South African art (or African or ‘non-western’ art for that matter) by its presence or absence in the prime venues of the ‘international’ arena, of which the Venice Biennale is both a leading example and symbol. The health of a country’s art should not be judged by the number of international ‘stars’ it generates, since this may provide a false picture of the state of art in that country or region. Rather it should be evaluated on the quality and extent of its art practice, galleries and museums, art education, publishing, patronage, and all the critical components of art infrastructure that are essential for the development of art.

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Open the Gate

Olu Oguibe, 9 October 2006

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[This letter was initially written in response to a letter from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor to Robert Storr, Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale. It was copied by the writer to interested parties and is reproduced here with his permission.]

To Dr. Salah Hassan
Forum for African Arts

September 19, 2006

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Veneziano: Ventriloquizing Venice- a response to Malcolm Payne

by Gavin Anderson

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[Written in response to  “Viva Venice… Viva… Long live!” where “Malcolm Payne takes issue with Mario Pissarra’s objections to an emphasis on the importance of the Venice Biennale”, ArtThrob June 2006]

‘Veneziano’ is the local Venetian dialect, which “does not descend from the Italian language but has its own morphology, syntax and lexicon.” (Wikipedia) Malcolm Payne’s recent extraordinary and irascible contribution to ArtThrob regarding Mario Pissarra’s view of biennales deserves a brief informal response.

“Competitions are for horses, not for artists,” said Bela Bartok, and I agree. Similarly, one might say, as Payne implies in defending participation in biennales: biennales are for curators, not for artists. This much is articulated clearly by Payne when he writes that, “Principal curators…. have chosen artists…. not necessarily for their ethnic or national values, but for their work’s capacity to fulfil a curator’s vision [my emphasis] in representing states of play within global art discourse.”

I think that the above is probably true of most biennales and quite possibly nearly all curators. And, if so, what we really need before proceeding to debate the pros and cons of participating in biennales, I suggest, is a critical evaluation of the phenomenon of the rise of the curator in the mediation of contemporary art: Who are these people? Who appoints and remunerates them? Who peer-reviews them? What precisely qualifies and causes them to identify accurately the “states of play within global art discourse” and move art and artists around at whim like Olympian philosopher-gods upon their exotically-located game boards to illustrate their extraordinary powers of global insight? (Now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in a global art discourse if I could locate one. Would Professor Payne please furnish me with details regarding where the forum for this exciting discourse may be found, which global language it is conducted in and who its principal actors, publications and contributors are?)

For artists, at the heart of this impolite public expression of disagreement lies the question (which I’ve posed on ArtThrob before) “who, principally, are we [i.e. SA artists] making our art for?”- southern Africans, or the generic audiences held in thrall by the imperatives and concerns of the established order of the ‘international art world’ of the global north? To me, this is the only question of relevance to artists practising in South Africa to emerge from Payne’s impatient dismissal of Pissarra’s fledgling and – to my mind (certainly I share his core concerns) – commendable initiative.

I must add that I find it ironic that Payne swipes at Pissarra for launching his initiative in the form of a sole propriety (I see no problem with this in the context of Pissarra’s initiative as explained on his website), when biennales in the format Payne defends are perhaps one of the most effective vehicles of the commodification and commercialisation of visual culture that exist in the ‘global art world,’ arbitrarily packaging art, as they inevitably tend to do, according to national flavours at each Trade Expo with boring predictability.

Payne confirms for us that “….the aim of the [Venice] Biennale is to present art in a national context in a global arena.” Basically, for various reasons, this is a silly and misguided aim – okay “for our Olympians, soccer players, cricketers, flower growers and choirs” but not for our art, nor our artists – to turn Payne’s mean-spirited and pointless touch of sarcasm back on its professor. (Being an ex-footballer, I must point out that national teams are now significantly weaker than many of the world’s best club teams, and that many great players, eg. Ryan Giggs, are never showcased at events like the World Cup because their national team is not strong enough to qualify.)

