Also Known as Africa (AKAA), Paris, France
09 – 11.11.2018
“We are now living through a period in which the centre of gravity is transferring to new worlds” – Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Is this the case in the art world? Are we witnessing a shift in the ‘centre of gravity’? I’m not so certain. Yes, African art is certainly the latest fatted cow, but is it truly redefining the way the world sees the continent and how it engages with its creative capital?
A visit to 1:54 proved in Oct proved dismal. Apart from the dour cramped setting – Somerset House is little more than a dusty warren of cramped interlinked rooms which yield zero perspective and shoddy light – the offerings under the banner of ‘African art’ similarly yielded little which overwhelmed one, or which probed the burning question of a continent’s relevance. That is, apart from the showing of Anton Kannemeyer’s Alphabet series which were sold in multiples. That Kannemeyer triumphed in this era of political correctness was particularly heartening, for it pushed the consecrated boundary of moral propriety, reminding us that room remains in this dust-bowl – I’m thinking of Somerset House here – for thinkers and artists unmoved by the anthemic and chillingly pragmatic exploitation of a continent’s justifiable grievances.
In Condition Report, Koyo Kouoh asked the burning question: ‘How is Africa after fifty years of Independence, really determining its artistic landscape?’ In truth, not very well. If so, this is because provincialism has consumed the earth, and Africa, which stands at the cusp of rewiring a divisive Western-centric ethos, finds itself incapable of gifting the world the humanity it so desperately needs. The upshot being that its art world remains ghettoised, its yearnings, pressures, pulls, perceived as little more than new-fangled curiosities, deserving concern, but never impactful enough to truly shift the gravity of an art world which, having burst its bubble long ago, still seems, bizarrely, to be heedlessly expanding – without any coherent guidance system, morality, or relevant intention.
It is against this backdrop, therefore, that I’d like to reflect upon AKAA – Also Known as Africa – the next iteration in which African art takes centre-stage in Europe in November. One hopes that this fair – its first outing suspended by terrorism – will prove more complex, more searching in its quest to understanding the nature of African art today. This is a big ask, given that art fairs are generally puerile money-making affairs dressed up as a concerned address. You may think me naïve in believing that art, outside of its monetary transaction, truly matters. But I think it does, because African art is a ‘power station’, a raw nerve, which no dealership, no matter how blithe its brokerage, can suppress.
Simon Njami’s questions are just: “Can we grasp the needs of our times with contemporary tools? Can we move beyond the codification of a monolithic history of the world that is outrageously simplified? Can we change the analytic schemas whose purpose was to lock identities into geographic essentialisms?” Yes, we can, despite the Neanderthal return to populism, nativism, and their germinal hub – fascism.
In February this year, Sepideh Mehraban curated the show, ‘Cape to Tehran’, at Gallery Momo in Cape Town, later traveling to the gallery’s Johannesburg space as well. Billed as ‘Re-imaging and re-imagining personal history in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-revolutionary Iran’, the show traversed the blur which defines contemporary art practice, splicing things with non-things, nouns with states, forms with what Nicolas Bourriaud terms the ‘ex-form’ – the point where art arrives at its exhaustion, and then, its viral and obtuse resurgence.
The emphasis on ‘personal history’ is critical, not because it permits a craven return to a banalised identity politics, but because it allows us to think-and-feel inside the difficulty of being human today.
As the world becomes increasingly balkanised, as ‘freedom of movement’ becomes a default memory, it is Mehraban’s decision to hold fast to this difficulty – the difficulty of being and expression – which becomes increasingly urgent. Along with Kendell Geers, who long-ago exited this outpost located at Southern Africa’s sullen lip, Mehraban will, at AKAA, be discussing the complexity of her fate as an Iranian artist, domiciled in South Africa, for whom the earth is an embattled zone. Displacement, non-belonging, isolation, are the existential nerve-ends which have shaped her being, but it is the affirmative desire for an impossible locality which fires her the more.
As nation-states becomes hideously ingrown and putrescent, as ugliness resumes its defining place as the face of Europe, what, one wonders, will come from this conversation? For in tracking the connections between two starkly dissimilar and yet intimate blocks of isolation – the Cape and Tehran – it is not only Mehraban’s personal history which surfaces, but the complexity of two isolated and embattled cultures, and the artists which inhabit them.
The globalised art market, Omar al-Qattan observed, is “nothing but a colonial market by proxy, which nullifies cultural turmoil, conflict and contradiction”, so that we find ourselves “swallowed up by a world in which artistic expression is made banal by easy money and borrowed ideas and fashions, and marketing and public relations, rather than the struggles for freedom, equality, authenticity and originality that some artists, thankfully, continue to consider as central to their endeavours“.
Those who feature in Mehraban’s curatorial project – amongst them Shagha Ariannia, Rory Emmett, Thulile Gamedze, Francois Knoetze, Neda Razavipour, Rowan Smith, and Mehraban herself – are the signs for this continued commitment to freedom-equality-authenticity. Their practices, however, do not only defy the fetish object – a continued currency in a thing-glutted world – they steer us to a very different frontier, that of the ex-form, that of things which are no longer things, in which human detritus, and the lost passions which accompany them, are given another burst of life.
It is this strange new superfluity which we must return to, because without reappraising all we have lost, or discarded, or cruelly abandoned, we will not be able to maintain any ethical solvency. Two sites of a storm, the Cape and Tehran are nodes in a complex fight on behalf of forgotten dignity and truth. These nodes are not alike, but what they share is an acute sense of the peripheral, the inexistent, in which, ironically, resides their greatest strength.
So, no Mr Obrist, power has not truly shifted. The art world remains a tediously smug and presumptive death wish. But then, as the American poet, A. R. Ammons, reminds us in Corson’s Inlet: risk is full, every living thing in siege, the demand is life, to keep life.
‘If I lose the North, does that mean I cannot find my South?’, a panel discussion hosted by Françoise Vergès and featuring Sepideh Mehraban, Kendell Geers, Aimé Mpane, and Pascale Obolo will take place at AKAA on Sunday November 11 at 4pm – 5:30pm. For more information and to book seats, click here.
AKAA (Also Known as Africa) Art & Design Fair runs from 9-11 November at Carreau du temple, 4 rue Eugène Spuller, 75003, Paris France
Further information can be found here.