Sunday, December 23, 2007
Friday, December 14, 2007
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The December “Best of 2007” issue of the Artforum, arguably the most influential contemporary art magazine, has just come out. Among the 19 individual whose opinion, one assumes, are significant within the field of contemporary art (the list includes Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Daniel Birnbaum, Matthew Higgs, Jessica Morgan, Claire Bishop and David Rimanelli), is my colleague and friend Okwui Enwezor. These Artworld Savants have been asked to list and comment on their TOP TEN shows of 2007, and Okwui’s list includes David Hammons’ show at L&M Arts, NY; Steve McQueen’s exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Chicago and the Venice Biennale; Chris Ofili at David Zwirner, and Marcia Kure at BravinLee Programs, NY. Thank God—or maybe Artforum had no choice—Okwui made the list of selectors, otherwise, you would not think that there are any black artists making important work today (granted that McQueen is also listed by Lynne Cooke, and Claire Bishop; and Hammons made Jack Bankowsky’s list). Which is why “The Artists’ Artists” section—in which they invited 46 artists to each talk about a favorite artist—of the magazine is so disappointing. Of these many artists, how many are from
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
BF: Are the people of
CNA: A lot of people haven’t dealt with it at all, in part because we haven’t dealt with it as a collective nation. Nobody learns about Igbo culture in high school. You’re told that a war happened and nothing else. Igbo people have a sense that we’re supposed to pretend nothing happened. Now there is a new Biafran movement that’s been going on for about ten years. Mostly, it’s the poorer people in Igbo villages and rural areas who adopt things from
(Excerpt of interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Chimamanda s interview in the December/January 2008 issue of Bookforum, the literary magazine of the most influential contemporary art magazine, Artforum, is one more indication of the extent Half of a Yellow Sun, her award-winning novel set in Biafra during the war of 1967-70, has insinuated its story into contemporary consciousness. Thanks to this novel, Biafra, and the still-unaccounted-for, systematic mass murder of thousands of Igbo in
The responses within and beyond Nigeria to HYS particularly the new interest in the story of Biafra and Nigeria of the 1960s is an encouraging sign that, perhaps, literature might actually provide the basis for open discussions about that dark period in Nigeria's postcolonial history. Already an important opportunity was missed when in the early 1990s an exhibition of war-time work by Biafran artists (works that circulated in Europe at the time and had just been repatriated to Nigeria after more than two decades) planned to take place in one of foreign cultural centers in Lagos was canceled after it became clear that the authorities might deem the show a dangerous attempt to open unhealed wounds. Then and even now Nigeria—the authorities and significant section of the citizenry—fail to learn from history: that old wounds cannot heal unless they are opened, cleaned and treated, carefully. Which is why the recent colloquium on literature on Biafra, which featured readings of HYS, and other works by Cyprian Ekwensi, Chukwuemeka Ike, and Ken Saro-Wiwa among others is a bold, courageous gesture on the part of CORA, the organizers of the Lagos Book Festival. These are signs that there might afterall be a gradual movement towards beginning a process long overdue. In which case Nigeria owes Chimamanda for helping weave the fabric of the nation, by writing a book of compelling, powerful fiction!
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Congratulations Clive and the JAG!; congratulations to Simon and his curatorial team!
Friday, November 9, 2007
I cannot help but discern a certain dunderheaded nationalism when some Nigerian, especially Lagos-based, artists comment on contemporary art. A few years ago, (following New Energies, a show organized byEl Anatsui at the Goethe Institute, Lagos) the big question, believe it or not, was whether installation and conceptual art were too alien, in other words too western to be condoned in Nigeria! If not that the "anti-installation" critics were also people one otherwise had reason to respect, I would not have given any much thought to that debate. But I did, in a lecture at Jazz Hole, in Ikoyi Lagos, in the summer of 2001 (published in The Guardian of
“WHENEVER the word 'biennale' is mentioned in a gathering of Nigerian artists, a hot debate ensues. Artists take positions behind factions that appear like old foes: ‘them’ against ‘us’.”
