Sunday, December 23, 2007

Okwui's "Archive Fever" at the ICP

Next month (January 18 to be precise), Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, will open at the International Center for Photography (ICP), NY. This exhibition organized by my friend Okwui Enwezor will feature leading--though not all living--contemporary artists--including Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Zoe Leonard, Ilán Lieberman, Robert Morris, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, Anri Sala, Fazal Sheikh, Eyal Sivan, Lorna Simpson, Vivan Sundaram--who have used archival documents to re-imagine important themes and forms of contemporary art. Okwui has distinguished himself with the originality and ambition of his ideas and curatorial vision, so I expect this second part of his ICP trilogy, to be--as we have come to expect of his shows-- a visual feast and significant intellectual argument.

On Elizabeth Duncan and Jeremy Blake's Suicides

I was just reading the details of the tragic story of multimedia artist-couple Elizabeth Duncan and Jeremy Blake's suicides in July in the January 2008 issue of Vanity Fair (I love it when they write about artists!). Whatever the burden that weighed so heavily on the two souls, two oh-so-much-in-love, beautiful people driven as much by their success as by their insecurities in the elite artworlds of New York and LA; whatever paranoias that robbed them of the sense of good judgment; whatever passions moved them to tragicoromantic notions of love, love of the kind that eventually lost its way in the labyrinthine, cobwebbed maze of contemporary life, it is indeed a powerfully sad story that Shakespeare could have invented. Their families and friends must now deal with the pain, the utter bewilderment, perhaps even guilt of having failed to offer succor to the drifting lovers asphyxiated by an existential blackhole into which they were sucked, terminally. No doubt, some scriptwriters somewhere must be thinking of a Hollywood version of this story. Till, then one must have to contemplate how once again the fatal mix of ambition, delusion, and (hunger for) fame claimed two young, mysterious lives, but also how closely Duncan's animated film History of Glamour (1999) preempted the July 2007 suicides.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Horrors of Biafra!

[CAUTION: if you have never witnessed a war crime, this may be too much]. However, this link tells just a little bit of the horrors of the Nigerian-Biafran War (1967-70). Despite the complicity of the international community in genocidal actions of Nigerian government, the crimes committed in that war, still beg to be investigated.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On ARTFORUM's Best of 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 Africa or the African Diaspora? NONE! Artforum ought to know better than this; that it is almost contemptuous to not invite at least a couple of African and African Diaspora artists whose work have been very present on the art scene this past year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chimamanda's Interview in Bookforum

BF: Are the people of Nigeria still grieving and processing this war?

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 Biafra and fly the Biafran flag. When I told people I was writing about the war, they thought I was crazy. They’d say, “You are just looking for trouble, you are encouraging violence.” I still get a few angry e-mails from people who feel I shouldn’t have written about that war. But then I do get pleasantly surprised by the many people who are asking questions about that period because of the book, people whose parents had been through the war and never said anything to their kids. Sometimes I get stupidly emotional. I did a reading in Nige­- ria, and a woman came up to me and said, “Because of your book, I can finally talk about what happened to me, and I thank you.” And then I start crying [laughs].

(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 Northern Nigeria in the months before the war—which remains a taboo in Nigerian political discourse—has returned calling for reexamination. As Chimamanda rightly points out, there has not been any effort by the Nigerian nation to grieve for the thousands of innocents murdered by fellow citizens in 1966, before the war. A pall of anxiety remains, while many Igbo await the process of healing of a nation.

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 citizenryfail 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

