Is there such a thing as African art? Africa Remix answers

Behind the mask

by Mark Irving (The Times Online, January 15, 2005)

Naive, primitive? African artists have outgrown these labels. Why haven’t we?

The centre of the contemporary art world is, as we all know, London. It’s also New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Shanghai and many other places because contemporary art doesn’t let geography get in the way of a marketable commodity. But it’s certainly not Africa. When did you last hear of an African artist — one working in Africa — making headlines? This is both weird and sad, when you consider that 100 years ago artists such as Picasso and Dérain “discovered” that African culture could offer something new and vital to the avant-garde.

Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, one of the 20th century’s most important works of art, owed as much to Africa as it did to the artist’s revolutionary vision. The problem is that just as a major season of events showcasing contemporary African culture opens in the UK, with related exhibitions in Germany, France, Japan and the US, our view of African art remains, for the most part, shaped by the stereotypical cultural references — totemic masks, shields, ritual semaphores — that intrigued Picasso and his peers. For them, the value of this “primitive” art lay in its supposed authenticity, in the open window it gave to man’s inner world.

In the contemporary art world, however, sophistication and irony are what count. Authenticity is something that art gallery press releases might splash into the mix, but it is rarely the leading theme. In this context, an artist’s work being “authentic” is a synonym for untutored, possibly ugly, certainly naive, but you would never hear people admitting to this. Yet somehow, when it comes to contemporary African art, we find similar terms used by the curators and collectors who have organised and lent to these exhibitions.

“There is a certain innocence about art produced in Africa, although this is changing with the internet,” says Jean Pigozzi, a Swiss entrepreneur who owns one of the largest collections of African art. “I’m impressed by the directness — the brushworks, the narratives that are evident. But there are so many double meanings in the paintings and work. There’s a lot of subtle humour running through it,” says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the venue for a large show of Pigozzi’s collection this month. “Overall, there is a great sense of involvement in human issues, less formal, self-conscious detachment,” says Roger Malpert, senior curator at the Hayward Gallery, where Africa Remix, the largest exhibition of contemporary African art seen in Europe, opens next month. You would be hard pushed to find these glowing words being used to describe work shown by any of the leading dealers of contemporary art.

Does this mean that art being produced in Africa and in the West is judged according to different standards? And if it is, does this matter? “As an artist born in Africa, but with no urge to bear the burden of the African artist,” the artist Hassan Musa wrote in 2000, “I know that the only opportunities open to me to present my work outside Africa are of the ‘ethnic’ type, where people assign to me the role of ‘the other African ’ in places designed for the kind of seasonal ritual where a certain kind of African is ‘in favour’.

“It is a situation which is not lacking in ambivalence, and which gives me the impression of being a hostage to this strange machine that integrates African-born artists into the world of art, while at the same time shunting them off into a category apart. What, then, are these expectations of European aesthetics that encourage Europeans to invent their own version of African art? It is an African art that Africans never see, because it is often produced in Europe for those Europeans who collect it, exhibit it and make it an object of aesthetic reflection.”

Pigozzi, who since starting his collection in 1989 has made it a rule to collect only work by living artists working in the sub-Sahara, disagrees. He says that he has learnt a lot from Charles Saatchi about collecting art and sends his curator to find and nurture talent on the ground in Africa.

But Pigozzi collects only work by black artists, even though Africa is home to artists of many races. “South Africa is too European,” he says, insisting however that there is “no compassion, no social or political motivation” to his collecting. He refuses to lend his collection to ethnographic museums as he considers the distinction between fine art and ethnographic artefacts to be crucial, although I find it one that’s difficult to make when confronted by some of the works in his collection, since some employ materials, forms and symbols that seem familiar to the ritual objects you would find in any ethnographic museum.

While African artists now make the Turner Prize shortlist and photographs by Africans Malik Sidibe and Seydou Keita are hot property, art by other African artists working with clay, straw or supermarket rubbish is perhaps less widely appreciated. The irony is that in the hands of artists such as Antony Gormley, Joseph Beuys or Thomas Hirshhorn these materials are used to produce work that is readily accepted as artistically valid.

The art market sets the true test of what the art world thinks about contemporary African art. “It’s not significant now in sales percentage terms, but in the long term it will be,” says Ray Hughes, a leading dealer in the field based in Sydney since 1992. “I think so much of international art — produced by the Goldsmiths colleges of the world — is cannibalistic, about art eating art,” he says, referring to the Chapman brothers’ most recent exhibition, which lampooned McDonald’s with a series of painted wooden sculptures that mimicked traditional African artefacts. “In Africa, they find a way of embellishing their lives and customs. It has a real purpose,” Hughes says.

Prices for contemporary work from Africa are beginning to rise, and major museums are starting to buy. The British Museum’s £23,000 purchase in 2003 of two of the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s massive cloths made from bottle tops is one example.

“The world has become a bit more open about African art. There was a time when African artists would say ‘thank you’ when included in a show. Now they can dictate what they want in an exhibition,” says Simon Njami, the co-curator of Africa Remix. “The show will force people to address the idea that ‘those people are so poor, they have other things to deal with than art’. As long as we are human beings, we have to deal with pain and poetry, and Africa should not be limited to just fighting against poverty.”

Africa Remix, Hayward Gallery, London SE1, Feb 10-April 17 (020-7960 5226;


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

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