As in the past, the arguments made by Nigerian critics of biennials have often reflected a hermit or siege mentality, the illusion that Nigerian artists are the better if left alone, without any supposedly “foreign” contamination emblematized by “installation art” or “biennials.” There is sometime pathetic, incredibly reactionary about contemporary artists who refuse to speak or understand the language of contemporary art, yet paradoxically miffed by the fact that curators of international exhibitions ignore their sometimes pretty but usually unambitious paintings and sculptures. The Nigerian art market is no doubt a large and thriving one, with local patronage that has produced a significant number of artists that can be rightly counted among
Given the tone and tenor of the debates in Lagos, it should not surprise me that the longstanding, though somewhat insubstantial, campaign to initiate a Lagos biennial will either not succeed in my lifetime, or (God forbid!) if it does will be perhaps even a noisier version of Libreville's Bantu Biennial established years ago to promote the purportedly unique Bantu cultural identity of central African countries.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Ekwensi was scheduled to participate in the key event of the Lagos Book Arts Festival (which begins this week), by reading from his novel on the Biafran War, Divided We Stand published in 1980. The CORA-organized Festival and its colloquium, Constructing the Nation: Stories Out of Biafra, will now serve as a memorial to a man who used his unpretentious yet prodigious fictive imagination to instill in me and a zillion others the love for the novel and for literature. Rest, Old Man; travel safely.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
"The African Pavilion"
Months before it opened, critiques of the inaugural Africa Pavilion were circulating online. On 9 October 2006 disagreements between curators Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan over the Biennale selection process went public at the Africa South Art Initiative website. On 27 February 2007 news of Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim’s winning curatorial proposal, ‘Checklist: Luanda Pop’, an exhibition drawn largely from the Luanda-based Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, prompted questions about working with a private collection, while artnet.com alleged ‘unsavoury’ business activities against Sindika Dokolo, the Congolese collector behind the collection.
By 7 June, when Robert Storr and Njami met to discuss the Pavilion in a keynote dialogue organized by the Arts Council England-funded International Curators Forum in Venice, tensions were high. Njami went on the offensive, confronting Storr, demanding clarification as to why his team had only two months to prepare and why promised MoMA funds had been withdrawn. Storr attempted to placate Njami with the prospect of stronger pavilions in the future; Alvim, sensing the imminent closure of a window of opportunity, stood up and shouted at Storr, vented his frustration at his team’s treatment by the officials in Venice and marched out.
You may say that there is always melodrama at Venice, and that these disputes are the latest in a long line of similar grievances. But these discontents are more than that: they reveal the painfully restricted space practitioners are still obliged to inhabit in order to create platforms through which the complexities of African contemporaneity become visible, audible and speakable.
Underlying the fractiousness was the sense that the very idea of an African Pavilion was impossible, that the very name raised expectations no single exhibition could begin to fulfil. The notion of one pavilion that could function as a platform for a continent was guaranteed to satisfy no one and to displease everyone.
Filmmaker and theorist John Akomfrah precisely identified the thinking behind the Pavilion. It was, he said, a prime example of ‘the hubris of overcompensation’. The understandable desire for an institutional presence at Venice becomes exaggerated into a claim to represent a continent. The need to compensate for historical exclusion from the Biennale leads to overinflated and unconvincing rhetorics of essentializing inclusion.
Another curator might have been able to exploit the fictionality at the heart of the African Pavilion and work with aspects of impossibility and fabulation. But that would have been a very different exhibition; as it was, ‘Checklist: Luanda Pop’ was a curatorial blend of conceptual laziness and inchoate ambition familiar from Njami’s deeply flawed 2005 touring show ‘Africa Remix’.
There were indelible moments: Kendell Geers’ Seven Deadly Sins (2006) itemized the biblical vices in ultraviolet neon signage; its inverted Gothic font and black-out rooms were involving enough to shatter the didacticism of its Old Testament source material. Mounir Fatmi’s Save Manhattan 03 (2006–7) – a silhouetted skyline constructed from rumbling loudspeakers – had an immediacy that would have benefited from a room of its own.
Many people complained about the congestion of the show, much like the grotesquely overcrowded ‘Africa Remix’. I was distracted less by this than by the redundancy of the exhibition’s wretched title. If the term ‘checklist’, which sounded like a working title someone forgot to delete until it was too late, had been dropped, then the notion of Luanda Pop might have come into focus and provided some much-needed conceptual clarity.
There was a modest proposition trapped inside the grand narrative of the Africa Pavilion. The notion of Luanda Pop hinted at a small-scale show on the associations, potentials and legacies of the Lusophone urban imaginary, which would have been an intriguing prospect. Atelier (2007), Paulo Kapela’s assemblage of Angolan election posters, street signage and campaign mementoes, was rich in connections; Yonamine’s The Best of the Best (2007) was a corner of arthouse film posters, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Samuel Fuller, translated into Portuguese and printed on tin, exceeding the graphic density evoked by the curatorial vision of Angolan neo-Pop.
