Showing posts from May, 2009

SOAS Research Student's Society Conference

Yes, part of the PhD process is to take part in conferences to present papers and publish articles in order to get your name and your research out there ... and, of course, a little bit of academic exchange about and beyond the research topic and a bit of networking don't hurt either.

However, its just not my strength. I like to focus on one thing a time. - Like last week, there was an interesting conference about the Nigerian film industry at the University of Mainz where quite a few people I'd have loved to talk to were around but me ... well, I'm a bit short money-wise at the moment and don't know anybody in Mainz where I could have found shelter for a night or two, so in the end I took my writing-up responsibilities as a convenient (and not completely untrue) pretext not to attend. However, now the SOAS Research Student Society and my own department are both holding conferences during the first week in June. Hence, no excuses there. I just had to send in an abstract each ... and, for better or worse, both have been accepted. So here I am writing on these papers and, like always during the last few months, taking longer than I had anticipated.

Well, I consider both chances to bounce off some not yet fully developed ideas, ideas that although interesting and crucial to my understanding of the wider subject are rather tangential to the argument I want to make in my dissertation. In that sense, they are a great chance to explore these ideas that otherwise would have fallen by the wayside.

One of them you find right up at the top of that blog: northern Nigeria. I have to confess that I originally approached the term very naively, i.e. as a rather value-free reference to a geographical region. And while I got away with it for most of my fieldwork, during my second presentation at Unimaid I was told in no uncertain terms that the regional approach I had adopted was rather problematic. Shouldn't I rather focus on Hausa or Kanuri art? With my interest in the relationship between Islam and arts wasn't I obscuring the presence of Christian minorities in the such named region in general and among artists and art educators in particular? I have to confess that I had not previously reflected upon these questions. Hence, I was surprised by these reactions but I never really found (or, let's be honest: took) the time to reflect upon them more than just in passing. So, the SOAS Research Student's Society's Conference's focus on Regional Studies and Critical Perspectives on Regions presents a great opportunity to do exactly that: Why these strong reactions? What are the enmeshments of regional and national religious, social and identity politics they indicate? Do they have any relevance for my own research and if so, how? ... Well, I will probably not be able to present any ultimate conclusions at the conference but am very much looking forward to some feedback on my ramblings on the issue. Maybe, if I work out a way of uploading the paper I might actually ask for your feedback right here as well ... maybe.

Spot on Dak'Art III

Apropro Friday. Friday saw the a podium discussion about the (Re)Presentation of Contemporary African Arts in Germany. The discussion was chaired by Yvette Mutumba, the author of a study about the subject recently published by IFA (order it here) and PhD student at Birkbeck College, London. I have ordered the study but not yet read so the next few lines will be limited to what stuck to my mind. I might write another entry once I have read it.

Unlike Great Britain (and the comparison is, I believe, simultaneously telling and misleading), there has never been a German version of Rasheed Araeen’s The Other Story or comparable movement of black artists. Hence, Germany has not (yet) seen the kind of debates the exhibition inspired. (And, taking in account the recent ‘rediscovery’ of German identity – just check through any afternoon’s TV journal and count the number of trivia shows that have been rebranded ‘German this or that’ or read through this recent article in the Zeit – these debates are overdue within and beyond the art scene.) To an extent, probably as a result, there is no institution such as INIVA in London or no mouthpiece of German diaspora artists and intellectuals such as Third Text. There are a number of reasons for these differences and, I believe, the lack of a common language with many African nations (such as English is for Britain and its former colonies) is as significant here as the lack of comparable historical (i.e. colonial and postcolonial) ties with the continent. At the same time, I suspect, different approaches to ‘national’ identity and, partly as a result, to immigration and integration need to be considered in this context. Here, I’m in particularly thinking of the until recently much more pronounced significance attributed to German descent in German immigration policies (and beyond - think about the uproar caused by Hans Haacke’s art work Der Bevölkerung, i.e. ‘to the populace’ as opposed to dem Deutschen Volke, ‘to the German people,’ in 2000) or the predominance of the notion of the Gastarbeiter (i.e. guest worker). Be that as it may, not surprisingly then, Yvette Mutumba’s study found that contemporary African and Afro-German artists are significantly underrepresented within the German art circuit, not only in comparison to artist from Central Europe and the US but also Asian and Middle Eastern artists. International block buster exhibitions such as The Short Century and Africa Remix here are the exceptions that proof the rule.

In the above mentioned study Mutumba suggests a few possible approaches to improve the situation. While I cannot provide a comprehensive overview of her suggestions, I will highlight some points that inspired heated debates between other members of the panel and the audience. However, let me just briefly introduce the other two members of the discussion: On the one hand, there was Dr. Britta Schmitz who is heading the Berlin based gallery for contemporary arts Hamburger Bahnhof and the MP and member of the Member of the Committee on Foreign Relations Dr. Uschi Eid.

