Since the 1980s, contemporary African art has become important on the international scene. Several exhibitions have been key in establishing contemporary African art in the West art, such as “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” at MOMA in 1984, “Magicians of the Earth” at the Centre Pompidou in 1989, “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa” at the Whitechapel in London, “The Short Century” in New York, and “The Artist and the City” in Barcelona.
Some exhibitions have featured African artists alongside other artists from around the world, placing them in a very contemporary context. Notable exhibitions include “Africa Remix”, “Angaza Africa”, “Flow”, “Afro Modern, behind the masks” and “Space; Currencies in Contemporary African Art”.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at five exhibitions that have created a boom in the contemporary African art world and have helped to break stereotypes and show the diversity and richness of contemporary African art.
“Magicians of the Earth”: A groundbreaking exhibition of contemporary African art
In 1989, the Centre Pompidou in Paris organized an exhibition entitled “Magiciens de la Terre“ to prove that contemporary African artists were on par with Western artists. This exhibition was controversial because of the inclusion of non-Western artists, but it paved the way for international recognition of contemporary African art. It featured the work of more than one hundred artists from fifty different countries and is considered the first international exhibition of global contemporary art.
The curator and his team traveled to five continents to select the artists, making no distinction between art and craft. Half of the artists exhibited were from countries considered “non-western”, such as Chéri Samba and Bodys Isek Kingelez. The exhibition sought to end the Euro-American artistic monopoly and presented artistic creation as a spiritual and universal phenomenon inscribed in a global world.
The exhibition was controversial and challenged the structures of Eurocentric art history. It also provoked debate in two camps: some saw “Magicians of the Earth” as a threat to their Western modernity, while others criticized the treatment of religious or ceremonial artifacts by Western aesthetic standards.
The exhibition had a major impact on the social history of art, but not on its aesthetic history. It was the first attempt to decentralize and democratize the artistic discourse, which was then dominated by the West. Political changes such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of apartheid consolidated the geopolitical importance of the exhibition and stimulated new exchanges and encounters in the art world.
Although the concept of the exhibition is flawed and outdated today, it has inspired numerous exhibitions that have attempted to write a postcolonial history and has kicked off a serious debate about postcolonial curatorial methods and the need for a discourse on global art. Today, the globalization of the art world is at its peak and the exhibition continues to spark debates about our globalized society, its geopolitical power relations and hierarchies. “Magicians of the Earth” is not only a fundamental piece of art history, but it continues to raise questions that remain to be answered.
“Africa Explores”: Discovering the Diversity of Contemporary African Art
In May 1991, the exhibition “Africa Explores” was created in New York by curator Susan Vogel. This exhibition brought together more than 130 very varied works from fifteen African countries and took place in the spaces of the Museum for African Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The particularity of this exhibition was to mix different media and artistic styles in order to witness the artistic achievement of 20th century Africa from its own perspective.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors could admire life-size objects, such as a painted cement sitting chief by Nigerian painter
Sunday Jack Akpan and coffins in the shape of cars, vegetables or airplanes marketed by Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Ghana. This selection of works showed that Susan Vogel did not limit herself to one form of art making, but sought to present different artistic styles that equally constitute the art practice of the 20th century.
Susan Vogel described five types of art that she felt had emerged in the course of her research in the exhibition catalog: Traditional art, New Functional art, Popular art or Urban art, International art and Extinct’ art. This classification has been criticized by some, who see it as an anthropological classification tool rather than a real reflection on the history of art.
Despite these criticisms, Susan Vogel’s goal was to show the artworks through the experience and perspective of African creators, in contrast to the previous exhibition “Magicians of the Earth” which adopted a “Western” perspective. However, this intention was not clearly reflected in the exhibition, However, this intention was not clearly reflected in the exhibition, which left an ethnological focus that lacked reflection and was based on a stereotypical conception of “authentic African art.”
Susan Vogel had used terms such as “African perspectives” to promote the Africa Explores exhibition. However, these terms were seen as mere tools to make the exhibition accessible to the public and had nothing to do with the perspectives of African artists. In the exhibition’s catalog, Susan Vogel admitted that the American authors took the majority of the floor, which raised criticism about the role of African artists in the exhibition.
