Eye on African art

The rich diversity of voices belies old stereotypes of carved masks and tribal sculpture.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When artist Cheick Diallo completed his design studies in France, his dearest wish was to return home to Mali to put his new skills to work. But he soon understood this would be a bad career move. In Mali, as in much of Africa, there is virtually no market for artists and designers.

"After I had finished studying, I wanted to go back to Mali," explained Mr. Diallo in his workshop cluttered with objects and furniture whose elegant designs hint at subtle African inspirations. "But I knew I would be isolated. In Africa, people don't know what design is, so I first had to create a market myself."

Today, Diallo splits his time between France and Mali, regularly returning to his homeland to work with local craftsmen. He has now carved a niche both in Europe and Africa. But he is one of only a few. While contemporary art is flourishing all over Africa, the continent doesn't have the money to support it.

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"In Africa, contemporary art is still something new. People don't really know what to think about [it]," says Simon Njami, arts curator and founder of the renowned arts journal Revue Noire. "In the West, the role of the state is fundamental in the development of this sort of art. Over there, governments don't have this sort of money, or they don't give themselves the means to support it. But outside Africa, the market is growing because buyers, collectors, and institutions are discovering the variety and richness coming out of the continent."

An exhibition of contemporary African art currently showing at the Pompidou Center in Paris is a startling reminder of the creativity flowing from the African continent. Anyone who still thinks African art consists of the traditional masks and sculptures that so inspired the Modernists such as Picasso or Matisse, is in for a big surprise.

"Africa Remix" is the largest collection of contemporary African art ever shown in Europe. For the first time, works by artists from the entire African continent and the diaspora are brought together in a vast, sometimes daunting space, filled with sound, color, and powerful, often disturbing, images. These works, which include painting, sculpture, photography, and video and music installations, would cause their Western counterparts envy.

Visitors are greeted by a monumental installation made up of obstacles displayed in awkward positions across theroom. The work, which is physically taxing to walk through, reflects the difficulty of entering the unknown world of contemporary African art.

Humor peppers the work of Paris-based Zoulikha Bouabdellah from Algeria, as she evokes the fusion of Western and African cultures with "Blue, White and Red," a work for which she has filmed herself belly-dancing to a slow rendition of the French national anthem.

Around the corner, a commanding totemic tower made from plastic jerry cans by Romuald Hazoumé from Benin reveals an impressive skill at recycling mundane objects into a work of powerful beauty.

In the poetic and evocative installation "Onomatopoeia," South African artist Wim Botha explores the legacy of apartheid by using elegant furniture from a typical Afrikaner household - which he hangs from the ceiling.

"We have seen the contradictory currents that ripple across contemporary Africa," says Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition. "From the end of apartheid in South Africa to the land disputes in Zimbabwe ... from the upsurge of religious fundamentalism in the north to the [beginnings] of democracy. It is these aesthetic and intellectual shifts of identity that the artists in 'Africa Remix' express."

While each work is an individual expression, this sense of history is an underlying theme in the work of these artists.

"I am an African contemporary artist among other things, and I am an artist full stop," says Bouabdellah. "But although I live in France, I can't get away from the fact of being Algerian, with the Algerian war and all that. You can't get away from it, it just comes right back in your face."

Guy Tillim, a South African photographer whose haunting portraits of Angolan refugees feature in the exhibition, agrees. While he has been influenced by Western photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, the history of Tillim's country was vital in shaping his approach.

"The kind of boundaries that we grew up with in an apartheid South Africa had to be crossed," says Tillim. "To me, a camera was a kind of passport."

Throughout the 20th century, both during and after colonial rule, art schools and centers initiated mainly by Europeans emerged in Africa.

Numerous painting schools such as the Polly Street Centre in South Africa or the Lubumbashi school in the Congo were set up, where artists, under the tutorship of European art professionals, built on their traditional art forms and adapted them for a European clientele. The African folk art widely known today stems from such movements.

Art schools, many of which still operate, also flourished. The most famous include the Zaria and Nsukka schools in Nigeria, the Ecole de Dakar in Senegal and the Abidjan school of Art in the Ivory Coast. At the same time, art departments were created in many universities.

But the work emanating from these schools generally attracted only minor interest from the art world, whose trends were, and are, set in Europe and the US.

"There's one thing you don't understand in the West: the utility of art," says Ibrahim Loutou, who is responsible for promoting African arts for the national cultural development association in France and was former culture minister of Niger. "For an artist to be able to produce, he also needs to eat. And for people to buy art, they need to have money, and that sort of money just isn't available in Africa. Here [in the West] ... people will pay millions [for a] Picasso. In Africa, if you do the same thing, they'll spit at you!"

Today, important art fairs such as the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Dakar, Senegal, or the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako, Mali, enable African artists to mingle with international buyers. Galleries and artists' collectives are emerging throughout the continent. But these initiatives are still few and far between.

In the meantime, individuals like Cheick Diallo or Barthélémy Toguo, a Paris-based artist from Cameroon, are using their success to build support back home. Toguo is setting up, at his own cost, the Institute of Visual Arts in Banjoun. It will showcase both visual and performing arts, including theater and music, and enable artists to experience life in an African way, he says.

"The landscape here is beautiful, and so are the people," says Toguo from his village in Cameroon. "The climate is fantastic, and people enjoy themselves despite the general situation in Africa."

This dichotomy - which brings such depth and feeling to contemporary African art - is strongly reflected in the works shown in "Africa Remix."

'Africa Remix' continues at the Pompidou Center in Paris through Aug. 8.

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