'Africa Remix' at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo
by Genevieve Wood
From late May till the end of August this year, contemporary art from Africa occupied the Mori Art Museum on the 53rd floor, atop the ivory tower of the Mori empire's recent upscale development in downtown-central Tokyo.
With no less than 83 artists showcased, 'Africa Remix' consciously presented the opportunity for an in-Japan audience to 're-associate' art from Africa. As art historian Yukiya Kawaguchi of the National Museum of Ethnology , in this context points out, it has been no small symbolic endorsement.
It's hard to grasp a sense of any particular part of one's continent here - the temporal distance between Japan and most countries in Africa appears significant. Much of the sparse information regarding African cultures available in Japan has been imported indirectly via Europe since Japan's opening to the West during the Meiji Period - a moment roughly coinciding with the end of the Victorian Era in Britain.
More recently, in the post-war period images and ideas have filtered through from popular US film and television - if that helps. But because of the basic lack of infrastructure for direct mutual interaction, broadly speaking, where antiquated fetishisms do still occur, they are calmly left to go unchecked and media news regarding war, famine and general human misery serves to update what seems only an alarming state of affairs. At the moment, African Studies in Japan remain a rare specialisation, and, since the 1990s, only sporadically has contemporary art from Africa been seen here.
As if engaged in a seemingly endless game of 'Marco? Polo!','Africa' shifts unreliably, and for this resident South African - rather disconcertingly - in and out of earshot. 'Re-associate', if rather incredulously, some might have now enthusiastically done. Newspaper journalist Haruo Sanda wrote in Japan's established Daily Newspaper that he thought it was refreshing to view the variety and sophistication of art from Africa. And in Japan's young bilingual quarterly, ArtIt, Shiriagari Kotobuki chooses 'Africa Remix' for a chapter of his Crash Course in Contemporary Art to ponder why it is that all contemporary art the world over, curiously seems to 'smell the same'.
But was it not possible for 'Africa Remix' to go further than that, and bring about a fruitful extension to any of the dialogue within the work on show? Could it not bring about a relevant exchange of ideas between participants at its venue in Asia, and those from the continent in question?
It didn't get much of a chance at its symposium in Tokyo this May. The purpose of what you read here is threefold - firstly, to present questions that came to mind while attending the symposium entitled What is African about African Art? on opening weekend at the Mori, where curators Simon Njami and David Elliot could be observed debating their 'Remix' with the self-proclaimed 'only contemporary African art specialist in Japan', professor and art historian Yukiya Kawaguchi.
The symposium, attended by some local critics, curators, news media, a precious handful of participant artists, and the general public - both Japanese and otherwise - was fraught. Although everyone mentioned was fitted with their own personal translation head-set, language got in the way, and Yinka Shonibare's inclusion in the show became a subject of contention, without it being altogether clear whether or not anyone was actually contending it. An ensuing critique of essentialisms led uncomfortably into an attempt to define 'Africa'.
It wasn't clear whether or not Mori director David Elliot himself might have taken the rhetorical question of the title literally, having gone and ascribed a sense of 'African-ness' to various key pieces of work on show. Simon Njami then missed the opportunity to discuss the artists and their work when asked how they were chosen, opting instead to describe the parameters by which he as a curator, does not choose to curate.
Convenor Shigemi Inaga of the International Centre for Japanese Studies tried several times to elicit response from artists in attendance, but, with the exception of Moataz Nasr, most seemed keen to stay well away from the three-legged debate. It was then notable that no real attempt was made to ask how this could all be of relevance to a host Japanese audience.
With head curator of the current Singapore Biennale and deputy director of the Mori, Nanjo Fumio present in the room, it might have been a good opportunity for a discussion of the pros and cons of large-scale survey shows for instance. Or, what of possible resonances and insights that could have come out of a discussion with Japanese artists on 'returning the gaze'. There was indeed worthwhile potential for any number of attempts at relevancy and exchange.
Below is an extended conversation with participant artist in 'Africa Remix' Allan de Souza, who was brave enough to volunteer his voice to the proceedings. To present some small context for 'Remix's' internationally-minded venue in Tokyo's local art scene, comment has then also been sought from active curator and critic Kentaro Ichihara, who also serves on the Mori museum's advisory board. It is through presenting these two interviews that a third pointed objective lies - to provide food for thought while 'Remix' returns to Europe to open in Stockholm in October and to consider whether there might conceivably be cause for cross-pollination between the only two venues for Africa Remix outside Europe. (The sixth and final venue will be the Johannesburg Art Gallery).
