This is a short reflection exploring trajectories across four famous African Art exhibitions over the past 30 years.

Exhibiting African Art: From Exhibitionism to Critical Engagement

In a highly critical review of the 1984 exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern,” Thomas McEvilley used the anthropological term “etic” (privileging the observer’s perspective) to critique curator William Robin’s neglect of indigenous understandings of the tribal art that he juxtaposed to modern, western art. Robin was far more concerned with how Picasso, Gauguin, and other iconic modernists (though notably none from Africa) had aesthetically experienced tribal masks than with how the artifacts were originally connected to African systems of belief and ritual. This Eurocentrism infuriated McEvilley who consequently made the case for privileging etic’s opposite, emic, and thus attempting to understand others from their own perspective.

In the 1995 essay “Art, Identity, Boundaries,” Olu Oguibe would lampoon McEvilley as harshly as McEvilley had Robin for presuming to understand others (in this case, the artist Ouattara) from their own perspective by simply knowing where they were from (Abidjan) and to speak for that perspective as an external observer. Here we can see the trajectory of emic-realization being further subdivided into an understanding of subject as stated by the observer and Oguibe’s preference for the subject’s own statement.

In the intermediary between these two fiery articles, Susan Vogel had curated “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art” (1991), which was in effect the laudable reversal of “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” in seeking to exhibit African artists “digesting the West.” With this Africanist orientation, the exhibit was an exemplar of McEvilley’s encouragement for greater emic, but in retrospect the exhibit is open to Oguibe’s criticism of McEvilley’s failure to finish the reorientation away from the West. Although “Africa Explores” explicitly stated that it sought to understand the African perspective, by Vogel–a white American–selecting the exhibit’s pieces and doing so with a preference for those with an “exaggerated appropriation of an ‘African’ aesthetic”( Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu, 2009) — what Donald Cosentino refers to as Afrokitsch — the New York based show was essentially speaking for Africa’s artists.

A decade later, the momentous, Okui Enwezor-curated exhibition “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa” (2001) would encapsulate a period in which contemporary African artists finally escaped decades of Western misrepresentation by gaining access to the avenues and stages of power to speak for themselves. This achievement was symbolized by an African — the Nigerian Okui Enwezor — curating the Munich-based show. Enwezor chose a historical perspective to thematize the artwork exhibited, moving notions of the continent and its art beyond the static, ahistorical perception it had so long suffered and thereby bringing social and political context back into understandings of African art, but not in the McEvilley emic of exoticized, ethnographic, explanations-from-uninformed-observers sense. Enwezor included mediums of film, sound, and photography that many African artists had worked with yet were not frequently included in early exhibitions such as “Africa Explores,” which had preferred plastic, static forms more akin to “traditional” African mediums of sculpture and painting.

As the-rise-of-African-voices trajectory of emic-realization proliferated, other fissures emerged over who speaks for whom within Africa and across the transnational Diaspora. American and European based shows such as “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent” (2004) continue to predominantly display African artists who live outside the continent and who are from certain countries within the continent (Nigeria, South Africa). Likewise star-artists (Shonibare, El Anatsui, Kentridge, Fosso, Samba–all included in “Africa Remix”) have emerged whose works are included in nearly every major show–at times blocking out new voices and aesthetics. While it’s unclear whether greater emphasis on regionalism will be the result of how future exhibits address these issues of representation (although it seems unlikely), the great increase in the number of exhibits that focus on the work of a single African artist is an important way of disaggregating the continent/diaspora and further privileging the voice of the artist. Now to bring in artists from underrepresented regions of the continent…