Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014
Note: originally published as editorial to Third Text Africa vol 2 no. 2, 2010
Any day now one expects the proclamation that ‘contemporary African art’ is dead. After all, its been rumoured for some time, but it seems that no-one will listen until someone with an ego bigger than a continent says so.
Odds are that the proclamation will say the following: “Contemporary African art is now successfully assimilated into international art. Retaining the label, and its attendant discourse, will unnecessarily restrict the work of artists, who just want to be artists.”
There will be some sympathy for the proclamation. After all, how many more ‘deconstructions’ of ‘authenticity’ can one bear? And is it not true that the discourse has been in a state of paralysis for some time, bound into a reactive cycle that, once the hypocrisies of universalism have been exposed, has typically led nowhere beyond the cul-de-sac of iconoclasm for iconoclasm’s sake?
And yet such a proclamation will be a tragedy. It will be a tragedy because in the countless curatorial projects that set out to problemmatise the notions of ‘Africa’ and ‘African art’ very little attention has been paid by the doyens of this discourse to artists working across the African continent, to addressing the prevailing and desired conditions for their practice. A lot of work still needs to be done to develop a discourse that makes sense of work produced in ‘developing’ contexts, such as those that prevail in most parts of Africa. Even more work needs to be done on the ‘pioneers’, of whom barely a monograph exists.
Instead the very idea of associating ‘African art’ with a continent has been trashed, in favour of artists with historical links to the continent but living elsewhere, for whom ‘contemporary African art’ was a necessary stepping stone to visibility in the west, and for whom that stepping stone now threatens to become a millstone. For such artists the proclamation is surely overdue.
Similarly, I suspect, for many South African artists being shackled to a continent that relatively few have demonstrated any interest in, must surely be a quiet torture – I mean, first the cultural boycott isolated us, now I must carry a pass that labels me ‘African’ when all I want to do is join the unfettered ‘international’ community of artists…
The articles featured in this issue of Third Text Africa continue the question of framing and reframing that made up an earlier issue. They date back to the emergence of this discourse, when the naming of ‘contemporary African art’ was in its infancy, and before there was a place for the admittedly cynical tone of this editorial. They highlight the earnestness that went into a valid critique of how Africa was portrayed through the prisms of ignorance and prejudice, and they represented a significant step in unmasking and shaming that misrepresentation.
By revisiting this material it is hoped that this edition will pose a valid challenge to us today: in what way did the critiques developed in the earlier writings on contemporary African art progress beyond those exemplified in these examples? Or did the discourse manage the illusion of breaking new ground, whilst being in effect frozen in a moment, on the threshold of developing new discursive frames that can elucidate both the particularity and universality of art produced across Africa, not only in the advent of globalisation, but also in the critical decades preceding and following political independence.
Has the work been done, or has it barely begun?