Boxed in:
Contemporary African Art
[Ambi: gallery]

The Musée des Arts Derniers in Paris is having its yearly end-of-the-season group show tonight. The name—the Museum of "Last Arts"—is a play on the concept of "art premiers" or primitive art—which has been the usual way to describe African art until recently. The gallery shows a mix of French and foreign artists, though the focus is on artists from Africa, or with African roots. In other words, on "African contemporary art"

Big Big: My name is Joe Big Big. From Ghana. For me African artist- it is not important. Importance is what you show. My work- look like myself! [laugh]

His sculptures on display are human forms- made of barbed wire

For me An artist is what you are showing. ` That is important, the symbol. It’s not uh- African artist or European artist.

D’Almeida: Je me considère toujours comme un artiste Africain

I always consider myself an African artist, says Charly D’Almeida, who comes from Benin.

D’Almeida: [translation] I’ve actually had people comment on my work- even when I’m not there. People say 'these paintings speak of Africa’. Often it’s people who don’t see me. Most of the time, I don’t attend the shows. And I often get these comments- But that make me happy! Because I think it reveals who I am

Yameogo: [translation] My name is Olga Yameogo, I am from Burkina Faso. I’d say I make the link between Africa and here. I paint with pigments that I bring back from Burkina Faso- that I buy there in the market. I don’t like being catalogued. There are no African artists. There are no white artists- or French artists. I think- what’s important is the creative moment. And then, well if the viewer wants to see Africa in it- they can identify themselves in it. But I paint what I am

The artists I spoke to are all based in France, so this mix of cultures is a strong part of their identity. Which brings up the difficulty of defining what is "African contemporary art"? Helene Joubert is curator of African collections at the brand new Musée du Quai Branly, which features art and objects from Africa, Asia, Oceana and the Americas. She says an "African contemporary artist" can be many things: You’re an African artist if you are born in an African country, or if your parents or grandparents were African

Joubert: For example Yinka Shonibare spent most of his time in UK. But he is from Nigerian origin, so he is always mentioned as you know- African contemporary artist. Which is not very comfortable for artists themselves. They feel like being labeled like in the 19th century when Darwin [laugh] school put labels on species

African artists become "other" when they come to Europe or the US. Joubert explains that they are often forced to leave their countries because they have limited opportunities to show and sell their art at home;

Joubert: It’s a problem of people who can buy, first, and the local market, something that is not developed like in Europe or United States. So it means that it’s very difficult to have an audience, even in their own country. I think the first event which stressed on the reality of African contemporary art was Magiciens de la Terre, in 1989.

This was a show in Paris, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art museum

Joubert: So it started just a few years ago, even to have this concept of African contemporary art. Before that everybody focused on so-called traditional art- and for most art collectors and museums, African art was only, you know, art of the past.

In general, the work produced by these first "African contemporary artists" was self-referential. Artists looked to reclaim their past, creating distinctively African work.

Joubert: After the independence of African countries- there was the feeling of having lost part of the African history- so a lot of the artists started looking back- to tradition, to elements, but formal elements like traditional African writings, you know, symbols. So there was this first development of contemporary art in the '60s, '70s, which was a little bit artificial. Because looking to some traditions which were not completely personal to the people using them, so it- like Pan-Africanism [laugh]

She says that artists today are moving away from that- and moving into the mainstream

Joubert: Progressively you see some artist being invited in some biennales in Venice or Cassel, but very progressively


Ukpong: This is a song I did

Wilfred Ukpong is a painter and sculptor from Nigeria who has been living abroad for several years. These days he lives and works in a suburb east of Paris.


He’s into hip hop and listens to loud music when he works. He also writes his own songs:


Ukpong is an artist who plays with identity—with what people, both African and European, expect from him as a Nigerian artist. He started out studying traditional icons in Nigeria, and wrote an academic essay based on his research.

Ukpong: I started visiting galleries in the capital- Lagos, Abuja. It was quite funny because the curators or the directors weren’t interested. They were like, which school are you from, which art school are you from? I say I was self taught- They say- oh! We’re not interested in that kind of art. So it was quite discouraging, because I didn’t fit in

He finally met an art collector who sponsored his first show, which was a success. He then moved to the UK, where he embraced being an "African Artist".

Ukpong: I wanted to be within the stock of what is called African contemporary art. For me it was like reclaiming of space, identity. Talking about issues of race

For a while, Ukpong was happy with his position as an African contemporary artist. But little by little he started to question the label. At one show-- where some of his art and his poetry were on display-- a woman came up to him and asked who had translated the poems

Ukpong: These poems are you have here, how did you translate it, who translated? I said I wrote the poems myself. I started realizing that something was wrong with the kind of perception, you know- It start being very alarming for me the fact that it has a kind of derogatory element to it

As part of his development as a person and as an artist, Ukpong now says: Take me as I am

Ukpong: I told myself, why should you keep on struggling to be a contemporary African artist? Why can’t you just be an artist? I think over the years due to so many Euro-centric definition of what African art should be people were not really interested with any trace that would have to do with African modernism. So they brought all this exotic stuff back to Europe, and the model of what is contemporary African art- and what contemporary African artists should be was defined. And now African artists are in the process of reclaiming the space- Saying we are from Africa- we are also engaged with cultural and social issues at a very global level. We have moved beyond the boundaries of ethnicity. We are now dancing with other artists on a very global level

