Global art discourse and contemporary Nigerian art

Posted August 21st, 2012 under Africa, Books, Contemporary Art, Nigeria

In the book “In A New Light: Conversations with Nigerian Artists and Curators”, Kazeem Adeleke brings to the fore, some of the most insightful discussions about the role of Western curators and institutions in the representation of contemporary Nigerian art in the West. The book which contains interviews with nine Nigerian artists and curators reveals the internal struggles of the artists and curators as they try to forcefully insert themselves into Western discourses and situate themselves in the center. Olu Amoda, Victor Ehikhamenor, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Peju Layiwola, Kelechi Amadi-Obi Onyeka Ibe, Emeka Udemba, Nkiru Nzegwu and Okwui Enwezor in the interviews talk about their work, addressing how they have been affected by the issues of race, gender, identity, globalization and global art politics.

“The idea behind the book”, according to Adeleke, “is to open up and also generate discussions about some of the topical discussion that have been pervading the art world for decades.” The interviews raise questions about the “power of curators and institutions in shaping the discourse about non-Western art; the huddles and difficulties faced by artists of minority cultures in the effort to insert themselves into Western metropolises and global art discourses; the importance of museums to any society, particularly Africa; the ramification of tradition and local gender politics on the global art arena; and cultural identity and the politics of representation in a multicultural era.”

The book is divided into three parts: Part one is titled Looking Outside from Within, part two is titled Outsiders on the Inside, while part three is titled The Curators. The questions in each section of the book are daring, interrogative and sometimes challenging. They investigate the lives and practice of the artists and curators, reveling how they have been affected by gender and identity politics, racial prejudices, discrimination and global art politics. Some of the questions attempts to find answers to why Western curators and institutions have devoted more of their time to Western-based Nigerian artists and projects that conform to their own perception of what defines Nigerian art while negating Nigerian-based artists. They also examine the roles of museums in African countries and the ramification of local gender politics on the international art scene.

“A Careful observation of the Western art scenes has shown an increase in the number of exhibitions by Nigerian and African artists. The issue is that many of the artists in these shows are based in Western metropolises. That makes one ask the questions: what about Nigerian-based artists? Why are Western curators not travelling to Nigeria to research and present new artists in the West? Or, is this the case of making use of what is directly available?” Adeleke wonders. Adeleke notes that “the concern is not so much that some Western curators have not travelled to Africa to research artists, but what they come back with. Many of them are focused on art that are not truly representative of contemporary African Art. The example of Jean Pigozzi and Andre Magnin readily comes to mind.”

Although the interviews are focused on art practice, some of the issues raised transcend that discipline: they address the nature of world politics and how discourses emanating from them have helped shaped perception about Africa and other minority cultures. They address the residual impact of colonialism on the colonized and how the pedagogy of that era continues to inform gender politics in contemporary Africa.

In a New Light: Conversation with Nine Nigerian Artists and Curators is valuable on many levels. One is in how it opens up and sometimes complicates the issues of race, identity, gender, globalization, colonialism, post colonialism and art politics. The interviews allows a new insight on the issues of contemporary Nigerian art and indeed Contemporary African art and how they are affected by issues identity, race, gender, globalization and global art politics. But more importantly, the book gives a voice to the artists and curators interviewed. Instead of speaking through a third person, they speak directly to the readers in their own voices. The interview methodology is also very effective. Adeleke’s knowledge of the artists and curators helped him ask the right questions. Demanding as some of the questions are, the artists and curators were candid and honest. “Readers will be surprised by their honesty and sincerity,” Adeleke said.

Adeleke is an independent curator, writer, critic and artist. Formerly Arts and Review editor of Thisday Newspaper, he has written extensively about contemporary African art and culture. He has also written comprehensively about theatre, dance and film. His writings have appeared in newspaper, magazines, exhibition brochures and books. His latest book is titled In a New Light: Conversations with Nine Nigerian Artists and Curators. Adeleke has co-curated several exhibitions including Best of Ife (1994, 1995), Reach Out (2000), and Space Matters that featured the works of Joseph Beuys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Joseph Kosuth, Allan McCollum, Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, Lawrence Weiner, and Rhonda Zwillinger (2002). He has also curated several exhibitions, including, Lines and Words (2004), Stick and Stitch (2003), Miles On (2006) and More Than A Thousand Words that featured the works of artists like Tracey Rose, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Berni Searle (2003). In 2002, he curated Unkind Cut, a web-based exhibition that highlighted the dangers of Female Gentile Mutilation.

Image above: Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Nkechi, 2003, water color.