Allan de Souza
Genvieve Wood: The symposium What is African about African Art? circled around the difficult process of quantifying the notion of Africa itself. It reached a point where it was suggested that there isn't a way to do it. You then countered that by proposing that Africa can be spoken about, dealt with, as a kind of European fiction - one you further describe as 'a fiction with massive material consequences'. Who gets to reinvent Africa - this seems to be something that's generally being fought over. I was wondering if you could comment on that.
Allan de Souza: How does one change the imagining of Africa, you know, rather than, 'am I African or not'? It's important for me to be African in order for me to change its future imagining.
To illustrate, I was giving a lecture at one of the art schools in New York. It was a slide show so all the lights were down, and I was showing some photographs which were taken in Nairobi, and I was talking about colonialism, and someone from the audience said to me: 'Well, as a white man, don't you have a different relationship to colonialism?' Which completely threw me. I've never had that before. And so I asked for the lights to come up because (I thought) well... maybe it's just really dark in here and they can't see me. The person who asked the question was still sitting there nonplussed, and so it seemed that for her I wasn't African. Because, well, you know my name, my accent and because I didn't look African, according to her conception of what an African should look like.
And so in that instance it was important for me to say, important for me to claim that African-ness, and say: 'This is what Africa can be, Africa can be everything and anyone' and to get away from that sort of preconception. That really limited notion of what Africa is. For me to say, 'I can be African, I can also have a stake in what happens there'. So that's the importance of staking a claim in a future imagining.
GW: David Elliot says about Remix that: 'We (the curators) all thought that it was kind of important that Africa was in the title... '. That being the case, the name becomes more significant, it has had to become activated in a certain way.
AdeS: It's also possible to direct the viewer. One of the things that have in some ways worked against the show in Tokyo, for example, was a few days after the opening I'd gone back to the museum and there was a traditional dance outside by a Botswana group, and an exhibition in the Mori about Botswana diamonds, and they had some artwork up as well, what one could call 'stereotypically African' work. Well, a lot of the artists in 'Remix' had left by this point, it was maybe a week after the opening. The performance was outside in the plaza, and I had no idea it was going to be there.
I was shocked and thought - here is every confirmation of the primitive! There was a big crowd there taking photographs and I thought - well, maybe this should have been done more overtly in relation to 'Africa Remix'. Why didn't both open on the same day? Why a week later? And it should have been brought into the discussion. But then I thought - what's the effect on the audience?
They see this reiteration of the idea of the primitive, and then if they go into 'Africa Remix', there are perhaps elements in that show which can reiterate that. So the idea of it being a 'Remix' fails at that point, by actually confirming preconceptions that the viewer might have. Here is an exhibition which is full of colour, one can even talk about the visual rhythms for example, all those kind of stereotypes. So who knows whether it actually disrupts the viewer's expectations or not?
GW: How do you feel about how your work is contextualised in the show?
AdeS: (It is) conceptualised only in terms of image, (that) it is about cities. Whereas, actually my work isn't about cities themselves. The form of the city, whether the city or the landscape, is just a means towards another narrative, usually around nationalism, or international relations, so those kind of issues really don't get contextualised or discussed. That, or even why there is no sense of the fact that it is not about Africa. Certainly it's about international relations, but it's not about visually representing Africa. I think a lot of artists are in this position but there's no discussion about why then this work should be seen in relation to Africa. I think it should be, but there's no discussion of that.
GW: Why did you decide to participate?
AdeS: Because I would like to see my work in relation to other artists from Africa. I'm interested in that dialogue.
GW: Moataz Nasr, from Egypt, shared in the Tokyo symposium how he was rejected from a residency in Britain based on the fact that he was not considered African. What is actually at stake for an artist in being deemed African or not?
AdeS: For me there's no answer in emphasising an ethnicity, or a nationalism, for me the reason for the show is the link. At the same time as I said the differences are really important, the difference should be one of politics - so the regional politics are important. What's happening in Egypt is very different from what's happening in South Africa, or West Africa, so for me it's: how do the politics of regions and the specifics of place get represented? The idea of how Egypt or any other country gets represented - I think its importance is related to how Africa is conceptualised. And again there's partly the tracing to the European imagination that Africa is sub-Saharan, and it's linked to the idea of the primitive, of Egypt not being African because it had civilisation and so the idea of Africa is still linked to the primitive. And I consider it really important for Egypt to be part of that in order to defeat the notion of the primitive.
GW: In the 'Remix' symposium in London at the Hayward Gavin Jantjes, who is now preparing 'TRANS CAPE' , asked why African artists would need a survey exhibition.
AdeS: Well there have always been survey shows. The Venice Biennale, for example. And we still get them, most museums (in the US) have survey shows of Anglo-American art for example, but they just might not call them that. That's why we can't conceive of contemporary art without African or Asian art, this work needs to be in every show. So I don't think 'Remix' is addressing the right questions. That's not to say that the exhibition is invalid, but the focus for it could be different ...
Gavin might also be coming out of the debate that has been going on in England since the mid-80s, the problem with the survey shows. There have been a number of artists who have categorically denounced them, you know someone like Eddie Chambers who says the necessity is always solo shows or two or three person shows where you can create a context for the different artists' work, so I can see that Gavin is coming out of that debate, that, why are we still doing survey shows? And I think there is a frustration there. I mean, why are we still doing them? Why hasn't the debate moved on?
GW: So new options, modes, formats. What is available?
AdeS: To look at, to start from the work itself, and that means taking a different approach to what kind of questions come up within the work and then are there other artists coming up with the same questions. So for example with Jane Alexander's and Wangechi Mutu's work, there's a similar use of the hybrid body and the body which is both animal and cy-borg - and so there are certain kinds of questions there, of how these bodies come together and all the different political resonances. So there's a way that the exhibition could start from that point. That's where the curatorial idea should start from.
GW: How is the scale of 'Remix' a factor?
AdeS: Well, I think that can be a problem so it actually becomes a marketplace, like a bazaar. Because each work isn't given adequate space, so there's no sense of contemplation, of each individual artist's work. So that's a problem about the amount of work in relation to the space. Obviously if you have much larger spaces, and I didn't seen it in Düsseldorf, but I think the space should be about allowing time for contemplation, and certainly Paris and Tokyo don't do that. I mean it's more in a sense overwhelming, and that might be an intention too - that it becomes a musical remix - it becomes a kind of collage.
GW: About the curatorial team - Elliot, Martin, Njami. As a participating artist, how do you see the roles of the various curators involved in the show? How was decision-making divided amongst the curators?
AdeS: It's not a personal issue, or specific to this or these kind of exhibitions, but there's a separation between artists and curators. It's a kind of colonial relationship.
GW: ...I'm probably going to want to quote that.
AdeS: I guess, yeah... it can be a colonial model. And I think maybe where artists feel this most is when they are put on display for visiting dignitaries. Which happens. So maybe that's not that different from the tourist floorshow, done for tourists.
GW: A feudal system, perhaps?
AdeS: I think the colonial model is an interesting model to have in mind, so that each part of that equation knows how to avoid participating in that model. But one could say that the survey show comes out of a colonial model. Out of the old World Expos and the World Fairs and from there to the Biennales. So certainly one could make links. We're not out of that model yet.
GW: Did you speak to any...
AdeS: ... Didn't meet a single Japanese artist. There was someone I met at the symposium, and I said 'Oh, finally a Japanese artist!' and she said: 'Oh, I'm actually Korean'. It was a disappointment for me - how come we never met any Japanese artists? Because I think that's a really important discussion. But the museum's direction is not toward that, it's rather to their paying audience. So, they're less interested in dialogue between Japanese artists and the artists in 'Africa Remix'.
GW: So the show's travelling around Europe and then Japan and then next year Johannesburg. What kind of dynamics does the show encounter leaving Europe
AdeS: Well, discussion around, and even academic dialogue around diaspora is very recent in Japan. One of the ways an exhibition like this can be productive - and I think it has been productive - is for academics to consider what this means, and for them to make that connection with what it means for Japanese artists. I think there isn't sufficient in the catalogue for them to use it as a kind of intellectual tool for that discussion. But I think an exhibition like this can spur that debate further, for academics and intellectuals to conceptualise what diaspora means in Japan.
Even if they respond negatively to 'Africa Remix' it becomes something to react against. And I think artwork and exhibitions, that's one of their really important functions - that they give a kind of concrete form for an idea, to discuss about or discuss against. So whether the show is seen to work or not I think that still remains really important - something that only an art exhibition can do, because it's giving a physical form to ideas.
And then I'm really curious to see what the response is going to be in Africa since you know there will be such different readings of the work. And because for the first time, there's a contingent of South African artists and they will be seen differently in relation to the other work. So that's going to be a huge difference. I'm curious whether there are any sort of parallel tropes of exoticism about other countries in Africa, I mean there's no reason why that won't happen. You know, West Africa could be just as exotic to South Africans as it could be to Europeans.
GW: Who do you think 'Africa Remix' is for, since it is juggling multiple audiences by travelling?
AdeS: It seems to be directed towards as wide a public as possible and one that's not specialised within debates about contemporary art. And I'd like to see it functioning within, much more within the debate - of what is contemporary art, not contemporary African art, since contemporary art does not exist without African Art.
Genevieve Wood: Please could you briefly contextualise your relationship with the Mori Art Museum.