Nevertheless, given the above aim, how on earth will curators concoct and package a ‘South African Art’ for the global market? This could well prove to be a very ill-conceived and, yes, damaging exercise indeed, if it is carried out. In a recent review I wrote that, “South Africa is culturally diverse; consequently, there are as many ‘South African’ realities as there are cultural groupings, each with distinct histories. Given this, it would have been misleading to have attempted to identify an essentially ‘South African’ art. The editor and publishers of 10 years 100 artists: Art in a Democratic South Africa, a title which suggests diversity concisely, are congratulated for having avoided this commonplace failure.” In my view, it is precisely this failure that biennales will continue to fail to avoid: it is tempting, of course, but it remains a sin to essentialise culture (in this relation, put bluntly, many of the esteemed elite of curators and at least one Professor need to re-take Philosophy 1).

To me, the current culture of competitions and biennales is anathema to art. These publicity events – “The Venice Biennale receives more press, television and internet coverage than any other art occasion in the world,” Payne assures us – tellingly, this is the first thing to come to mind when he begins to “tell Pissarra why the Venice Biennale is so important” – purport to privilege art and artists, but instead privilege the interests of sponsors, advertisers, art sales people, mining magnates, governments, certain powerful art institutions of the global north, and the apparently omniscient visions of hypercultural superstar curators: Payne writes, “If, in so doing [i.e. participating in the Venice Biennale], local artists (whose work, we remember, is selected for its capacity to fulfill a curator’s vision) make an impact on the global market [my emphasis again] with their positive (sic) creative production, then the country’s core goals, to showcase excellence, will be realised.”

What rubbish. I’d expect to hear something like this from a spokesperson for the Minister for Arts and Culture, not a Professor of Fine Art. Why? Well, I don’t make art to further my country’s core goals, and I don’t know of any artist who does. I do make art which aims to address the people who live in this region primarily, because I know that to be effective art has to be rooted in a culturally specific time and place. If it is able to speak beyond that, then well and good, remembering, of course – and curators in particular are good at forgetting this – that Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ long ago helped dispense with silly notions like ‘universality.’

Finally, curators and their sycophants must remember that artists know very well that the connotations of the term ‘globalisation,’ the current buzzword in the hallowed halls of academia and the world’s foremost museums, are very much thinner, flatter and conceptually far less challenging and rewarding than what is connoted by ‘postmodernism,’ which it has, for the moment, superannuated. Artists are not fooled when this very unmagical word is bandied about to make things sound urgent and important.

Last in line, artists must struggle to remember exactly who we need to be addressing and who and what we are – especially with reference to limitations regarding who we may address effectively – as our efforts and our vision of things seem constantly in danger of being deracinated and hijacked by curator-cum-meta-artist-visionaries for commercial and promotional uses in worryingly nationalist ways.

Gavin Anderson is a practising artist resident in Pietermaritzburg-Msunduzi

Venetian Blind: A response to Malcolm Payne

by Mario Pissarra

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[This is a response to Malcolm Payne’s “Viva Venice… Viva… Long live!” (ArtThrob, June 2006). Payne’s piece was a response to my “Death to Venice” (ASAI, May 2006), which was a response to Marilyn Martin’s companion pieces “Death in Venice” and “Faultlines and Fumblings” (ArtThrob, September 2003), as well as to Sue Williamsons remarks on the Venice Biennale (ArtThrob, July, 2003).] [1]

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Death to Venice! A South African perspective on the irrelevance of representation at the Venice Biennale

by Mario Pissarra

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 [Note: This previously unpublished piece was originally submitted to the arts editors of leading South African newspapers in October 2003]

In a recent paper (soon to be published in art journals here and in the UK) I raised the questions as to whether South Africans are capable of making a paradigm shift away from a world view centred on the West, and whether we are able to develop an inclusive vision of Africa. [1] Reviews by Marilyn Martin and Sue Williamson on the Venice Biennale amplify the need for these issues to be debated. [2]

In contrast to a recent claim by Martin that “We no longer need to genuflect to Europe” her accounts of the Venice Biennale demonstrate both persistent eurocentricism and a shallow and opportunistic ‘Africanness’ in service of that vision. [3] Williamson also presents an acceptance of Venice as the axis around which we spin, but her review is less provocative than Martin’s and would not in itself have warranted this response. However, given the prominent positions of these two individuals in the visual arts, their views carry more weight than most, and should therefore not go unchallenged.