Despite this, the exhibition succeeded in raising the profile of some African artists, such as Chéri Samba and Seydou Keïta. Although Susan Vogel considered “Africa Explores” an unfinished project, the exhibition paved the way for other exhibitions such as “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa,” which sought to revisit the questionable perspective of “Africa Explores.”
“Africa Remix”: A Major Exhibition of Contemporary African Art in Europe
In 2007, the exhibition “Africa Remix. Contemporary Art of a Continent” was a phenomenal success at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with 28,000 visitors in three months. This major exhibition presented a panorama of contemporary art from the continent and the diaspora over the last decades, in collaboration with a team of international curators, under the direction of Simon Njami. Previously presented in Düsseldorf, London, Paris and Tokyo, the exhibition aimed to highlight heterogeneous concepts of identity and deconstruct the clichés on which global society has been built. Critics appreciated the works on display, but were disappointed by the dense and vague arrangement of the exhibition.
Despite these criticisms, the Africa Remix exhibition highlighted the richness of the objects on display, but created a certain amount of clutter that made it difficult to showcase individual works. However, it also stimulated reflection on the presentation of African art and the importance of redistributing roles in the future by bringing exhibitions made in Africa to Europe rather than the other way around. Ultimately, the exhibition offered a perspective on Africa and itself, while generating debate and constructive criticism.
“The Short Century”: History of Colonization in Africa and its Impact on Art
“The Short Century“, which opened in Munich in 2001 and traveled to Berlin, Chicago and New York, is the first German blockbuster exhibition of contemporary art from Africa. Conceived for the Villa Stuck Museum, it was directed by Okwui Enwezor, curator and art critic turned director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Taking a multidisciplinary approach to artistic production, Enwezor presented works of art, architecture, film, music, graphic arts, and photography, highlighting the close connection between the awakening of the new African cultural identity and the political upheaval of the time.
More than fifty artists from twenty-two African countries and the diaspora had their work on display, but the lack of historical-political context in the exhibition has been criticized. Visitors need a strong background knowledge of the continent’s history to follow the narrative of the exhibition. Some have also questioned the exhibition’s gigantic scale, fearing that it will accelerate the interests of the international art market.
Despite this, “The Short Century” is considered a precursor event to Enwezor’s “documenta 11” in Kassel. It reached a wide audience and provoked a deep reflection on contemporary African art and independence movements. Enwezor challenged reactionary worldviews and conveyed a vision of modern Africa that contradicts the negative image often conveyed by the media.
“Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa: Contributions of African Artists to Modern Art
In 1995, the Africa95 festival showcased Africa in over 25 British cities, celebrating the art and culture of the African continent. Prestigious institutions such as the Tate Gallery in Liverpool and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London participated in the event. The exhibition “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa“ was curated by Clementine Deliss at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. This exhibition was co-curated by five African curators, who worked together to present different stories of contemporary art production in Africa.
The preparation of the festival took three years and involved intensive seminars and workshops with African artists to prepare the exhibition “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa”. Each co-curator dedicated their time to a specific region to define the most important artistic currents in their region. The collaborators were chosen based on their expertise and personal experience to create a true dialogue about art making in Africa.
However, the exhibition was met with disapproval by many critics for its lack of clarity and ambiguity. Other critics complained that only works by artists from the continent were exhibited, without including those from the diaspora, and questioned the expertise of some of the selected curators.
Despite these criticisms, “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa” marked a notable departure from previous exhibitions by addressing the multiplicity of the almost infinite stories that can be told about contemporary art in Africa. This exhibition also helped to broaden the definition of contemporary African art by providing a platform for university-trained artists. By collaborating with curators from Africa, this exhibition helped to correct the stereotypical image of the traditional artist that was still prevalent in previous exhibitions.
These exhibitions we have examined have all played an important role in the recognition of contemporary African art on the international scene. They have helped to break down stereotypes and show the diversity and richness of contemporary African art.