African art exhibitions are being scrutinised over possible neo-colonialism and categorisation worries

Perhaps the problem lies with the lack of suitable definitions created by African artists themselves?



Jean-Hubert Martin, former director of the Musée d’art moderne in the Centre Pompidou and commissioner of the much criticised “Magiciens de la Terre” survey of Third World art in 1989 is now curator of the château of Oiron, but he has not given up raising the question of contemporary art in the Third World. This subject is becoming of ever wider interest, but remains as confused as before. His latest exhibition, “Rencontres africaines” is at the Institut de Monde Arabe” in Paris until 15 August. He and Brahim Alaoui have resorted to an interesting way out from accusations of neo-colonialism. They have asked one North African and one black African to choose four artists each from their respective “territories”.

Meanwhile, at Saline Royale d’Arc et Senans, there is a show entitled “La route de l’art sur la route de l’esclavage” in which five African artists living in Europe (do they still qualify as Third World artists then?) are celebrating the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in French territory together with French artists. This exhibition is touring Benin, Senegal, Guadaloupe and the US.

The Tate Gallery, Liverpool, is the final stop for a survey show of sub-Saharan African art organised originally by Susan Vogel of the Museum for African Art in New York. This concentrates on material from the western and central nations, with particular emphasis on the francophone countries. In an attempt to provide a new conceptual structure for the subject, the exhibition is divided into: “traditional art” such as Dogon masks and Nigerian twin cult figures—that is, village based, ceremonial work. “New functional art” is defined as folk, utilitarian, commemorative sculpture such as Kane Kwei’s elephant-shaped coffin. “Urban art” is popular, commercial and often political, such as the pop paintings of Cheri Samba. “ International art” comprises the academically trained artists who have been adopted in the West, such as the Ivoirian artist, Quattara, represented at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Finally, “Extinct art” is the art of the past, such as power figures from Zaire. This last section is supplemented by the Liverpool Museum’s fine collection of African sculpture.

Even this complex division has been criticised, as in the present issue of the Tate’s own magazine, where the use of the term“traditional” is accused of returning to an ideology of primitivism, and “New Functional” is thought to suggest that the other categories are non-functional. This all goes to show that, until Africans themselves come up with their own definitions and evaluation of their art, the subject is going to remain fraught with difficulty for guilt-ridden whitey. Will the answer be there in time for next year’s huge Royal Academy survey of 4,000 years of African art? Almost certainly not.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'First define your terms'