Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New paintings by Penny Siopis

Penny Siopis, Monument, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

Penny Siopis has always been my favorite painter, and this is not just because of her monumental, iconic paintings of the 1980s that showed her mastery of illusionistic ordering of her pictorial space, as well as a subtly powerful critique of history and its conscription by the Apartheid regime. In the intervening years (which includes a short period of time we shared adjoining studios in London, in 1995), she has made work that spanned photography, installation, and film. But she has always remained, primarily, a painter's painter. And I am not just talking about the kind of painter who simply overwhelms you with her supremely crafted work.

Penny Siopis, Fever, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

None of what I have said quite prepares you for an encounter with the new work she showed at Michael Stevenson last year. I will try discuss these works in some depth later, but I cannot but think that she has painted some of the most hauntingly beautiful pictures I have seen in a very long time. To see how the plenitude of forms in the mid 80s work has given way to these gripping expanses of space in which disturbing dramas involving one or just few figures, you get the sense that this is a painter that has come to full maturity. The pleasure you get savoring the incredibly rich surfaces of the paintings is constantly checked by this sense of "what the heck is happening; what is going to happen" as you are ineluctably drawn into the arid expanses of space, into the bloody drips and stained whites, and into the dark eyes of the ghostly figures trapped in ether, mired in red pools, or sequestered in surgery or medical exam rooms, or loveless beds...

Penny Siopis, Love, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

Oh, I said I will return to these images later, as soon as time permits!

Monday, July 28, 2008

7th Shanghai Bienniale's Narrow vision

The 7th Shanghai Bienniale, which opens on September 9, has just announced its artists' list, and the best way to describe it is shameful. Usually, I don't quarrel with such things, but I could not but notice in the list (31 Chinese; 30 international) the screaming absence of any artists from the whole of Africa, and the middle east (except Israel), and Australia. Perhaps the team of curators, consisting of 3 Chinese and 2 Europeans, never got the memo: in this day and age, it is simply dumb and utterly parochial to organize a bienniale that claims an international stature and ignore two and half continents. Do the curators think they could use their show to advance the argument for China's imaginary movement into the G8? Not that there is anything wrong with that. But at least they ought to have made that clear. It is even more annoying that with a theme called "Translocalmotion," they failed to see that geopolitical movement of whatever kind, however imagined, is also happening, perhaps with more consequential rigor in the parts of the world they so resolutely ignored, and that some of the more important work by contemporary artists invested in these questions are being made by African and Middle Eastern artists. So I really don't get it. Shanghai should learn from other nearby biennials, particularly the more respected Gwangju which has consistently produced truly international biennials since its founding.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Salah Hassan earns a named chair at Cornell!

Photo: Frédéric Desmesure

Recently, Cornell University announced the elevation of my good friend Salah Hassan to a named chair: Goldwin Smith Professor. This endowed chair for an African Scholar in an Ivy League university is quite significant. It acknowledges the pioneering work Salah has done in the field of history of contemporary African art. He has played a major role--through graduate teaching, curatorial work, and editorship of our journal Nka, as well as through encouragement of younger scholars and artists, and support of initiatives inside Africa and overseas--in turning a field that barely had a name in the mid 1990s into one of the more exciting branches of Art History today.
It is fitting that along with his endowed chair, he has also established the Institute of Comparative Modernities at Cornell. I will comment on programming at the Institute in the near future. In the meantime, let me just say: congratulations, Salah!

Friday, July 4, 2008

3rd Festival of Negro Arts?

I understand there are plans to organize the 3rd Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar late next year. Indications are that the current Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, is spearheading the project. Of course this will, as had the two previous iterations of the festival, provide occasion for amazing events reflecting the rich and diverse cultures of Africa and its Diaspora, as well as intellectual debates on the past, present and future of African peoples, societies and states. But, questions abound. Why does President Wade want to organize this event at this time? What political imperatives? What is the basis for the 3rd Festival? And by the way, does the adjective “Negre” or “Negro” still make sense at the beginning of the 21st century?

Without question, Wade is no Senghor. Which is to say that while Senghor was a major poet, intellectual, and philosopher who helped laid the grounds for one of the most influential political/cultural ideas of the 20th century, Wade has no claim to such profile, which means that where it made sense for Senghor to organize the 1966 Festival to advance his Negritudist ideas, one is at a loss as to what would be the compelling intellectual or philosophical basis for the Third Festival. Even the 1977 Festival in Lagos had the raison d’etre (even though this was not in the official documents!) of celebrating Nigeria’s oil wealth, which is why we remember only its stupendous display rather than its promotion of any particular idea of and about Africanness or blackness. Today’s economic outlook, suggests that Wade’s Senegal cannot even afford to organize a Nigeria-style festival. So the hard question then is: which tradition can Wade seriously and meaningfully revisit? Senghor’s or Obasanjo’s? It is impossible to replicate or improve on either.