The latter was willing to acknowledge that contemporary African arts have the potential to challenge negative stereotypes about the continent and, hence, politics has a certain responsibility to encourage generally more receptive conditions in and beyond the art world. Here, mention might be made of federally funded residency programmes in which African artists are significantly underrepresented or the establishment of some kind of contact bureau for contemporary non-Western arts. In contrast, Dr. Britta Schmitz emphasised the responsibility of local African art circuits to promote talented artist up to the world stage. It was not the responsibility of institutions such as the Hamburger Bahnhof or the National Gallery to pick up new talents right from (African) universities, instead local initiatives by artists, cultural associations and galleries should at last acknowledge their responsibility for the promotion of local artists. This position attracted severe criticism from many in the audience. While she is probably right that institutions such as hers cannot make up for a lack of initiative on the local grass roots level, I believe they could easily play an important role in the promotion of locally and internationally already established African artists as well as Afro-German artists within the German art scene. The by her asserted lack of appropriate magazines for the promotion of contemporary African artists can only be interpreted as her failure to research the issue. Or are magazines such as African Arts, Afrique Noir or Nka and internet platforms such as Universes in Universe really that obscure? Are well-connected Germany based African artists or the curators of the international biennales such as the Dak’Art really that unapproachable? To be honest, I rather suspect a lack of interest to explore the more obscure corners of the international contemporary art world. In fact, Dr. Schmitz displayed a stark ignorance of the local contexts in many an African country where access to means of international communication might be hampered and local markets to promote aspiring artists are routinely lacking as well as the role politics actually play in the promotion of contemporary arts even in Germany, be it only through art education in schools and institutions of higher learning. As my own encounters in Nigeria have convinced me that art education among many other things, already through the subject’s inclusion into the curriculum, encourages respect for different art forms and, thus, provide a basis for the development of a local art market. (That, of course, is not to deny the importance of other, in particular economic factors.)

Members of the public such as Prof. Kasse, the Berlin based gallery owner Peter Hermann as well as Gerhard Haupt, editor of the Universes in Universe internet portal suggested further constraints to the promotion of contemporary African arts in Germany. Here, I will only recall, Hermann’s reminder that galleries dealing with Africa-based artists face particular (and, compared to those specialising in Western arts, increased) problems (communication with the artists, transport of artists and art works to exhibitions in Germany) as well as Haupt’s complaint about a lack of funding for initiatives and networks promoting African arts and cultures.

So, yes, we left the discussion pretty much disillusioned after the Spot On exhibition series at the IFA gallery had originally suggested that the climate had changed in favour of contemporary African arts in Germany. Too sad.

P.S. I didn't know the magazine before but here is the online version of Bidoun Magazine, the magazine Dr. Schmitz referred to as an appropriate vehicle for the promotion of Middle Eastern arts, a comparable paper, according to her, is missing for contemporary African arts. Have a look yourself ...

Spot on Dak'Art II

Thursday we went to attend a lecture by Prof. Dr. Maguèye Kassé at the IFA gallery in Berlin. Remember, they currently have an exhibition of works from last year's Dak'Art. As the curator of the biennale Prof. Kassé presented his approach to contemporary African arts and curating the Dak'Art 2008 in particular.

The professor went to great length to position contemporary African arts at the crossroads of politics and culture. Introduced in the backwaters of colonial occupation literature (of the kind that referenced, among others, European literary traditions) and visual arts (again, of the kind that drew upon European art materials as well as visual traditions) soon became an important battleground in defining modern African identities, think of the role of Cesair's and Senghor's Negritude ‘rehabilitating’ African cultures for an African colonial elite (as I kind of doubt that, at least at the time, this was much of a concern of ordinary Africans), in Nigeria think of Natural Synthesis and the Mbari club. Today as well he argued contemporary African arts have a social role to play. It is the artists he argued whose responsibility it is to portray injustice and the deplorable state of many a contemporary African state, it is their duty to expose the responsible personalities and structures, it is their task to imagine cures and develop utopias of a better future. In short, the role of contemporary artists is to hold up a mirror to their societies. Hence, the topic of last year's biennale, Africa: Mirror? Reflecting upon contemporary African art.

Do contemporary African artists always live up to Prof. Kassé's expectations? The works in the exhibition at the IFA gallery certainly do. And, their artistic quality (i.e. the originality and craftsmenship) aside this is part of their fascination. But all contemporary African arts? Probably not. But, is it really realitistic to expect that? Is it really up to art historicans and cultural politicians to set parameters to which artists have to live up to? Yes, we are free to set our priorities in the essays we write, the volumes we publish and the exhibition we organise. But, in the end, is it not the artists who, each time anew, have to (re)define their objectives, and among those social commentary is certainly only one of many options ... what about beauty, what about experimentation, what about ... ?

Be that as it may, the presentation was followed the Long Night of African Video Art. The night opened with the showcasing of three video works. The videos themselves were not shown at the Dak’Art but produced in different contexts by artists represented in the exhibition. In their own ways, all of them engaged with issues of identity. Mohamed Konaté's work was concerned with illegal immigration from Africa to Europe, the alleged promised land or Eldorada, as Konaté calls it. Using glass marbles of different sizes and colour trying to cross over from the black half of a table to the white one, he addressed a number of issues surrounding immigration, among others the dangers of the journey and the high price routinely paid by those attempting the trip. El Hadji Mansour 'Kanakassy' Ciss interviewed indigenous and immigrant residents of Amsterdam and Arnhem about questions of identity, integration and cultural exchange. Athi-Patra Ruga presented a video work that addressed sexual and body politics. In particular, the artist explained, he was here concerned with encounters between men of different colours. Drawing upon aesthetics and narrative techniques more commonly associated with pornography this work especially inspired a heated discussion about the issues art can and cannot address in different local (African) contexts.

The discussion was followed by a further screening of video films originally showcased at the Dak'Art. However, I have to admit that as it was already getting late me and my friends left for a small chat and reflection about the evening over a beer before heading home instead ... and before coming back for more on Friday afternoon.