"Africa Remix" and the Hunger for Contemporary Art

The tremendous response and reception of Simon Njami's touring show, Africa Remix at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) where it showed between June and October says a lot about the inavailability of important contemporary African art exhibitions on the African continent. With more than a hundred thousand visitors, several media reports/reviews, and many critical reflections on the show by South African commentators, the show indeed attained a truly blockbuster status in South Africa. Given that none of the previous shows of comparable significance, including Africa Explores (1991), Seven Stories (1995), The Short Century (2001) never made it to the continent, Africa Remix is a landmark show simply because having originated in Europe, it succeeded in showcasing the work of contemporary African artists to an African spectatorship and audience who usually encounter (that is if at all) the work of artists inside and outside the continent only through media reports, published sources, and hearsay. Except you lived in Dakar whose Biennale is a different kind of event anyway. Having been involved in two of these shows, I know that it is problem has a lot to do with the absence of infrastructural and financial resources inside Africa (JAG spent at least $450,000 to host Africa Remix) on the one hand and hard commitment and vision on the part of officials in the abysmally few institutions in the continent that can actually host important contemporary art shows (Nigeria has no space for such exhibitions but now wants to build some stupid, half-billion dollar Millennium Tower for culture--see previous post on this--instead) . This is why I must use this space to express my eternal gratitude to Clive Kellner, the curator of the JAG and Steven Sacks, the Director, for mustering the resources to successfully bring Africa Remix to South Africa and publish the JAG's outstanding version of the exhibition catalogue. This is hoping that this precedent will be sustained at the JAG, and that institutions in other parts of Africa will see this as a challenge, as it is impossible to overstate the case for direct encounter and experience of the work of significant contemporary artists by "home-based" critics, scholars, curators and, perhaps most important, practising artists most of whom are unable to travel to see art from beyond the confines of their places of residence.

Congratulations Clive and the JAG!; congratulations to Simon and his curatorial team!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Biennials and their Lagos critics

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 Lagos a month later). This time around, a few commentators, including my good friend Olu Ajayi--a fine painter and current president of the Lagos chapter of the Society of Nigerian Artists—fulminate against art curators and biennials. In a recent report published in The Guardian Online (accessed Nov. 9, 2007), the paper’s art critic Chuka Nnabuife maps the biennial debate, describing it thus:
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 Nigeria’s relatively small middleclass. So long as this local clientèle is satisfied with the canvases and fiberglass and wood sculptures produced by many a Lagos artist, all is well. Yet, the Lagos artists must also live with the fact that there is a world of contemporary art out there, to which is connected a zillion communities of artists, critics, curators, museums, institutions from Sao Paulo, Alexandria and Bamako to Beijing, Tokyo and Rome, from Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Dakar to Mexico City, Edinburgh, Mumbai, Istanbul and Sydney; a world the Lagos artists, should they care, have to speak to in the language of contemporary art. It is a matter of choice. Good thing though that there are a several photographers in the same city committed to exchange with other artists elsewhere; and artist-teachers like El Anatsui at Nsukka, and Tony Okpe and Jerry Buhari in Zaria who, against odds, continue through their work and teaching to expose young artists to the possibilities contemporary art, beyond staid notions of art canvassed by some Lagos artists.

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

Cyprian Ekwensi (1921-2007)

I am deeply saddened by this news of the death of the pioneer Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi this week. He was 86. Ekwensi, the author of arguably the earliest major novel in Nigeria (People of the City, 1954) and other vastly popular novels--Passport of Mallam Illya, African Night's Entertainment, Lokotown, Jagua Nana, The Drummer Boy, etc--that, as secondary students in Nigeria in the 1980s, captured, intrigued, and liberated our fertile imaginations and youthful fantasies. His simple, uncomplicated plots, while a subject of longstanding critique by literary scholars, was the very reason we read, and re-read his incomparably entertaining works. He was the people's novelist!
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

