Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Re-Negotiating the Terms of Contemporary African Art: a reply to Professor Achille Mbembe

In his stimulating discussion “African contemporary art: Negotiating the terms of recognition,” posted to the JWTC Blog on September 8, Professor Mbembe is especially critical of the pernicious influence that Western-funded ‘development’ projects have had on the arts of the African continent. Although acutely aware of the equally baneful influence of the commercialization and privatization of all forms of civic life in the global economy, he singles out development as the primary threat to the continued growth of a vital African culture. I would like to critique his admittedly powerful argument with reference to a recent University of the Witswatersrand doctoral thesis, “Agency, Imagination and Resilience: Facilitating Social Change through the Visual Arts in South Africa” (2009), by artist and activist, Kim Berman.

In his lively conversation with consultant Vivian Paulissen, Mbembe refers to an ongoing collusion between African governments and Western funding agencies in promoting an anachronistic idea of development that lines the pockets of the functionaries while making very little dent in the very real problems of poverty. The so-called ‘humanitarian impulse’ in these (unnamed) development projects is in his view a “vicious ideology that promotes a view of Africa as a… doomed and hopeless continent waiting to be rescued and ‘saved’ by the new army of Western good Samaritans.” According to his argument, these powerful agencies conceive ‘development’ in narrowly materialistic terms, and so are blind to “cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself.” The deplorable result “…is a tendency to conflate African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism; to deny the power of individuality in the work of art creation.” And he concludes, “…the function of art in Africa is precisely to free us from the shackles of development both as an ideology and as a practice.” [his italics]. I worry about prescribing any function for artistic practice, but also cannot agree with the basis of this assertion.

In my own view, the commercialism of the international art system of dealers and museums is far more of a threat to the future of the creative arts in Africa, and “the power of individuality in the work of art creation,” than the ideology of development. Despite the supposed success of the Africa Remix exhibition, which only came to Africa (Johannesburg) as the result of a last-minute effort, the work selected for that exhibit fit neatly into the well-established parameters of contemporary avant-garde practice. Although much contemporary art commands respect, all too many artists use technologically-based media to formulate a few sly references to their ethnicities or cultures, without presenting any real challenge to the viewers’ preconceptions or expanding their limited understanding. Whether from the BRIC countries or the Middle East or Africa, the individual creative artist makes work that can be ‘knowingly’ selected for exhibition, and accepted/purchased by a Western viewer. And, despite the very real differences in the contexts from which the artists make work, the art presents a homogenous facade, as a glance through catalogues of non-Western contemporary art will confirm. The discouraging visual uniformity of international avant-garde art production is a direct result of commercialism is therefore a direct refutation of the capitalist-based idea of art as individual expression. If they wish to be regularly included in international exhibitions, contemporary artists must make works that can sell. I suspect that work that truly challenges Western assumptions about a given non-Western region never makes the scene.

Maintaining an art-craft distinction that makes little sense in the South African context at least, Prof. Mbembe argues that “…without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic production will remain in the domain of artisanship. And it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual, theoretical and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.” Admittedly, I am an outsider, but having taught at various South African universities over the course of the past decade, I have been consistently impressed with the uniformly high standard of academic discourse there. It seems to me that theoretically-based research is both firmly-established and well-supported, as exemplified by the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WISER) and the newly-established research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) at the University of Johannesburg. In fact, I would argue that critical theory is so well articulated and taught in universities in South Africa that, as in the West since the 1980s, much of creative art production dutifully illustrates theory, to its own detriment. Critical theory is neither a panacea nor a bogeyman. It is only problematic when teamed with commercialism and used by artists as a sign for a hip product.

The question that should be asked is whether critical theory has been tested on the ground through practice-based, ‘development’ projects, and if so, whether or not it has generated new knowledge and models for rethinking notions of creativity. Again, I would cite Berman’s thesis as evidence that it has, yet neither of the recent books on contemporary African or South African art give so much as a nod to the innovative community arts projects operating throughout the continent. (see: Sue Williamson, South African Art Now [New York, Collins Design, 2009]; Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980 [Bologna: Damiani, 2009]).

But to return once again to the nub of my argument, communalism or ‘lumpen-radicalism’ is not the problem, commercialism is. I would argue that the picture Prof. Mbembe paints of ‘development,’ which is based on his own negative experiences, fails to take into adequate account current approaches to the field. As he certainly knows, ‘development’ has changed quite radically as a result of influential theorists such as Arjun Appadurai and Amartya Sen, as well as the tireless work of artist-activists on the ground in South Africa and elsewhere. Although government policies and procedures justifiably remain open to criticism, the results of these numerous initiatives for the most part have demonstrated that community arts projects have provided its participants with the capacity to “inscribe our voice,” as Mbembe so eloquently phrases it. Unfortunately, despite the vitality of the field of development theory, relatively few community arts projects have been given sustained academic analysis. Contributing to this nascent field, Berman’s thesis places the three major ‘development’ projects she has founded over the past fifteen years—Artist Proof Studio, Paper Prayers for Aids Awareness, and the Phumani Hand-Papermaking Project—in the context of critical, educational and development theory, and demonstrates that individual and collective creativity need not be at odds, but rather can reinforce one another. Rather than attempting to paraphrase, I can do no better than to quote the first paragraph of the first chapter in its entirety:

“The argument that the visual arts can play a positive role in creating social change is based on the premise that a creative collaboration between the community arts and development fields is possible. This thesis argues for a paradigm shift in approaching development in a way that an art educator approaches the facilitation of an artist’s personal and creative growth. Dreaming and imagination facilitate self-expression. Developed further, self-expression is arguably a transforming process of self-creation. Empowerment is the ability to become an agent of one’s own life and to achieve self-actualization. When individual agency is applied as a catalyst to inspire new possibilities, social systems respond to stimulate change.”

Through her case studies, the thesis indeed demonstrates the ways in which change can occur and be sustained. Arguing that seeing beneficiaries as “inert units within a collective…is one of the primary reasons why development projects fail,” (and here she is in full agreement with Mbembe), Berman proposes that when members are seen as individuals with the creative capacity to use imagination and dreaming to envision a better future for themselves, and their voice as a tool to navigate their way out of poverty, they gain agency and their projects can succeed. One of the guiding voices for Berman’s own efforts has been Arjun Appadurai, whose notion of ‘the capacity to aspire’ she has tested with such impressive results. Also referencing Appadurai, Prof. Mbembe concludes that “In circumstances under which millions of poor people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of theory and the work of art and the work of culture is to pave the way for a qualitative practice of the imagination—a practice without which we will have no name, no face and no voice in history.” (5).

Precisely. I have no problem with this passionate articulation of the function of art! However, to oppose individual creativity and ‘development’ is to sustain an anachronistic definition of ‘art.’ Community arts and individual creativity are not an either/or proposition, either for the artist-activist or for the participants on those projects. The radical paradigm shift in the development studies has opened broader roles for the artist in culture and in society. Because the contemporary museum-gallery system always follows the money, today’s studio artist is ipso facto a commercial artist. At the very least, development projects using the arts are a counterforce to its stifling power.

Pamela Allara, associate professor emerita, Brandeis University

Achille Mbembe’s piece is available at: