Thinking about the history and future of Africa is a daunting exercise. But to narrate it, by way of representation, into a neat coherent fashion, is equally cumbersome considering that its a conceptual place-name whose emergence in History is often that of constant disequilibrium: mindless savagery, pre-colonial pointless tribal conflicts, a brutal colonial enterprise of violent theft and ship in human cargo & extraction, and now, a post-colonial nightmarish dystopia of dictatorial shambolic governance and displacement. And so on.
The show (as well as its curious presentation) at Goodman Gallery, ‘Authenticité’, featuring an impressive ensemble of visual artists, seeks to construct Africa’s past as seen through the lens of the nonet, and arranged in a neatly conventional and formulaic mode of narration which typifies a conventional narrative strategy; equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium. You can hardly blame the artists for this unimaginative practice.
‘Authenticité’ opens with a short video titled Léopold Senghor dans sa chère Normandie (1982), provided by Mozambican painter and performance artist Cassi Namoda. In it we see Senghor, the Senegalese poet, politician and prominent theoretician of Negritude, swimming in a pool, a man standing remotely, soundtracked by chirping birds. (Visually, this cinematic entry into the exhibition does work, but thematically, it is a bit odd, especially when you consider how, in the next video, Mobutu dismisses Negritude as narrow vision fit for a particular people racially designated as Black, and in contradistinction to L’Authenticité, which he characterizes as a “universal discourse”.) The accompanying introductory voice clip is described by the artist as “soothing”, and we are ensnared to believe it is deployed to offer a fresh reading of Senghor, as complicated as he was. But something else is at play, the beginning establishes a moment of calm, a tranquil state of equilibrium, a towering figure swanning in blue opulence. This emotive intervention prepares ground for the conclusive equilibrium: though Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa: Rwanda drags the past back to the present, the eucalyptus sculptural object is structured in a way that resembles a gate, a portal and promise of a future. Simply, it is a denouement of optimism, where the viewer is made to walk out of the viewing room feeling a lil’ hopeful, optimistic at the new ‘opening’ presented by the structure.
The virtual show is a short and positive multidisciplinary visual simulacrum of L’Authenticité, a discourse articulated by former president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko, as a state sanctioned collective cultural identity, a redemptive authenticity.
Authenticity in Africa can be loosely understood as an attempt to construct a new and productive subjectivity while simultaneously deconstructing the colonial production of the gaze. The objective is to provide what Fanon calls the “ontological resistance” against modernity, which Wilderson, by way of Fanon, called into question in Red, White and Black (2010).
Further, modernity, as a conceptual framework, was an attempt to construct (the) Africa(n) as a phenomenon outside of history, of and in the world. L’Authenticité could be read as a push back against this discourse, an attempt at re-inscription, to insert or write Blackness “into being”, as Ronald Judy puts it, as he also argues that such a move is limit(ed/ing). Judy’s less sanguine sentiment is an interdiction against the discourse of the source, since, he argues, (the) Africa(n) does not – at least in the collective imagination of the world – “enable the representation of meaning [because] it has no referent.”
Cultural production in Africa has always been a perennial attempt to not only find the source, or referent, but a form of speech to amplify ideas about this source, its potentialities and possibilities. However, Wilderson argues that, as far as Africans are concerned, the notion of African authenticity is an “oxymoron, a notion as absurd as ‘rebellious property’, for it requires the kind of ontological integrity which the Slave cannot claim.” Therefore, African cultural production operates primarily at the level of, but not necessarily limited to, ontological recuperation, as well as a critique of colonial historiography.
‘Authenticité’ is composed of works that function, more or less, within this narrative apparatus. In Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photographic essay The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction, the ‘African scenery’/safari is the stage for the post-colonial drama modelled after Mobutu, populated by taxidermy animals. Drawing for The Head & the Load (The trumpets we used to blow), is a signature charcoal drawing on paper depicting a cartographical map of Africa as well as the spatial demarcation of the continent, with red ink and paper collage, taken from William Kentridge’s exhibition KABOOM! that mines the forgotten stories of two million Africans who took part in World War II in service of the ‘Mother Countries’.
Misheck Masamvu brings us the Prison staircase (2014), a oil on canvas piece of an old fictional patriarch on ascension against a pine green background; this re-sanctification of ancestors as superheroes is the artist’s attempt at arming the imagination of Africans on how best to find creative ways of responding to a crises. This upward-flight motif is extended by and in the work of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum titled To the stars based on Exhalt B.H, from Women on Aeroplanes. This ode to writer Bessie Head is an expansive and sparsely green landscape drawing with sprouting huts, a blue building, and an inscripted text. Further, the hands of South Africa’s colonialists, turned bloody red by artist Haroon Gunn-Salie in his 2015 Soft Vengeance which brings these historical characters to contemporary adjudication, stick out the wall.
The effort of assembling these works is admirable though slightly clumsy in its quest to marry them with supplementary material in the form of text and videos (especially the Trevor Noah and Art Basel 2019 Unlimited clips, which risk making the show too didactic). But this mise-en-scene thrives in being a portal to the beautiful projects from which the pieces are taken from and, seen together, makes for an impressive display despite the current challenges to the contemporary art world.