Making Africa for Who?

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I went to the Making Africa: a Continent of Contemporary Design exhibit at the High Museum here in Atlanta over the weekend. I caught the exhibit on a free Sunday before the it moves on. This exhibit is definitely something different for the High, which does not have a history of showcasing Afrocentric work.

When I saw the words “Making Africa” all over Atlanta’s billboards and the High’s logo, I was thinking something along the lines of interesting! And then, I was thinking “what does ‘Making Africa’ even mean?” My mind immediately rejected this phrasing in the way that it rejects any attempt at conglomerizing the concept of ‘Africa’. It wasn’t until I saw the rest of the title, “a continent of contemporary design”, on a flyer somewhere else that I considered the exhibit might live up to the vast, complex, multi-lingual, multi-cultural continent it is claiming to showcase and I decided I had to check it out.

I’ll admit that as an African, a North-African, a Moroccan from the Atlas mountains, my approach to anything that uses the monolithic term ‘Africa’ is always skeptical, always critical, always searching for the ‘but what do you really mean when you say ‘Africa’?” After looking up some details online, I found out some ingenious artists were in the exhibit, truly forward-thinking, brilliant artists. These are artists who don’t necessarily need the platform of ‘Making Africa’ or even ‘Africa’ to appreciate their work. Kudzanai Chiurai’s work, for example, speaks of political struggle relevant to a lot of the global South. So I found myself wondering, how is the western American able to view this as separate from stereotypes of Africa? In what ways does it challenge the American viewer to think critically?

What first meets your eyes at the exhibit is white text on a black wall introducing the pieces. The introduction confirms: times are changing, people are advancing, and Africa and its people are part of this advancement. Then it states: there are 650 million registered phones on the continent, this is significantly more than in the U.S. Although, you might know this particular statistic, it should really not be surprising. There are also a lot more people on the continent, given that it is, you know, 3 times larger.  The introduction, did end, to its credit, with a disclaimer that this exhibit does not claim to represent all of Africa – which nothing can ever claim to do – but rather presents a new story or narrative for ‘Africa’ in the viewer’s psyche. 

Without getting ahead of myself, I’d dare to say this statement is meant to guide you to the concept that Africa is not stuck in the Stone Ages. I will go ahead and say that this allows viewers to peek into the African contemporary art world from the comfort of their own lazy and tired perceptions of Africa. Here’s how: It puts together printed out explanations of African history with screenshots of popular African websites, updating the viewer on the current state of affairs in order to convince the viewer that Africa is advanced. If you have been following updates from the continent in even the last five years you would know not find it that surprising that some of the world’s largest urban areas such as Lagos, Johannesburg, and Casablanca are emerging tech and economic hubs on the continent. 

Although this may be a lesson some people need to have, I would like to imagine that we can appreciate African art and contemporary design in a more well-curated fashion. The art is contemporary, yes, but it is also featured alongside mobile apps developed by Nigerian company Pledge51. Soccer-game phone apps, to me, don’t count. That is to say that a mobile app, just like the fact that the continent of Africa has more registered phone users than in the U.S., should not be all that surprising. Not that they don’t deserve a space to discuss and observe, still squishing it together with “art” and “design” is a bit of a stretch.

Imagine an exhibition that did not seek to explain or justify Africa but presented various African contemporary works as they are, with its brilliance and controversy. To have a show on African art without providing the African context, whatever this context is, is to radically claim that African art can stand on its own with its message, and reach a western American audience without an explanation centering that audience. I just don’t imagine you need an exhibit displaying apps made in the African continent in order to understand and appreciate contemporary African art. Then of course, we might have a less appealing show to mainstream audiences but then we could have more engaging conversation about what little understanding and interpretation there is of African contemporary art in the U.S. mainstream culture. The art itself does this, the context it is presented in then hinders us with fully engaging in the intensity of the message presented by the art. 

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KUDZANAI CHIURAI, POPULAR MECHANICS I, 2010

Take Kudzanai Chiurai’s Popular Mechanics series. The linocut prints are commentary on the nature of power in a post-war nation, in a nation where power is defined by money, and in a nation where man-hood is defined by violence. These are all universal concepts which apply to numerous societies.

Consider advising curator Okwui Enwezor’s words, “the future has happened everywhere else already.” There is this sense that Africa is catching up to the world, but I genuinely seek to flip that interpretation around. I think developed nations are starting to realize, after having produced their fair share of CO2 emissions, over-pollution, plastic waste, and lack of creative ways of living, that they may have been doing something. Then African nations actually have the answer. Africa will not only catch up to the future but will invent and lead the world into the future is what I am getting at. So the future is happening in the sense that it is being challenged by Africa’s creators, but people in various African nations have always been inventing the future in the way they adapt to various challenges.   

In the spirit of centering contemporary African art and design, I want to move on to appreciating my favorites pieces in the exhibit, including some commentary overheard on my way through:

Black Veil, White Veil

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Left: Justin Dingwall/Thando Hopa, Untitled (White Veil), 2013; Right: Justin Dingwall/Thando Hopa, Untitled (Black Veil) | Courtesy MIA Gallery

This piece provokes the question of identity and background and how the context or background shapes identity. Notice how the same person, with the same features, looks different under different veils.

“I looked it up, it only comes up on Afro-centric websites…”

Do we ever say “it only comes up on euro-centric websites”?

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Mis Wude Style, Senegalese jewelry and fashion label

“Mom, are those outfits that people wear in Africa?”

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LV Possess, Hassan Hajjaj, Moroccan
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PONTE CITY DWT, Michael Subotzy (in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse)

This is definitely one of my favorite pieces. The middle duratrans print features windows from each apartment – 12 across- on each floor – on 54 floors of the Ponte City building in Johannesburg, South Africa. Each image is put into a really small frame then into a mosaic so that you end up with hundreds of images side by side. These images all together give the impression that you are looking out of one large window. Although this project was completed over the span of two years, the consolidating of images into one space gives the impression that they were all taken at the same time and you are seeing a cross-section of people’s lives in one moment. Some windows have curtains in them, some have people’s silhouettes. On the right panel are all the doors in the building, and on the left are all the TV sets. Very powerful concept. 

Jua Kali series, Tahir Carl Karmali

This photo series uses waste to create armor, gear, and fashion. According to the artist Tahir’s website:JUA KALI is Swahili for ‘Fierce Sun’ – referring to the informal labourers that worked under the hot sun. Now it is a term used for people that work in any informal way and used to describe work that is substandard. I want to change this perception as in reality it is the Jua Kali sector that fuels the city of Nairobi.”

“That’s fresh.”

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Duro Olowu Birds of Paradise 2013 Collection Nigeria

Did Gucci steal maximalism from Duro Olowu?

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