Ukpong may have moved beyond the boundaries, but are the gatekeepers keeping up? His optimism is tempered by the knowledge of who has power in the art world:

Ukpong: Look at this

He shows me the November 206 issue of Art Review, the "Power 100" issue- a 'who’s who’ in the art world, listing artists, curators, historians, collectors, critics:

Ukpong: So, you have François Pinault, who takes first, followed by Larry Gagosian

François Pinault owns Gucci and Christies; Larry Gagosian is an art dealer. There are mostly European and American men on this list. Though it also includes Thelma Golden:

Ukpong: She’s a post-black curator in museum of Harlem in New York

She’s at number 25—up from last year. So there is progress. Ukpong believes the only way he will succeed as an artist is to understand himself

Ukpong: An artist from China or wherever you are from- I think you should be true to yourself. True to your encounters, what you are feeling, how you are interpreting them. I’m still at the beginning of my career- But I’m interested in the mainstream. I’m not interested in the peripheries

[Music: Hip Hop is Dead by Nas – Ukpong singing over it]

[Ambi: gallery]

Clarke: Identity, African or Europe or whatever, doesn’t exactly come from what you feel you are. It comes from the way others consider you.

Bruce Clarke is a Paris-based artist who was born in London, whose parents are exiles from South Africa.

Clarke: I’m often classified as an African artist because I have South African origins, and I work in Africa in general- South Africa, Rwanda, west Africa. For example a few years ago I was invited to the Dakar Biennale. One of the criteria for participating this biennale is to have an African passport. And I declined the invitation because I’m not really African, I haven’t got an African passport. And the organizers said yes, but your work has always been dealing with Africa and we’d like to have you there, so we’d make an exception

Clarke’s own background turns preconceived notions about nationality and race on its head.

Clarke: When we talk about Africa- the first thing that people are going to think of is Black. First of all I have white skin- obviously I’m not classified visually as African- using those criteria. And often, when we talk about "African artists", in inverted commas, people look for indications within the work to show the origins of the artist- if not the origins of the work. And I’m sure there is some sort of sub-strata racism behind that, in the sense that we don’t let a person ever escape from his origins- which is basically racism.

Kamel Yahiaoui is also someone who might confuse those who insist on labels

Yahiaoui: Je viens de Algiers centre. Je suis un Africain du nord

I come from Algiers. I am North African- he says- it’s true that I have white skin, but I am African. He decries those who try to impose cultural labels on a piece of art

Yahiaoui: [translation] A work belongs to everyone who look at it. A Pygmy- I don’t know- a Chinese person, an American- anyone can identify with a piece of work that comes from elsewhere. Sometimes when I see Asian painting, I see myself in it. Some American painters- the same thing. We can’t give these works the dimensions of belonging to a community—they’re open.

For Yahiaoudi, contemporary art museums are guilty of putting art into cultural boxes- not by what they do, but by what they don’t do- By not including African artists alongside their European counterparts

Yahiaoudi: [translations] You see paintings form the 1950s, '60s from de Kooning, Jackson Pollok. And there are artists, from those years, from north Africa- which is what I know- who worked with the same quality- who are not on the walls of those museums. And that bothers me.

Helene Joubert of the Musée du Quai Branly wonders if the lack of African art in contemporary museums is because they lack specialists:

Joubert: You don’t have so many curators and art historians who are knowledgeable about this history of contemporary art. Probably the lack of specialists.

The Muse du Quai Branly, which is focused on art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas—in other words, everywhere but Europe-- has been criticized for not exhibiting contemporary African art. Joubert says they asked themselves what role it would have when the museum opened in 2005. They decided that as presenters of objects from the 19th and 20th century, contemporary art was not their realm:

Joubert: Contemporary art, would be supposed to be presented in contemporary museums. So there was no point we enter in conflict with Beaubourg, for example.

On the other hand, the museum presents a rotation of contemporary artists each year.

Joubert: With most of the time, just one work, an installation, something very strong, to make our audience know that the African continent is very uh- rich in terms of creation today.

African artists- and maybe any artist from a non-European or non-American country or cultural background- are constantly in the process of carving out their spaces. Bruce Clarke warns against using it as a marketing tool -

Clarke: It can be like a trampoline up to a certain point, but you can’t get very high on the trampoline. And, uh, I think that the problem is- it’s a category that closes in the individual and the art- it’s not an aesthetic criteria.

Sultan: My wish is naturally we’ll drop the mention of the origins

Olivier Sultan is the director of the Musée des Arts Derniers- which represents Bruce Clarke, and several other artists from Africa and with African roots. One might say that his is a fool’s mission. If indeed there is a point where origins no longer matter, then he’ll be out of business. But for now he says African artists need his gallery, because they have trouble showing their work elsewhere

Sultan: To be polite, I would say it’s patronizing, but it’s close to racism that these artists face. It keeps them on a certain level, and they never reach the top level. The only two artists so far are to reach the top level are two white South African artists- Marlène Dumas and William Kentridge. Two white South African artists. And the others are sort of far below- in terms of prices price is the number one way to measure the success. And in terms of prices very, very, very few are reaching the top levels. It’s moving, but too slowly. Really too slowly. It’s a challenge. The challenge is still on.

This piece aired on December 26, 2006, on Radio France International (English Service).

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Lognes and Paris, France.