Abuja Millennium Tower and State Phillistinism

Just when you think you have seen or heard it all, the Nigerian authorities decide on a project that in all its stupidity and myopia reflects that kind of profligate frittering of the nation’s wealth by the bureaucrats. Although there had been rumors, but the recent announcement that the Federal Executive Council has voted to build the so-called Millennium Towers and Culture Center, Abuja, a 53 Billion Naira (roughly $450 Million) project is shocking beyond belief. Of course it would be nice—in some foolish sense—to see the contrast between the primordially massive Zuma and Aso Rocks hedging Abuja and the shimmering glass-clothed tower signifying that state our national progress. But, frankly, one cannot help but shudder at the indecent amount of money the Nigerian state is willing to spend on ONE structure commemorating an already old millennium. Some important critiques of this project, looking into the design, and the urban landscape into which this structure is to be fitted, but also the lack of public debate on the design and contract award, have been written by competent observers such as Nnimmo Bassey, but what makes the whole project insane is that it is being done in the name of culture. What, whose, which culture is this complex of glass towers meant to celebrate or serve as its icon?
A much more serious concern is the fact that in its original masterplan (and the subsequent incarnations), the designers of Abuja did not imagine arts and culture as important. No national ethnographic museum, no modern/contemporary museum, no music hall, no theatre, in short no purpose-built structures to house any of Nigeria’s rich material and visual cultures past and present. Of course it was state priority to build the national mosque and church. Then someone one day thought: “ahaa, people are building millennium towers in parts of Europe and the US, so why cannot the giant of Africa that has ambled through the 20th century, its engines lubricated by the oil from the delta, have its own tower?” Or it might have been that state officials, confronted by the spate of religious crisis in parts of northern Nigeria wondered: “why don’t we find a very expensive wedge to separate the charged, awkward space between the mosque and the church and dedicate it to the millennium and culture? I digress… But to imagine that the Federal Executive Council is building this half a billion dollar tower says much of the philistinism that infests the Aso Rock and its environs. As it has been described the Millennium Tower will have “space for a museum,” one “big” 2000-capacity state of the art auditorium, and a couple more smaller conference halls, and a library. What could anyone seriously mean by “a museum?” Did no body tell Abuja bureaucrats that with the money they plan to plunk into this Tower, they could build at least four quality, well-designed, homes for art, ethnographica, music and theatre, that is if, as I suspect, the so-called Millennium Tower is not another opportunity for large-scale theft of money that belongs to the citizens of Nigeria. It all sucks big time!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


For those who have followed the debates around the African Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale before the exhibition itself, especially those who had no opportunity of seeing the show in Venice, nor of monitoring critical responses to it in the international art media, here are three excerpts from reviews by three major international art magazines: Flash Art, and Art in America and Frieze. These reviews point to the gains and losses of the African project in this year’s Venice. Whether one agrees or not with their authors, these reviews reflect important critical opinions on Robert Storr’s African project and the curatorial merits of show itself. Read on:

"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 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 Luanda. That plan is endorsed in an accompanying statement by the president of the Republic of Angola (who happens to be Dokolo’s father-in-law). At the very least, accepting the exhibition can be seen as inadvertently placing the Biennale in the service of Angola’s business and government elite. It’s hard to imagine a title of official “national” representation being similarly granted today to a European or U.S. private collection. (Marcia E. Vetroq, Art in America (New York), Sept. 2007, pp. 145-146).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lecture news

I will be giving the fall 2007 Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor lecture on the work of Candice Breitz, the South African artist currently living in Berlin, next week. Come if you are anywhere near the incredibly beautiful Berkshires! It is open to the public.

For announcement in click here

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Jena 6 Outrage

It is complete outrage that these 6 black high school boys from Jena, Louisiana are being charged with attempted murder (later reduced to aggravated battery), with real possibility of loooong jail terms. They actually had beaten up up a white student, after white kids installed nooses on a tree in the school compound. From all indications, desegregation and the Civil Rights movement never reached that bloody racist little town in Louisiana.

Please read further about this terrible, evolving story by going to:

More on this later

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Contemporary African Art Workshop at The Wits

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

CORA's upcoming Lagos Book and Art Festival

The Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), the Lagos-based cultural advocacy group is once more showing why it is the most important thing that has happened to cultural discourse in Nigeria since the early 1990s. Apart from its Art Stampede -- its marquee quarterly platform for debate on issues crucial to contemporary Nigerian arts and culture -- the Book Festival is in many ways restoring the Nigerian book reading/production culture laid waste by the terrible Structural Adjustment Program imposed by the IMF/World Bank in the 1980s. But that is not all.
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

Okeke, Udechukwu meet Okigbo (again)

