Monday, December 12, 2011

Contemporary African Art: A Critical Reaction to an African Past

Throughout the topics explored in our Archaeology and Africa class the ideas of representation and subjectivity of authorship African histories, cultures and traditions were reoccurring. In our study of the controversial Great Zimbabwe tensions emerged from the beliefs of European or African construction. Africa as a whole seems to be constantly battling the external forces—from colonization to modern day research—in attempts to gain some jurisdiction of history from the interior. Our discussion of African art and its subjectivity in the European gallery setting is another example of these tensions. The conflicting nature of the external influence and just general lack of understanding of the continent have allowed (but should not be deemed acceptable) for grand generalizations to be made.

In my experience, when talking or learning about aspects of the world, it is discussed in terms of the countries of Europe, the countries of Asia, the countries of the Americas and then the continent of Africa. These views of Africa as a homogenous unit (with perhaps the notable exception of Egypt) do not just occur in conversation—causal discussion between friends and family but it is inherent in our textbooks, classrooms and news sources. I am afraid I am no exception, I often find myself making generalizations about Africa and I am shocked--how is it possible that an area so large and so old has been viewed and internalized as a uniform area.

Contemporary African art has begun to draw attention and confront these generalizations—drawing attention to Africa’s similarity to the rest of the world. There are two cases in which we can see the artist engage in conversation with this accepted lack of understanding.

David Goldblatt: Mother and child in their home after the destruction of its shelter by officials of the Western Cape Development Board Crossroads, Cape Town, 11 October 1986. (4_3614), 1986. Silver gelatin photograph on fiber-based paper. approx. 30 x 40cm

Image taken from the Goodman Gallery Website

Contemporary art photographer, David Goldbatt is best know for his photographs depicting South Africa during the apartheid (though is still actively documenting the landscapes of South Africa). Goldbatt is a revolutionary figure in African photography as he initiated a change portraying the rulers and powerful members of society as well as focusing on those being ruled, capturing the struggles and abuses they faced. Goldblatt, a native of South Africa, captures these images and broadcasts them to the rest of the world from within Africa challenging the tradition role of the world looking in and appraising from an external position. Goldblatt describes himself as "a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which [he] was born, with a tendency to doing honor or giving recognition to what is often overlooked or unseen" (From an article by Bill Kouwenhoven).

Mikhael Subotzky: Image taken from the Die Vier Hoeke Series

Differently the show entitled Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography curated by Okwui Enwezo was an important and provocative exhibit for African photography and how we look at Africa in general. The show was on display in the western world and examined the way that we, westerners viewed Africa. The self referential aspects of the exhibit—the atrocities portrayed allow the western viewer to sympathize with the victim for an instant but there is the simultaneous realization for the viewer that they are part of the western world with has occupied this space of brutal action against Africans in history (for instance see the Mikhael Subotzky image, I highly recommend checking out the whole Die Vier Hoeke series). This tension in the images throws the view into an uncomfortable contemplative space—evaluating how the “west” sees Africa and how Africa sees the “west. ” These images force the western viewer to confront the truth of the western violence (perhaps not literally, but metaphorical) to African society, history and mostly perspective.

Adrian R. Duran, writes in the Memphis Brooks Museum exhibit review “ while also revealing the ways in which the distance between Africa and “everywhere else” is certainly shrinking…we are able to see a glorious, tragic, joyful, confused, confusing, traditional, changing place and peoples, a contemporary Africa entirely different than the myths and ignorance that have kept us in the dark about a continent so much like our own.”


Kouwenhoven, B. David Goldblatt [Exhibit]. Aperture no. 188 (Fall 2007) p. 20

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Exhibition Review: March 1 - May 25, 2008.

Okwui Enwezor, “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” in Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, ed. Okwui Enwezor (New York: International Center of Photography and Göttingen: Steidl Publishers, 2006).

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