Not all of the ten sequences of Alfredo Jaar’s 36-minute digital video Muxima (2005) conveyed the pathos perhaps intended; the multiple renditions of the titular folk-song failed to cast the requisite spell needed for a video-essay of this kind. Meditations on Luandan streets named Avenida Lenin and Rua Commandante Che Guevara did, however, succeed in evoking a bygone era of Soviet and Cuban solidarity. Most powerful was a sequence of a pair of feet walking slowly through a field; the camera then moving up to a face studying the ground in deep concentration. Giant crops surround the figure. Nothing happens until a detonation triggers landmines and a realization that remnants of old wars persist into the present.
Moments such as this, gleaned from the excess, asked large questions within an intimate frame. Momentarily you could imagine other exhibitions, secreted within the unconvincing grandiosity of the Pavilion, and begin to fantasize about the singularity of the solitary work hidden within the hubris of overcompensation. (Kodwo Eshun, Frieze Art Magazine (London), Sept. 2007)
Curatorially, the exhibition seems contradictory and disjointed, bing a curious mix of extremely formal work, on the one hand, and socio-politically engaged work on the other. The installation was unimaginative and lacked inspiration, a linear predictable sequence where one artist follows the other in classical manner. Particularly disappointing was the African Pavilion “Check List Luanda Pop” which, though a good idea, was shrouded in controversy as it came from the private collection of Senegalese (sic) collector and businessman Sindika Dokolo, whose family has been accused of shady business dealings. Given the fact there was an open call for proposals from curators, it does seem strange that a private collection was selected to represent the continent. The show seemed as though it was hastily brought together and not based on thorough research. An exotic “footnote” to the Arsenale, it was a superficial, indexical presentation of artists well-known internationally like Kendell Geers, Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, and the obligatory Basquiat with some interesting unknown figures in an installation unmindful of the artists. Each one was mostly represented by the token work and the overall feeling was like a summer gallery group show: messy and incoherent. (Katerina Gregos, Flash Art International (Milan) July-Sept. 2007, p. 64)
The show that stirred the most advance debate, Checklist: Luanda Pop: The African Pavilion,” turns out to be a lively though mostly mainstream assortment of contemporary art from around the globe, with a celebrity-heavy list that includes both black and white artists who were born on the continent or are part of the African diaspora (Ghada Amer, Chris Ofili, Marlene Dumas, Yinka Shonibare, Kendell Geers, Minette Vari, Jean-Michel Basquiat) along with some others (Andy Warhol, Alfredo Jaar, Miquel Barcelo) whose connection to the continent is tenuous at best. Among the artists who don’t yet have marquee names, Loulou Cherinet is showing White Woman (2002), a staged and frequently lewd dinner conversation among a group fo black men, who also share some more philosophical observations about the meaning of marriage in a life spent traveling between Europe and Africa. Bili Bidjocka continues his ongoing book-and-archive project, Pourquoi Faire?, which invites visitors to inscribe responses to suggestively free-associative questions (La Beaute est convulsive. Pourquoi faire?) in a large blank book. Set up in a chapel-like space with a surveillance camera projecting the book and the moving hand high on the center wall, the work has the effect of turning visitors into scribes, if not prophets, who record the articles of an unspecified faith.
As if a homogenizing, pan-Africa approach were not enough to set off some critics, the work in “Luanda Pop” all belong to Sindika Dokolo, a businessman from the Congo who is now based in Luanda. In the exhibition handout, Dokolo specifies that his is an African collection, not a collection of African art (hence Warhol?), and that he intends it to be a basis for a projected Center for contemporary art in
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
For announcement in ArtDaily.org click here
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Please read further about this terrible, evolving story by going to: http://www.freethejena6.org
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The Clark/Mellon Workshop on Contemporary African Art: History, Theory and Practice at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, October 26-27 is significant in many ways. First, that the world-renowned Clark Institute, a bastion of research and scholarship in western art, has realized the need to engage meaningfully with contemporary African art, says something about how far the field has come within the discipline of art history. Second, the collaboration between the American institution and a university based in the African continent provides a model for the kind of fruitful relationships so badly needed especially in Africa, where access to international debates and scholarship is limited. Third, it reflects a more progressive perspective on Africa intellectual (and socio-political) landscape by recognizing and including scholars working west, east, north and south, inside and outside, "settler and native" (to use Mahmood Mamdani's phrase) of the continent, although, it is still more or less concentrated on the Anglophone African world. Which reminds us once again of one another irksome legacy of colonialism: that the more indelible, forbidding boundaries established by the Europeans in Africa was with their languages (never mind that they also made it possible for me (an Igbo) to be able to sit on the same panel, without the aid of translators, as the South African artist Gabi Ngcobo! I guess it is more fun to find one more fault with colonialism). I deviate. The Clark/Mellon is one of the rarer opportunities to engage in intense debate/discussion on crucial issues in art history /theory scholarship outside of the usual occasions provided by starchy professional conferences or big exhibitions, and so for the field of contemporary African art, this is a wonderful opportunity for some of its important artists, critics, curators, historians to keep tab with developments in recent scholarship. The program indicates that the participants will include: Manthia Diawara, Salah Hassan, Michael Ann Holly, Meskerem Assegued, Frank Ugiomoh, Amal Kenawy, David Koloane, Anitra Nettleton, Sunanda Sanyal, Colin Richards, Mary Evans, Elizabeth Harney, Abdellah Karroum, and others.