Already, there are intense rumors about the politics of the Third Festival and the Dakar Biennale. It appears that the Festival has been conceived as an alternative to the Biennale the origin of which predated the Wade presidency. I am hoping though that there is no truth in this rumor, and that the promoters of the Festival do not imagine that it can be a substitute for the Biennale. The reason is simple. There is no way Senegal or any other country can afford, but also it does not make sense, to organize a recurrent Festival. Except if it decides to develop a watered down, modular, version, which in any case would be a tragedy, a travesty of the work of Senghor.

OK, if President Wade is convinced that his government must organize the Third Festival, there is only one way that it can work; actually two ways. First is to dispense with the “Negre” thing and go for something less so passé. Second, is to not pretend that he has the intellectual heft and background to be the rallying force behind any program that intends to connect with the work of Senghor as a cultural theorist and philosopher. Which means that President Wade will need to pull back a bit and, in addition to providing fiscal and structural resources, convene a committee of reputable scholars and public intellectuals from Senegal and other parts of the continent and the Diaspora to rethink the idea and program that would—through a festival of arts and culture—be relevant to ideas, issues and questions facing the continent and its peoples within and outside.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mandela no more a Terrorist! Hurrah!

So, finally, the US government, through a new bill written by President Bush, has taken Nelson Mandela (and other members of the ANC) off its terror watch list. Thank God, we must now be safer, although I imagine that Dick Chenney doesn't still think it is a good idea. If anything, this sordid reality of US international politics--in taking a whole of 18 years since the "unbanning" of the ANC in South Africa, and 14 years after the Party won legitimate, popular elections in South Africa, to remove it from the so-called terror list--must teach us to be dubious of the US government's (and its allies') characterization of any individual or group as "terrorist." They were wrong about ANC and Mandela, and should apologize to South Africa because America was on the wrong side of history on the matter of South African decolonization and independence. Just removing Mandela's name from the stupid list is not enough.

The Shame called Mugabe

I imagine that many African leaders, by which I mean those who have legitimate claim to leadership of their countries, feel caught up with the question of how to respond to the tragedy that has unfolded in Zimbabwe, where another old man, completely deluded, senile and devious has decided that nothing but death (which hopefully will come sooner rather than later) separates them from the fate of this country and citizenry. Especially given the complicated history of Zimbabwe's colonial history and that old man's role in ending it. But the time is now for South Africa and Nigeria (along with other already vocal members of the SADC) to take a clear position on Zimbabwe. It is not enough anymore to be doing the so-called background diplomacy, because it does not seem to be working. In a different context, one would be sympathetic to the idea that African leaders don't want to be seen as siding with the West on Zimbabwe. Not with the hundreds, perhaps much more, that have been reportedly killed just to keep Mugabe in power, despite the clear statement made by the citizens in the first round of elections earlier this year: that they are tired of Mugabe's regime and would rather try something else after 28 increasingly tragic years of misrule. Of course, the failure of the Zimbabwean economy under Mugabe may have been orchestrated by international forces who in their vindictive mindset seek to punish that government for waking up late in the day (as a means to hang on to power I must add) to return to the vexed question of redistribution of nation's resources. But, perhaps what ought to be the issue--which the Zimbabweans themselves seemed to have made obvious through the results of the elections earlier in the year--is that it is time to try a different tactic and strategy, one that is not so confused with outworn anticolonialist rhetoric and rancid nationalism.

The silence of some influential African leaders now gives the impression that it is only the West that apparently has problems with later Mugabe and his regime. No, the man has expired as a useful actor in the realm of Zimbabwean and African political practice. While he was a hero of Zimbabwe's independence, he is now an anti-hero, a villain, a slough of his former self who, for his own sake but especially for the people of Zimbabwe, ought not be allowed to stay on in power. With the way he has completely overturned the wishes of the Zimbabwean people through sheer violence and official intimidation, he does not deserve the courtesy of silence, or even of quiet diplomacy. Nor does the argument for a "Zimbabwean solution" to the menace suffice, simply because Mugabe has emasculated civil society, stifled opposition, and reduced the masses to such poverty and hunger that all they now answer to is stipendiary politics of which the state has total control.

African leaders must show true leadership and concern for the fate of Africa and Africans by declaring publicly their position on the rape of Zimbabwe by a man who you would have thought (well, that is if you for once forgot that he is reenacting a kind of politics, the self-installation of rulers-for-life, many countries in Africa have had to endure since the 1960s with grave consequences) would give his life to see that he left Zimbabwe a prosperous, stable country, to show the former colonial masters that he indeed was right to have waged a revolutionary war of independence. He must be called out, by African political leadership, not just by Desmund Tutu and Nelson Mandela.