Essay Against Western thought patterns

Art gallery and music shop in the historical Pelurinho District of Salvador Bahia
Art gallery and music shop in the historical Pelurinho District of Salvador Bahia | Photo (detail): Lou Avers © picture alliance

The debate concerning provenance research, restitution and suitably representative locations for art is raging on between the Tate Modern and Documenta – and of course it’s also a recurring theme in the context of the contentious origins of the Humboldt Forum. 

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

The focus was on the low-key controversy regarding past colonial events at the 10th Berlin Biennale in 2018 as well. And it’s increasingly accepted that artists with a migration background and origins in the Global South are marching forth through a hyper-networked world.


However it’s still the case that they are marching in time with a more dominant West. “The art market is just columbusing, busy ‘discovering’ new territories, new resources and capital to accumulate,” said French-Guyanese artist Tabita Rezaire two years ago in an interview with Contemporary And art magazine. The fact is that even if a reappraisal of colonialism is initiated by artists from the Global South in particular, their visibility is still often dependent on the traditional structures and influence of typically Western institutions. In that light it’s interesting to read culture journalist Hanno Rauterberg’s recent criticism in weekly newspaper "Die Zeit": he complains how much the current north-south dialogue is fuelling the jet-setting art scene in its climate-threatening mobility.

 
Of course he’s right to condemn the international art world’s catastrophic environmental footprint. But Rauterberg fails to realise the urgency of a debate that’s finally getting going somewhere beyond the euro-centric certainties. A debate in which the historical links between Global North and South are finally being addressed, one reason for which is a recent mobility of artists from the South. Rauterberg’s urge to act at a local level where art is concerned seems understandable though. Simply because creative individuals from Africa and Latin America in particular are themselves increasingly pushing for the necessary independence from Western benefactors and demanding more visibility in a local context.

Overcoming a paralysing colonial legacy

Curators, artists and collectors have been moving around between Dakar, Havana, São Paulo and Marrakesh for years, whilst larger museums and commercial galleries are opening in Cape Town, Accra and Lagos. Yet conditions for up-and-coming artists in these places don’t really reflect the glamour of biennales and opening nights. Especially in Africa the lack of structures in an educational environment are a colonial legacy.

Many of the artefacts that are now on show in the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar had to be loaned from museums in France or Belgium.

Local artists and art historians have only begun to compensate for this inheritance in the past few years, for instance through projects like the pan-African Asíko Art School founded by Bisi Silva. The school aims to fill the gap “which exists across the whole continent, where art courses within mainstream education unfortunately do not include training in critical theory, art history, research methods or conceptual strategy,” to quote Silva in 2017 in an interview with artist Martha Kazungu.
 
Other than the Art Hubs in larger cities, comparatively little money is invested in cultural structures as a whole, so that contemporary art – particularly from the African continent – still frequently ends up in the hands of collectors and institutions in the West. Even the currently largest contemporary art museum in Cape Town, the Zeitz Mocaa, would hardly have existed without the initiative of the German manager and collector Jochen Zeitz. It is true to say that there’s an increasing number of collectors and curators who are also able to adopt a local perspective on art from the continent and diaspora. But even with their money and expertise they can’t do the legwork for many of the artists – finding a niche for individual creativity between the expectations of an international and national audience and struggling to make a name for themselves – above and beyond acting as a mouthpiece for their places of origin.

Art offers solutions

Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey has been successful on both counts for a long time. He creates multimedia installations out of repurposed waste to serve as a comment on environmental problems, the causes of which include the export of Western products. “Afrogallonism” is the name he gives to his art, which uses the principle of recycling to solve more than just material problems. It also describes the routes taken by goods between Europe and Africa, and addresses the economic imbalance between the continents. In particular the gallon containers he works with – which were originally used to transport large quantities of cooking oil to Africa – cause a huge amount of plastic waste. Rubbish that stretches the waste disposal structures in Accra, Clottey’s working environment, to the limit. He uses his art to breathe new life into it, and having added significant value to it he sells it back to the West. Just as he did with his artworks made from jute sacks and cables, he is holding a mirror up to his public by transporting mass-produced Western goods back to their original environment. His GoLocal Performance Collective, or the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge in Accra, founded by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, explore interrelations of precisely this nature – because they seek to improve opportunities for artists as well as social structures at a local level.
In the exhibition "Try Me", the Munich City Museum showed African advertising art in 2003 In the exhibition "Try Me", the Munich City Museum showed African advertising art in 2003 | Photo (Detail): Frank Leonhardt © picture alliance