One anxiety though, and this is that I doubt that universities elsewhere on the continent (because of lack of resources and/or visionary leadership) will get the chance to host such events anytime soon. Yet, because it is home to quite a few significant scholars/artists/critics, I cannot imagine a more deserving location for this workshop than the Wits. Congrats to Anitra and her colleagues at the WSOA for making this happen.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
This November, CORA attempts to do something that had not been done in Nigeria since the end of the Civil (Biafran) War in 1970: the theme of the festival's colloquium is "Constructing a Nation: Stories Out of Biafra." Why is this unusual? Unprecedented? Well, it turns out that since the end of that terrible war, discussions about Biafra, however refined or rarefied, however direct or tangential have not happened. Such have not been allowed to take place, because, the nation would prefer that the memory of that war be buried deep in the heart of time rather than exorcised. A war without memorials. A war that, like incest, we try to pretend it never happened. In the early 1990s, work by Biafran artists that had traveled in Europe during the war, came back to Nigeria but could not be shown, because of anxieties in some official quarters.
And despite that many authors have broached the subject of Biafra in their fictional and biographical work, serious engagement with this important body of literature has not happened, until now. So it is with great anticipation that I await the Festival colloquium, November 9-11. This is to say to my colleagues at CORA: Keep the Dream!
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Monday, September 3, 2007
Sunday, September 2, 2007
In early February, the 52nd Venice Biennale announced the much anticipated selection of the project and curators to feature in its special African exhibition at the Arsenale, the main space of the Biennale’s international section organized by Robert Storr, formerly senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art and currently Dean of Yale School of Art.[i] According to the Biennale website, Check List will be curated by the former publisher of Revue Noire Simon Njami and the Angolan artist and curator Fernando Alvim, and works for the exhibition will be drawn from the Luanda-based Sindika Dokolo Collection. On the face it, Robert Storr’s decision to allocate a space in the Arsenale’s Artigliere space to Check List, in addition to the inclusion of other African artists in the “open” international section of the Biennale, ought to be praiseworthy. However, the process that led to the selection of this exhibition, the choice of jury, and more crucially the nature of the proposed exhibition itself raise important questions about the meaning of Africa as imagined by Storr and the Dokolo Collection, the politics of Africa's representation in international contemporary art, and the ethical dimensions of curating a continent scarred by seemingly intractable wars, dictatorships, and predatory civilian regimes.
My own work as a curator, critic and artist, it should be obvious then, makes it inevitable that my commentary here is inflected by a longstanding personal interest in the matter of exhibitions about contemporary African art. And, for full disclosure, I was asked by the Forum for African Art last year to organize its third African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but for reasons of ill health earlier this year, my project, PostAfricanism, was shelved. In any case, sometime in August last year Robert Storr’s call for proposals for an African Pavilion in Venice met with opposition from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor as directors of the Forum, which apart from organizing two very successful African pavilions in 2001 and 2003 set for itself, with initial support from the Ford Foundation, the goal of establishing a permanent pavilion for Africa in Venice under its Africa-In-Venice initiative. However, Hassan and Enwezor’s opposition to the Storr initiative became public when Olu Oguibe, also a founding director of the Forum, in a public letter to Hassan published in the website of Africa South Art Initiative, lent his support to Storr’s open call for proposals.[ii] In the flurry of exchanges that followed, it became clear that many commentators agreed with Oguibe’s assertion that Storr’s Africa program would transparently open the gates of
To be sure the very idea of announcing a call for proposals for the African “regional pavilion,” but not for the other special pavilion featuring Turkey for which, as is normally the case, a commissioner, Vasif Kortun, was appointed; the selection of a jury dominated by individuals (Meskerem Assegued, Ekow Eshun, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kellie Jones and Bisi Silva) with scant record of significant Africa art-related curatorial projects or scholarship; and the announcement of the winning show, Check List, about which the press release said nothing other than that it was based on the collection of Sindika Dokolo Collection, ought to raise questions about whose or what interests the special African show is meant to serve. It seems to me that the proper thing, as far as biennials go, would have been for Storr to appoint a commissioner as he rightly did with