The work of two most influential artists from Nigeria Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu will be in two solo shows Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke (originally organized by the Newark Museum last year) and Nigerian Poetics: Works by Obiora Udechukwu. Organized by the Department of Art History and the Sherman Gallery, Boston University, the shows are part of the great Okigbo conference (never mind I still sulk about aspects of the organization). It is always a breathtaking experience seeing those small incredible drawings Okeke produced between 1961 and 1962, in which he asserted his reputation as one of the leading African artists--in the class of people like Ibrahim El Salahi (Sudan), Ahmed Cherkaoui (Morocco) and Skunder Boghossian (Ethiopia)--the first rigorously modernist, postcolonial African artists. And, of course it is impossible to not be in awe at Udechukwu's complete mastery of the line, his visual poetry, which compares healthily with what Okigbo did with the written word. Okigbo inspired Udechukwu's "coming of age" drawings, presented in a show aptly called Homage to Okigbo in 1975, so it will be wonderful to see how far Udechukwu has traveled 30 years after he "met" Okigbo at Nsukka.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Okigbo Conference: What is going on?

There is excitement everywhere about the Okigbo Conference taking place this month in Boston no less because of the enigma that was Chris Okigbo, and the heavyweights expected to participate in the events. That is indeed wonderful, and ordinarily I would not take anyone interested in African literature serious if she failed to be in Boston. Well, until you try to get any information about venue, accommodation, registration and such other crucial information. This epochal event has no functioning website in this day and age; one pseudo-site connected to has all but these more important bits, and from what I hear the conference program there is so outdated that it is misleading. Somewhere on the site you are incredibly told that registration for the conference has closed! It has been since three months ago when I first checked the website. And I have been told by someone who should know that that is not the case. So why don't the organizers either update or pull the site completely? To imagine that the conference is being hosted by the mighty Harvard, Boston, UMass and Wellesley! What would it have cost the organizers and hosts to create a fully functional website, to avoid the heartache many a would be participant in the deliberations must be experiencing? Not much, I dare say! In any case, whatever happens with the organizational process, it promises to be an event for the ages.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Venice 2007 and Contemporary African Art

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 Venice to many more African curators in ways that the Forum had not. Hopefully, details of the exchange between Storr and Enwezor/Hassan will emerge someday, but my concern here is to explore some of the crucial questions raised by Mr. Storr’s African project at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

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 Turkey, and then give her/him the freedom to decide what to show at the Biennale. Why the Africa pavilion required a much-trumpeted open call and a jury deserves explanation. Anyone involved in contemporary African art during the past twenty years should be surprised by the jury membership, for apart from Assegued and Silva, the other three members, are quite accomplished but not for work relating to contemporary African art. Furthermore, the press release on the selection of Check List, without indicating what the show is about ―the overarching idea behind the theme of the exhibition—praises the Sindika Dokolo Collection as a model for art patronage in Africa. As such, one is left to conclude that the selection is based not so much on the idea presented by the curators as on the need to take a position on art collecting in Africa.

There are two ways of looking at the whole exercise of announcing the search for a curatorial project to represent Africa on the front page of the Venice Biennale website, when not one word was heard of the process that yielded the Turkish Commissioner. First it must be Storr’s own “transparent” way of publicly acknowledging his limited knowledge about contemporary African art. Second, given that Africa has become a perennial recipient of western kindness, usually attended with much fanfare, it was important to once again make a public news-grabbing announcement of another instance of this generosity. But what might have been occasion for gratitude to Mr. Storr, as implied by responses to the call for proposals, must now turn to an examination of its ramifications for contemporary African art in continental and international contexts.

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, Davis revealed among other things the story of Mr. Dokolo’s family’s alleged implication in massive corruption related to the disastrous Bank of Kinshasa collapse in 1986. We learn that his wife is Isabelle dos Santos the daughter of the Angolan long-term President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos ―who according to Christian Dietrich, a former researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, might have a major stake in Angola’s blood diamonds.[v] Of course the story of corruption in many African countries is, unfortunately, an old one, but the wealth behind the Sindika Dokolo Collection instantiates an unprecedented connection between art patronage and state depredation; it thus becomes imperative to comment on the Venice Jury’s decision to use the occasion of the 52nd Biennale to “draw attention to the Sindika Dokolo initiative as a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa.”