Kentaro Ichihara: I am a member of the board of directors at The Mori. However, my role is as a kind of an adviser, just to attend and give my opinion in meetings twice a year - I don't have a vested interest in the institution.
GW: Yukiya Kawaguchi used the metaphor of the scramble for a microphone in a karaoke bar at one point during the symposium, to describe the international art and cultural arena, and put it that this microphone has been (historically) monopolised by white Europeans. Can you comment on this metaphor from your perspective as a Japanese curator/critic?
KI: It's a fact that the European-orientated point of view has always been in control of art activities in the history of the entire 20th century, and maybe it has been talked about enough. Now, we should be thinking of how to change that. In other words, in the past, things were based on European-orientated art and others were just fighting over those few microphones left over that were granted us by Europe. What can we do to overturn this? At first, we should give attention to prominent art emerging from areas outside Europe, to accept that work and to accord it high value.
This has now been done by biennales all over the world. We can indeed make and use microphones according to our own demand.
GW: 'Africa Remix' is in a way an exhibition out to confuse a name, or at least its contents. Are art practitioners in Asia in control of how they are named? What dynamics say, are attached to the word 'Asian' for artists here?
KI: Asia is the name of a region on earth as much as Africa is, but there isn't any fixed cultural content in its name. Unfortunately, we are not in control of how the word 'Asia' is used, we might need an exhibition to confuse that identity, like an 'Asia Remix'... We could see that kind of approach in the Gwangju Biennale that is on in Korea at the moment. This biennale started from searching for the identity of Asia, but reached the conclusion that it simply became too diffuse, too disparate. It proved the hybridity of Asia.
GW: Mori states its mission to disseminate art and culture of the new millennium from a global perspective. Is a global perspective at this stage in the new millennium a realistic proposal?
KI: It depends on how one interprets global perspectives. As contemporary art will only be global, we should operate with that perspective. Then we can begin to feel for a way other than either exoticism, or some kind of singular perspective. Multi-culturalism can be the foundation of it, but we must aim to overcome exoticism as a simple spectacle.
GW: Are artists culpable in taking advantage of imposed exoticisms?
KI: Exoticism is what non-European and American artists can easily get trapped in. We had to destroy Eurocentrism in order to overcome it. However, at the moment, Japanese artists are either faced with being caught in that trap, or otherwise, use it to gain wealth and fame. They are culpable for not having the ability or desire to criticise exoticism. Curators should also be blamed for supporting this. The direct cause of exoticism is a market, but there is a way to overcome this. It could be a start to try to avoid the spectacle desired by the market.
GW: How does Mori as an institution fit into the Tokyo art scene's dynamics and the changes that are slowly taking place? What role does it play?
KI: Mori Art Museum doesn't take special part in the growth of the art scene in Tokyo. It's true that sometimes we feature Japanese artists for exhibitions, but for young artists, we only did this with 'Roppongi Crossing' (an exhibition of 57 artists subtitled 'New Visions in Contemporary Japanese Art' held at the Mori in 2004). To activate the art scene we should really feature young artists but the situation is that we haven't been able to really grapple with it.
GW: In 2002, the Mori Art Museum held a symposium, 'New Challenges for Museums'. It says of the proceedings that the aim was to analyze the problems currently faced by Japanese museums, and to compare and examine successful Western models. Can you talk a little bit about the discussion that took place? Is there legitimacy in distinguishing between Western and Eastern museum models, and how has Mori fulfilled its proposed role?
KI: There is no legitimacy in distinguishing between Western and Eastern (models). Even if we did, there is no reason for them to be completely different or to be opposed. As far as contemporary art is concerned, globalisation reaches all over the world, including Japan. There is an opposition between global and local, which should be able to be solved within contemporary art.
If The Mori is successful in that sense, it would be largely due to the achievements of Mr. Elliot. He is the one who assumes the role as an agent in bringing global and local together.
Translation by Sumomo Kurauchi
Genevieve Wood is a graduate student from Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town currently working on research studies in Japan
'Africa Remix' was exhibited at the Mori Art Museum from May 27 to August 31
To check out the substantial online content for 'Remix' Tokyo, including curators' audio commentary, go to the MORI sound/movie archives: http://www.mori.art.museum/eng/exhibition/index.html
The Asian Art Archive has a list of current biennale activity worldwide including Asia, for which 2006 is a busy year: www.aaa.org.hk/onlineprojects/bitri/en/index.asp
Artscape - a bilingual Japan-based online discussion forum is here: www.dnp.co.jp/artscape (follow the link to Artscape International)
Artit is Japan's only bilingual art publication which you can get here: www.artit.jp www.jpp.org.za