Recognition of African Art Practices
Art Philosophy and Its (Post)Colonial Criticism

Ivory Coast's artist Jems Koko Bi sits with Senegalese artist Soly Cisse at the exhibition “Prete-moi ton reve” in Dakar, Senegal.
Ivory Coast's artist Jems Koko Bi sits with Senegalese artist Soly Cisse on one of his cedar sculptures exhibited at “Prete-moi ton reve” (Lend Me Your Dream), an itinerant exhibition of 33 African artists currently displayed at the Museum of Black Civilizations (MCN) in Dakar, Senegal. Photo taken on 13 January 2020. | Photo (detail): Zohra Bensemra © picture alliance / Reuters

How can the cultural otherness of African art and culture practices be given space to develop whilst not over-alienating it from the West? Philosopher Michaela Ott is campaigning for cooperation between people of equal status, to allow new strategies for aesthetic inclusion.

Thanks to the heightened awareness of the (post)colonial situation, it’s now clear to the Western consciousness that the factors influencing philosophy and art include positions contingent on culture and context. Art philosophy reveals its identity through historical anthropologies of the individual, through aesthetic norms, popular conventions of art production and reception, as well as being conditional on assumptions regarding the extent to which a generalisation of judgments of taste is possible.
 
Back in 2005 (post)colonial critics Nikita Dhawan and María do Mar Castro Varela questioned the contradiction between enlightenment philosophy, its demand for universal human rights and the simultaneous climax of the African slave trade. In view of this genocidal crime they, like many theorists in the Global South, are now calling for the delegitimisation of Western European knowledge sovereignty and looking for a platform on which to start up a transcultural dialogue. Their postulation of absolute decolonisation refers in this context not just to Western European colonialism at the end of the 19th century and the term “Scramble for Africa” used by Thomas Pakenham, it also encompasses the general prevalence of Western schools of thought and their aesthetic and philosophical basis. As a result there is increased criticism of Kant’s statements that brought him under suspicion of racial prejudice, for instance his discriminatory qualification of Caribs and Iroquois in the Critique of Judgment – after all he denies that they have the capacity of judgments of taste and even a sensus communis (Gemeinsinn, common sense).

For this reason the Ghanaian-British art historian Korbena Mercer recommends techniques for “delearning” Western philosophemes, but also for researching artistic momentum. In this context many Western theorists today are committed to an inclusive approach to “other” art forms and cultural interpretations, while African philosophers state that the capacity for aesthetic judgment attributed to all cannot be generalised, as art does not always serve the purpose of a distanced contemplation of individual consideration but instead assumes specific functions in community rituals.

Consideration of Overlooked Forms of Expression

The well-intentioned goodwill of (post)colonial critique does not meet with favour everywhere, it is more likely to receive a sceptical response from members of the former colonies. The fact is that even through Western communication or rescue efforts they do not wish to become alienated yet again. That’s why certain African philosophers with a stronger sense of self-awareness emphasise their cultural otherness, demanding that their notoriously overlooked forms of expression and poorly regarded African languages are noticed. Art philosophers like Abiodun Akande from Nigeria or Babacar Mbaye Diop from Senegal vehemently lament the decontextualisation of African artefacts in the exhibition and reception business, which is still Western-dominated, calling for full restitution of art objects looted at different times in history. Although there are also philosophers like Paulin Hountondji from Benin, who advocates deconstructing the “Myth of Africanness” and rejects Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Négritude agenda and ethnocentric ideologies.

In a perspective critical of the Western world, art curators and theorists like Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe were already favouring decentralisation of the art scene at the start of the new millennium, advocating more of a transcultural orientation. Their reason was that because of the digitally globalised mediation of the “in-vogue” artists it was no longer possible to view art production as an ethnocentric creation anyway. They considered non-Western art practices in particular, which faced even more of a dichotomy between local cultural traditions and globalised standards, to have been forced into innovative hybrid forms. These practices were inevitably subject to the rule of aesthetic (de-in)dividuation if they were to find recognition on the international art market. 

“The intention of philosophical-artistic decolonisation has now turned out to be a highly complex undertaking in view of the Global South’s increased desire to decolonise.”

In collaboration with the Congolese philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe, Enwezor sought to grasp the composite cultural disposition of African art practices through the concept of Reprendre, by which he understood the revival of African and Western traditions, merging them into a formal amalgam. Questions of origin, ethnicity, religion and language should as micro-narratives generate aesthetically diverse art practices. At the same time he viewed African art biennales like Dak‘Art in Dakar (Senegal) or the film festival FESPACO in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) both as safe spaces for African and Afro-diasporic art, and as a steppingstone for international visibility.

Decolonising Perspectives

The intention of philosophical-artistic decolonisation has now turned out to be a highly complex undertaking in view of the Global South’s increased desire to decolonise. Where on the one hand equal acceptance of all art productions is called for, on the other hand there is emphasis on pursuing a special path for cultural reasons, as well as the need for unique expression. The fact that such distinctions between “own” and “other” frequently invoke the risk of a “cultural racism” is underscored by American culture theorist Rey Chow. The Berlin art lab savvy contemporary put on an exhibition entitled Dis-Othering as Method in 2018 because of this. 

For the purposes of overcoming this dilemma, the philosopher Achille Mbembe is now demanding the replacement of neoliberal globalisation with “world thought”. The truth is that even “self-referral is only possible in the in-between, in the gap between mark and demark, in the co-constitution” of different cultures. You can only arrive at decolonised perspectives by moving within a variety of contexts and attempting to internalise them en masse. His concept of Afropolitanism as the name of a multi-ethnic combination of the individual and the artistic artefact should not remain confined to African contexts; instead it should refer to a general way of “being in the world”.

“The concept of (post)colonialism in itself indicates that colonisation is not a thing of the past, because the political and economic relations – whilst dependent on each other – are too inequal. The recognition of the historical interrelationship should be accompanied by a resolute dismantling of the exploitation circumstances in order for cooperation between equals to become conceivable.”

Today numerous European and African initiatives are committed to the restitution of looted artworks and artefacts – of which there are 75,000 in Germany alone – and critically examine plans to exhibit them, for instance in the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Senegalese philosopher Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy notoriously advocate a step-by-step, but complete, non-temporary return of objects of colonial “cultural extraction”, but also careful handling of archives, which will create global and permanent relationships between museums and libraries. 

In Algerian-French artist Kader Attia’s sculptural ensembles and audiovisual research projects, he expresses the physical injuries and psychological traumas of colonised individuals – but also of the colonising soldiers and consequently their shared suffering. He collects documentary evidence of a (post)colonial “counter-knowledge” and presents an argument for the “abolition of distances” and a programme of “repair” within the context of artistic epistemology.

The concept of (post)colonialism in itself indicates that colonisation is not a thing of the past, because the political and economic relations – whilst dependent on each other – are too inequal. The recognition of the historical interrelationship should be accompanied by a resolute dismantling of the exploitation circumstances in order for cooperation between equals to become conceivable. Today it is not only essential to encourage collaborative research and shared art practices, but above all to encourage policies that have clearly involved other countries and continents in their definitions, connecting with them on an equal level to enable the continued development and rebalancing of participation strategies, including in an aesthetic capacity.