In “Death in Venice” Martin equates the absence of South African art from the Venice Biennale with death. She describes this international art event as “the oldest and still the most important art biennial”. Williamson appears to concur with this view describing it as “still the queen of the international biennales”. Martin accuses the South African government of having their priorities wrong: “It requires political will and action to participate in the Venice Biennale and this is lacking in South Africa. Those in officialdom who are meant to take responsibility travel throughout the world signing cultural agreements and attending festivals… but visual artists seldom reap the benefits… South Africans alone are guilty for this shameful marginalisation of our visual arts. It is up to artists and arts organisations to exert pressure on government to change this state of affairs.”

In Martin’s companion piece “Faultlines and Fumblings” she extends the same argument to Africa as a whole, with the exception of Egypt. Martin opens melodramatically with “Africa also died in Venice in 2003.” She continues, “African leaders evidently do not understand the power of art in the process of establishing and maintaining the status and influence of a country; after more than 100 years of the Venice Biennale Egypt is the only African country that has a [regular presence].”

Perhaps Martin should tell us why visibility in Venice is so important, apart from it being the “oldest” biennale. Does this exclusive ‘pedigree’ really qualify it for a superior status? According to Williamson, having a “real presence at the Venice Biennale” is “to move [African arts] closer to the centre.” Certainly if we are to measure our success by visibility in the heart of the West then Venice is important. But if the success of our project depends on re-centering the world with a blatant bias towards the exploited Rest then Venice is perhaps not so important.

Our marginalisation as South/African visual/artists will not be addressed by a guest place at “the centre,” it will be addressed by shifting the centre, decentralising it globally so that the fortunes of most are not subjected to the whims of a few. Our marginalisation will be addressed by linking our struggle for visibility with a struggle for relevance, a struggle to engage the critical issues that affect all of us far more profoundly than being on curator Francesco Bonami’s guest list. [4]

I offer two examples that highlight the marginal status of South African visual arts internationally whilst simultaneously offering us an opportunity to redress that marginality. They are not the only examples but I have chosen them because they both represent processes in which South Africa is playing a leading role. The first concerns working towards peace and development in Africa. Where are our artists, art educators, curators, etc, in complementing this process? Why are we not discussing how the visual/arts can contribute towards Africa’s development? Why do we let the debates around an African Renaissance exclude the visual/arts?

The second process concerns globalisation and the battle for a fair economic system. The recent failed Cancun talks heralded the advent of the so called G21 whose most prominent members include countries as diverse as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Our Trade and Industry Minister Alec Irwin played a significant role in mobilising exploited countries to realise their power to resist. In this context of solidarity against the Greedy Eight (G8) countries a critical engagement with biennales located in the Third World would appear to be infinitely more important now than being seen in Venice.

Why is there no debate coming from within the visual/arts community about how the arts can participate in complementing these critical initiatives? Are the arts, and the visual arts in particular, so impotent that they cannot play a role in these broader processes? If they are, then perhaps the visual arts deserve their marginal status.

In the context of our absence from real international struggles, lobbying for participation in the Venice Biennale is to inadvertently further the perception of the visual arts as marginal. In fact at this point in time we should not be asking our government to support our participation in any of the major showcases in the art capitals in the West. We should be asking it to support us in engaging with artists across Africa and throughout the Third World. We need not do this in a superficial way determined by diplomats but with an agenda set by artists and people working in the arts, and informed by real rather than esoteric concerns. This should be our priority, a project we should adopt for at least ten years.

