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 ...

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