Curating Africa Beyond the Clichés
A new exhibition seeks to bring contemporary African art to the fore—and there's not a tribal mask to be seen.
Athi-Patra Ruga "Over the Rainbow" (2017)
Ever since Picasso painted tribal masks, the phrase "African Art" has conjured up false images of grass-skirts and savannah landscapes. Seldom do Western perspectives allow space for an Africa that is non-homogenised: eclectic, diverse, multi-faceted, and most notably, contemporary.
Arts organisation Another Antipodes reworks those stereotypes and misconceptions by bringing African art to Perth, Western Australia. Its inaugural exhibition featured more than 40 artists from Africa—mostly from the Southern and Western African diaspora, with Johannesburg and Zimbabwe featuring heavily—in a celebration of contemporary African art from around the continent. Through mixed media, generations, politics, and aesthetics, it counters the Africa of cliché and archetype with one of individuality and experimentalism.
Creators talked with Zimbabwe-born Another Antipodes founder and lead curator Gerald Sanyangore about capturing the many faces and modes of Africa.
Creators: Africa is a big continent to curate.How did you approach such an immense task?
Gerald Sanyagore: I've never actually curated a show before, so my main interests are expanding the conversations I have with other people. Having moved here I realised I don't hear anything about where I come from in the story of this place, and it's all steeped in these stereotypes or imaginings of the Africa we've heard about or read about or seen on the news. So I went, "Okay, there needs to be another level of interaction or discussion around these things, particularly in the context of Australia. We've got a new migrant community that looks different, coming mainly from Western Africa."
How do you think this work helps Australia place itself in a postcolonial context?
This new space that we occupy of reimagining nationhood, as separate to the imagination of European constructs. Australia's going "We still need to be a monarchy, not a republic". What does Australia mean for us today? The same thing is happening across Africa, but also in South Africa, how do you break away from a colonial past with a brighter future.
Is it frustrating trying to convey ideas of contemporary Africa to an audience of Australians?
The works were about communicating something that was happening in Africa right now, focusing on the urban context rather than the rural imagination. It's not something we were doing consciously. Africa is very 21st century. One of the artists that visited the exhibition from South Africa said "Oh my god this is almost like Cape Town, minus the mountain." So for us it was less about the safari, less about the landscapes, more about what's happening in the city right now and what are the conversations that are happening right now, in the urban context.
Did that push to defy white expectations affect how you chose the art?
I think it just came together naturally. We are working in a contemporary sphere, so the traditional motifs really don't feature. While we're also trying to connect with what's happening globally. So a lot of the works we see here are by artists who have exhibited internationally (the Guggenheim, Tate, Venice Biennale) we try to pitch this to show the best of what is being seen elsewhere when it comes to contemporary African art practice.
We were aware of the responsibility of calling something African and bringing it to a landscape where people don't actually know what and where you're talking about. The work had to speak for itself and come from some kind of merit. It would have been so easy to go: it's going to be about masks and drums, but for me to do that well it would have meant I would have had to taken in vast historical timelines. Obviously what you see in the street space is different, particularly in Zimbabwe where there is a long history of stone making and working with wood, just like all throughout Africa. That's not something that is alien but it's something that is stuck in that stereotype. So we thought, no, let's look at the work that's talking about the contemporary.
There's such a diverse range of mediums here. How is something like video art or interactive media different in the African context?
So when you look at some of the video works that are in here it's really quite interesting because when we think about African art making we don't really think about digital art. The fact that we have that here is a joy to see. Because technology for a long time was one of those barriers that African artists face. Forget supply of resources, which is what's happening in Zimbabwe right now, but a camera used to be so expensive. To see something of this quality is something that really wasn't accessible to a lot of artists [up until recently].
How much of the art is shaped by or responds to current African politics?
The current state of Africa right now where it's basically post-post apartheid. The rainbow nation has happened. We are a new South Africa, but what does it mean for us? Has the government delivered and what kind of communities are we shaping? The younger artist is going, "Well I grew up in a different environment: I am a post-independence child so to speak, what's my voice, what's my space?". Because before it was really prescribed, but now it's not, so what do you do with that? It's really quite interesting.
Certainly a lot of this work comes from places that are in flux—developing—but also restrained and constrained still by what's happening in the West and the opinions and rules of international engagement. That's why they are very, very political because politics happens on the streets, on a visceral level. You can feel it affect you directly: your government decides to do something silly, you're done for. So people really respond to that. So for an artist these are things that are constantly on their mind. They are very engaged with the politics, their environment, their community, and it makes its way into their art.
The work is as much relating to late capitalism as it is post colonialism and several pieces focus on the dehumanising nature of the resource sector. Do you think Australian audiences will see the parallels?
I think that's the unique position Australia occupies as well in the imaginary space of politics: Australia imagines itself as a Western country. Maybe in thinking, but not in position. That's what's happening in Africa as well. But also, geographically, Australia is in the south. So why do we pretend to be something else instead of fully engaging with where we actually are?
But of course Australia can negotiate that a lot better because of its position. In an African context, it's very different. When you seen these black bodies moving through Chinese worker's apartments built in the Namibian desert, the interaction is so weird and so different and separate from environment. Also what happens is you supplant this form of architecture that people can't relate to but also can't afford. So huge apartment buildings lying pretty much empty because they're so expensive and no one can afford to actually live there, so driving people into this style of 21st century living when they can't actually afford to live it, making a city without it being an organic process, I don't think it's going to work.
Do you think this exhibition will change how Australians value African perspectives?
What I find striking about this exhibition is how the artists are able to imbue a lot of meaning in their work. Their work is coming from really important issues that everyone should be talking about: whether it's gender, whether it's slavery, whether it's the migration of people internationally, whether it's religion. So I wouldn't say topical but things that as people we should actually be talking about. And finding solutions to these things.
So when we look at Africa and everyone goes "I think about tea plantations or UN ads where there's been a famine" I say no, this is a continent that is full of creative hardworking talented humans. And if you look at them from a human perspective, it's a different conversation to be had. If you empower them and give them the same kind of platform as anyone else they're able to do what anyone else is able to do.
You can find out more about Another Antipodes and contemporary African art here.