We could take this further by lobbying artists and governments throughout the Third World to do the same. We do need to turn the tables on the West if we are to realise our full potential. Let us see how long they can sustain their own shows without the ‘exoticism’ that ‘developing’ ’countries bring to their events. Perhaps it would even be good for their own practice to be isolated by the Third World. Perhaps it would encourage them to reflect critically on their role in the way that South African art and art history, contrary to the views of people such as Martin, benefited from international isolation under apartheid. But let us not boycott them completely. Let us invite those who traditionally invite us to participate on terms set by ourselves in our own shows with our own agendas. While ten years may not be enough to make a huge difference, it should be enough to make a start in developing a truly international art community.

We also need to ask what kind of events do we need? Biennales themselves, as presently conceived, may not be the most suitable vehicle for promoting the exchange of skills and ideas. Similarly, high powered conferences have their limitations regarding active participation. On the other hand, participant centred workshops and forums need visibility in order to have impact. There will be no simple satisfactory solution, but we need a proper debate about what it means to be part of the international community beyond fitting into an iniquitous system and creating a few international superstars and holding these individuals up as a sign of progress.

Back in Venice Martin criticises Egyptian born London based Gilane Tawadros who curated the only pan-African exhibit Faultlines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes. Martin takes particular exception to the strong showing of artists from the African diaspora and that the only artists included who are resident on the continent live in Egypt and South Africa. She writes that “Africa was hijacked and killed by the diaspora in Venice at the hands of those who purport to have her interests at heart… Faultlines misleads – it is not about Africa but about the diaspora, it is not contemporary and it does not reveal any shifting landscapes. Tawadros …does not have sufficient knowledge of contemporary African life, experiences, indeed the challenges faced by those living on the continent and the art that is made here.”

I do not know Tawadros nor am I familiar with her show, but there are two things that need to be said here. The first is that is that her exhibition appears to be a radical re-positioning of the assumptions that usually frame Africa. Judging by most surveys of African art, Africa is usually taken to read as Sub-Saharan Africa but stopping short of South Africa. By privileging Egypt and South Africa Tawadros challenges this (usually unwritten) rule. She compounds this re-framing of Africa by foregrounding the diaspora. By doing this she calls into question the very notion of Africa and how it is defined. While I cannot comment how successful she is in doing this, the idea itself is certainly not without curatorial merit as claimed by Martin.

Secondly it is somewhat obnoxious for Martin to dismiss the right of Africans living in the diaspora to be seen as Africans. Africans in the diaspora may have complex overlapping identities but so do persons born on this continent with ancestry from another. Pretending to be ‘more African’ on the basis of birth and residence, particularly when that ‘right’ is a consequence of a ‘settler’ inheritance is insensitive to the usually deplorable circumstances that caused many Africans to go into ‘exile’ in the first place. Besides, arguing ‘who is more African than who’ is less important than demonstrating a commitment towards Africa’s development, and here Martin is particularly vulnerable. She may well be right in criticising our officials for globetrotting with limited results, but Martin is no desk bound administrator herself. If she purports to be an African voice perhaps she can tell us how many miles she has traveled to international destinations since 1990 and how many of these have been to African countries?

Let us stop mouthing platitudes to ‘promoting’ Africa and commit ourselves to re-centering our world. Until our artists have a visibility on the continent and in the Third World, beyond participation in elitist biennales, we should not be mourning our absence at Francesco Bonami’s table. Until that day our call should rather be: Death to Venice!



[1] “The Luggage is Still Labelled: But is it Going to the Right Destination?” Art South Africa vol 2 issue 2 2003 [published as “Decolonise the Mind”] & Third Text vol 18 issue 2 2004
[2] July (Williamson) & September (Martin) 2003
[3] “This, that and the ‘other’” Mail & Guardian 3 October 2003, p.III
[4] Bonami is the curator of this years Venice Biennale


“Not Just Another Biennale”?

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by Susan Glanville-Zini (CEO of Cape Africa Platform) and Julian Jonker (Coordinator of Sessions Ekapa), in conversation with Mario Pissarra

The Cape Africa Platform promises to deliver a mega-event that will be “not just another biennale”. The first major element in their plan is a conference, Sessions Ekapa, which takes place in Cape Town from 6-8 December 2005. The conference theme is “(re)locating contemporary African art” and will be followed with a multi-disciplinary “Manifestation” in 2006.

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