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.


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