Conversations on Black Identity, Activism and Art in South Africa

In November 2016, I visited South Africa to attend BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures. Hosted by NYU Tisch School of the Arts in conjunction with other American and South African institutions, BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] is a 3-day conference that brings together artists, academics and activists to discuss the complexities of black histories and identities through art. The conference was fittingly hosted in Johannesburg, a city troubled with a painful history, but bursting with so much creativity, culture and activism.

Designer Maria McCloy, photographer Trevor Stuurman, creative consultant Malcolm Ché, trend analyst Nicola Cooper and designer Chularp Suwannapha speaking on the panel "Preservation of African Fashion from Global Mis-appropriation" hosted by Oxosi.com

Designer Maria McCloy, photographer Trevor Stuurman, creative consultant Malcolm Ché, trend analyst Nicola Cooper and designer Chularp Suwannapha speaking on the panel "Preservation of African Fashion from Global Mis-appropriation" hosted by Oxosi.com

To say the conference was incredible is a severe understatement. I was bursting with excitement the minute I entered Turbine Hall on Thursday morning, eagerly waiting for the introductory remarks in a room full of people from around the world. I could not believe that I was surrounded by so many people who cared about black identity, activism and art, and the simple fact that a conference like this exists left me with so much vindication for my work.

Over the three days, I got to listen to, learn from and participate in discussions on a vast range of topics including, but certainly not limited to, representations of the black female body in art, the role of photography in colonialism and whether or not the circulation of violent images of black bodies is a necessary part of educating our communities about our suppressed histories. The panelists were open to being challenged, which encouraged fervent debates long after formal discussions were closed. I got to speak with some of my favourite women artists (such as Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Rharha Nembhard, Lina Iris Viktor and Zanele Muholi) and was introduced to the work of dozens more (such as Heather Agyepong, Helina Metaferia, Jordan Casteel and Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle).

The revolutionary act of centralizing our own voices (even when we don't necessarily agree) cannot be stated enough. I left the conference with an immense sense of pride, belonging and inspiration, ready to build the future we all so dearly hoped for. 

Artists Ebony G. Patterson, Noel Anderson, Rashad Newsome and Jordan Casteel speak about their works on the panel "Portrait as Politic" moderated by the Studio Museum in Harlem

Artists Ebony G. Patterson, Noel Anderson, Rashad Newsome and Jordan Casteel speak about their works on the panel "Portrait as Politic" moderated by the Studio Museum in Harlem

Writer Milisuthando Bongela beautifully moderates the panel "Universal Blackness: The Black Diaspora Experience in the 21st Century presented by ARTNOIR" with artists Nontsikelelo Mutiti (left) and Lina Iris Viktor (right)

Writer Milisuthando Bongela beautifully moderates the panel "Universal Blackness: The Black Diaspora Experience in the 21st Century presented by ARTNOIR" with artists Nontsikelelo Mutiti (left) and Lina Iris Viktor (right)

African Art and the Politics of Authenticity

Back in September, I went to see a dark fantasy film titled “Kati Kati” at Toronto International Film Festival about a woman seeking clarity in the afterlife. During the Q&A with Kenyan director Mbithi Masya, the following two questions were asked:

“Is the film based on a Kenyan legend?” and “Is the white body paint borrowed from Kenyan culture?”

To both questions, Mbithi answered that (of course) he made them up, taking inspiration from anime and other sources. But what I took note of was yet another example of the expectation that African artists should tell “authentic” stories that provide Western audiences a glimpse into our cultures. 

Although the term “African art” remains arbitrary and polysemic, there is still in some ways a general expectation of prints, patterns and cultural elements. It becomes tricky for a contemporary African artist in a digital era influenced by many cultures to ascribe to this particular aesthetic. But if our work doesn’t feature these culture cues, we risk being told that we aren’t “authentic”.

“Authenticity” is a word we need to be suspicious of when it’s used in relation to African art. Several art historians, including Ulli Beier, Dr. Odiboh Freeborn and Esther Pasztory, have written about the ways in which colonialism and the western gaze have shaped, shifted and defined what is presently considered “authentic” African art. And as nice it would be to simply not care, the expectation of authenticity has real life impacts for practicing artists.

Preparing for a presentation at OCAD University's research panel "Whose Art Counts?" (January 2017)

Preparing for a presentation at OCAD University's research panel "Whose Art Counts?" (January 2017)

The first problem with authenticity in African art is that historically it has been defined by the West. Dating back to European colonialism, the West has maintained its identity by defining itself in opposition to the Other. For the West to be modern, civilized and rational, they needed to define the Other as primitive, savage and naive. In the context of art, if Western art was representational, refined and skillful, then African art had to be abstract, crude and instinctive. Consequently, we have established an exaggerated difference between what is “Western art” and what is “African art”. The resulting definition of “authentic” African art persists today as Western art curators and administrators favour African artists who produce work that matches this exoticized aesthetic.

The second problem with the expectation of authenticity in African art is that it marginalizes African artists. With Western institutions acting as gatekeepers to “authentic" African art, African artists challenging hegemonic expectations, exploring alternative mediums and transcending traditional practices receive little attention and support. Graffiti and collage artist Olatunde Alara summarizes this perfectly in a recent interview with Okay Africa:

“…I was having a difficult time getting galleries and other art institutions interested in my work, and social media not only provided me with a platform to showcase my work, it also gave me the agency to create the type of artwork I wanted without having to worry about whether it looked “Nigerian” or not.”

And lastly, the burden of authenticity is one that uniquely falls on artists that are already marginalized. Artists of European descent are rarely, if ever, expected to provide a demonstration of their culture in their work. In fact, Picasso had an entire “African period” without anyone ever questioning if his work was “authentic” to the European experience. But time and time again, African artists are expected to act as anthropologists, giving special insight into their culture through their artistic imagination.

Many cultural critics are already challenging the usefulness of categorizing art based on the artist’s ethnicity. In an increasingly globalized and digitized world, identities are becoming more nuanced and complex. It’s my hope that we can use new technologies and modes of communicating with one another to challenge this expectation of authenticity and create spaces where African artists can happily explore, challenge and grow with the rest of the art world.

Sources:

  1. “Art in Nigeria 1960” by Ulli Beier
  2. “The Crisis of Appropriating Identity for African Art and Artists” by Dr. Odiboh Freeborn
  3. “Are you an African artist?…” by Thembi Mutch
  4. “Multiple Modernities: Paradigm Shifts in the Western view of Exotic Arts” by Esther Pasztory