There are two ways of looking at the whole exercise of announcing the search for a curatorial project to represent
A report in February, “Art and Corruption in Venice,” about the selection of Check List by Robert Storr and his Jury, published in Artnet Magazine by associate editor Ben Davis, garnered considerable attention to the African pavilion, but not in the ways that Venice may have hoped.[iii] Davis’ comment on what many now believe might turn out to be a messy embarrassment to Venice, expectedly, led to further reactions and exchanges in the blogosphere and e-zines.[iv] Focusing on the Sindika Dokolo Collection’s owner,
There are two ways to see the selection of the Sindika Dokolo Collection both as model of art patronage in
To be sure, given the incessant depredations of citizens of the African postcolony by a corrupt elite in collusion with national governments, international business and political interests, it is about time that what might seem like a new awareness of the redemptive role art can play, that is the possibility of polishing shady biographies and dirty money through art patronage, must not be encouraged. Indeed, it is clear to me that artists, curators, critics and local as well as international institutions must see this as an ethical imperative. We cannot afford to accept any suggestion, even of the subtlest kind, that the survival of contemporary African art depends on the patronage of robber barons. And that is why the decision to highlight, in other words celebrate and authorize the Dokolo Collection at the 52nd Biennale is most unfortunate.
The Sindika Dokolo Collection according to the Venice Biennale website comprises of “500 works by 140 artists from 28 different nations,” and has a substantially active annual acquisition program.[viii] The Collection is based on the private collection of the late German collector Hans Bogatzke, and from the list of artists -- which includes Marlene Dumas, Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, Ouattara, Cheri Samba, William Kentridge, Twins Seven-Seven, among others -- there is no doubt that speaking of private and public collections of contemporary African art, the Dokolo Collection could possibly be the most formidable, with the possible exception of the Jean Pigozzi Collection. Although I am not in a position to criticize Bogatzke or Dokolo – and I do not intend to do so – for the scope of the collection, the fact that it appears to be limited to Sub-Saharan artists, makes it at best a most awkward choice for the special African show at the 52nd Venice Biennale.[ix] By not including artists from northern Africa the Dokolo Collection inevitably returns to the vexatious, colonial tendency of imagining Sub-Saharan Africa as the real
Moreover, the choice of a private or institutional collection to represent Africa, or any country/continent for that matter, in Venice is not only unprecedented in the history of biennials, but smacks of the kind of exceptionalism motivated by a perception of Africa as a terrain of difference, a continent where normative critical and curatorial practices do not make sense. There is a reason, it seems to me, why the recent tendency whereby public museums use their hallowed spaces to authorize private collections of questionable quality and provenance has been spurned by the major biennials. For one, museum curators are sometimes beholden to and often powerless against the interests of their board members and major (potential) donors, even when it comes to deciding on what exhibition proposals get approved. In the case of biennials, whose funding come from hosting cities/nations and from impermanent congeries of local and international corporate patrons, artistic directors are usually allowed the “luxury” of making curatorial decisions without intervention of museums, collectors and galleries however powerful. This is what makes major contemporary biennials the space for ambitious, sometimes controversial critical practice of the kind private collections and normal museums are unable to support. In a roundabout way, this might have ultimately pre-determined the choice of the Dokolo Collection for
The call for proposals for the special African show at the 52nd Venice Biennale included a requirement that submissions must include, “budget of the proposed exhibition, and statement by the organizers regarding their plan for the total coverage of these costs including a list of the financing institutions and/or sponsors of the exhibition.” There are extremely few institutions within Africa that have the financial resources or will power to produce an exhibition in Venice― which I believe is an important reason why besides
[iii] See Ben Davis, “Art and Corruption in
[iv] See February 28, 2007 entry at
[v] See Christian Dietrich, “Power Struggles in the Diamond Fields,” in
[vi] See, Declan Walsh, “Billions of Dollars Simply Vanish; Angolan Government Accused of 'State Robbery,'” <> (accessed March 9, 2007)
[vii] Storr in response to a question about the Artnet News article after his lecture at
[viii] The size and scope of the collection is uncertain. Apart from the figures published by the Venice Biennale, the official website of the Sindika Dokolo Collection lists 114 artists from 19 African countries, while on the website of the 1st Trienal de Luanda (December 1, 2006 – March 31, 2007), states that the Collection consists of work by 160 artists from 26.
[ix] In the Collection’s official website