Kerstin Schankweiler

Phantom Afrika. Postcolonial Aspects in Contemporary African Art

Lecture: 9 July 2009

If the documenta in Kassel could be considered a barometer of current trends in the European art system, then the most recent documenta in 2002 and 2007 show an impressive change taking place. Meanwhile, work by contemporary artists from the South and East has also been included, a break from the traditionally all-European and American position shows that dominated until the 1990s. Documenta and the Venice Biennial - to mention another ‘grande dame’ of the exhibition system - also find themselves competing with other, similar format exhibitions the world over. Since the 1990s, biennials have been springing up like mushrooms across Southern metropolis as diverse as Istanbul, Havana and Dakar. Some have already established themselves, seemingly bringing about the international art system’s long--desired decentralisation. These changes also challenge the dichotomous notion of the ‘West’ as the ‘centre’ of the art system and the rest of the world as ‘periphery’, while at the same time providing a more equal distribution of the art system’s decision-making powers, granting access to players who had been marginalised until now. And yet, the globalisation processes we see taking place cannot be seen as altogether positive. First and foremost, they are characterised by ambivalence and a potential that teeters between promising and doomed: Though ‘global art’ by definition describes an international, supposedly equal economic and communicative networking phenomenon within the art system, it is primarily rooted in a Western perspective, and is dependent upon a Euro-North American power of definition and financial capacity.

Against this background, the lecture turns its attention to art from Africa and its presence in the exhibition system, with particular focus on the Biennial in Dakar (Senegal) and various artistic positions that exemplify the phenomenon. These are examined with regard to their critical contribution and participation in the current discussion of the colonial past and the reception of non-European art in Western cities. Here, strategies of assignation and appropriation play a questionable role in the art system, leading to the problematic label (‘African Art’). In the mean time, it has also become clear that there is no definite answer to the question "Who is an African artist?" but rather, the question in itself opens a highly topical discursive field of irritating complexity. Each attempt to define ‘African art’ inevitably fails. It is a phantom or "Fata Morgana", as Cláudia Cristóvaõ - the artist currently featured in a solo exhibition at Projects in Art & Theory - calls it in the title of her video installation, which was also shown at the 2006 Dakar Biennial. In "Fata Morgana", the artist confronts the viewer with screens showing the personal stories of migrants in a factual, documentary style with a poetic, almost surreal recollective landscape in order to visualise the phantasmal character of the African continent.