There are two ways to see the selection of the Sindika Dokolo Collection both as model of art patronage in Africa and as the basis of the special African show in the 52nd Biennale: either the Artistic Director and Jury were not aware of the background of the name behind the collection, or they decided to look the other way. To be sure, despite Storr’s impressive record during his years at the MOMA he had little if any experience with contemporary African art, before his visit to the Dakar Biennale in 2006. Thus it is conceivable that Storr and his Jury were ignorant of the controversy around the money behind the Dokolo Collection. Or, and this is more worrisome, they might have concluded that the connection between dirty money or blood diamonds and art is a fact of life and history, and that although Africa could not yet boast of its own assortment of robber-baron uber-art patrons, the late Brett Kebble had set a trend worthy of emulation. Mr. Kebble, we recall, was the thieving, flamboyant, South African mining magnate who successfully laundered his image through widespread support of the arts, especially with the Brett Kebble Art Awards. Established in 2003 The Kebble (as the award was called) was arguably Africa’s biggest art prize and, until its cancellation following the yet unresolved murder of Mr. Kebble in 2006, accommodated a diverse range of artists, thereby assuring that a significant section of South Africa’s art community inadvertently benefited from and was compromised by Kebble’s stolen billions. Still, if the South African art world, as some might argue, did not quite appreciate the scope of Kebble’s monumental defalcation, there are more than enough alarms about the Dokolo and de Santos families for only the most insensitive to ignore. Put differently, sordid as Kebble’s story and his involvement in art patronage were, the allegations against the Dokolo and dos Santos families, because they involve blood diamonds and the shady organization Futungo described by Global Policy Forum in 2002 as a secret, “close-knit cabal of powerful military, business and political figures,” responsible for the disappearance of billions of dollars in a country that in 2002 had three million starving citizens[vi]―makes any claims to ignorance about the source of Dokolo’s money prior to selection of the collection for Venice suspect and questionable.[vii]

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 Africa, since the northern regions had been contaminated by Islamic and Arab civilizations. We may never know, but the temptation to wonder if this flawed and unfortunate vision of Africa determined the scope of the Bogatzke Collection also compels us to take issues with its apparent continuation in the Dokolo. Of course it not impossible that some work from northern African artists might have entered the collection since the last time I visited the website in early March 2007. Yet I could not but notice that the display of the list of artists in the Collection’s web page, by placing the artists’ names in the locations of their native countries, has the effect of a conceptually decapitated and dismembered continent. Will Check List, because it is limited by the scope of the Dokolo Collection, repeat the colonial savagery generations of Africans and Africanists have worked so hard to correct?

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 Venice.

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 Egypt, there are no African pavilions there in the first instance. In other words, regardless of the merits of any submitted proposal, it stood no chance without financial backing from some (African) institution. Which leaves the door open to the likes of Dokolo and, where he still alive, Kebble; individuals with a lot of (dirty) money, and an eye to the redemptive potentialities of art patronage. In the given circumstance, the financial support requirement made the marriage of curatorial practice and dirty money more or less unavoidable. As such this submission of African artists and curators to what I might call predatory patronage, especially in an event that never allowed such, vitiates the apparent kindly gesture, on the part of the organizers of the 52nd Venice Biennale, toward underrepresented Africa.

Chika Okeke-Agulu

[i] See (accessed February 15, 2007).

[ii] See

[iii] See Ben Davis, “Art and Corruption in Venice,” (accessed February 28, 2007)

[iv] See February 28, 2007 entry at , and Africa South Art Initiative front page (accessed March 2, 2007)

[v] See Christian Dietrich, “Power Struggles in the Diamond Fields,” in Angola’s War Economy: The Role of Oil and Diamonds, eds. Jakkie Cilliers and Christian Dietrich. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2000, pp. 173-194.

[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 London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery that neither him nor his Jury knew about the source of Dokolo’s money. See James Westcott’s report of the lecture, “Rob Storr: biennale life, and the life of biennials,” in published on March 2, 2007.

[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 , the artists in the collection are listed only under four sections: West, Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.