Zina Saro-Wiwa, daughter of Nigerian activist und author Ken Saro-Wiwa, is someone else who sees the potential of activism in her art. She aims to draw attention to the Niger delta with her “Boys Quarters Project Space” in Port Harcourt. To the region in which her father fought against an exploitative oil industry in the mid-nineties, for which he was executed by the government in a show trial. His daughter’s artistic development describes the way out of postcolonial Nigeria, covering her education and initial attempts at working as a BBC journalist in the diaspora, and culminating in the photographic exploration – of her father’s legacy and the ongoing environmental problems caused by oil extraction in the region.
On 11.11.1995 members of Greenpeace commemorate the death of the executed civil rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa © dpa / Peer Grimm in front of the Brandenburg Gate On 11.11.1995 members of Greenpeace commemorate the death of the executed civil rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa © dpa / Peer Grimm in front of the Brandenburg Gate | Photo (Detail): Peer Grimm © picture alliance

The attempt to revive social dialogue through creative discussion is a mammoth task beyond the huge Mecca that is art. In cities like Kampala on the other hand there’s already a scene in which creative talent from both the continent and the diaspora are mixed together. Emma Wolukai-Wanambwa, who grew up in Scotland, is Research Director at the Nagenda International Agency of Art & Design there. An artist whose spectrum of expertise ranges from exploration of Polish colonial ambitions to women in aeroplanes. Against the backdrop of the KLAART Festival and the 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust, Wolukai-Wanamba is part of a trans-local art network in Kampala, in which they have been critically examining the interpretation of curatorship, theory and inflexible museum concepts for some time.
 
In other places, where daily routine is governed by political repression, the art world operates within a restricted framework as well. But even in Brazil, where creative artists are currently suffering under Bolsonaro’s rule, curators made further inroads into the reappraisal of colonialism last autumn, shortly before the political changes. The Museo Afro Brasil in São Paulo opened in 2004. But it was not until 2018 that the Museu de arte de São Paulo (MASP) came to the table as the first internationally recognised art institution in the country with the comprehensive  “Hístorias Afro-Atlanticas” exhibition, actively shifting the focus onto Afro-Brazilian history. The exhibition was full of political impact, it took place right in the middle of the most heated phase of the election in autumn last year. At that point it was already becoming clear that Jair Bolsonaro would become the new president of the country – a man who suggested that the black activists should “go back to the zoo”, and who wanted to deploy the police and army to “impose law and order” in the favelas. The curators of MASP made it quite clear what they thought of the repressive rhetoric of his politics, which constituted a significant threat to the diversity within the country.
Das Museu de arte de São Paulo (MASP) ist eines der wichtigsten Symbole der modernen brasilianischen Architektur. Das Museu de arte de São Paulo (MASP) ist eines der wichtigsten Symbole der modernen brasilianischen Architektur. | Foto (Ausschnitt): Andre M. Chang © picture alliance
In Dakar one year earlier, curators were facing completely different challenges. They had to fill the newly-opened Museum of Black Civilizations with art. But as they were choosing between works by artists from the USA and Cuba, it was becoming clear the extent to which an empty space has been left by the looting of cultural wealth, especially in West African countries – and it’s likely to take a while to fill. Many of the artefacts that are now on show in the new museum in Dakar had to be loaned from museums in France or Belgium.
 
But this isn’t really all about provenance issues. It’s just as much about recognising spaces for discussion. In future at least, the emphasis will have to be on greater awareness of trans-local artistic realities in the Global South – because without contemporary perspectives from there it won’t be anywhere near possible to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the world.