Okwui Enwezor's curation examines the effects of post-colonialism on Africa’s artistic output

“The short century: liberation and independence in Africa 1945-94”, creates a “critical biography of Africa”


Okwui Enwezor, curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and of the next Documenta exhibition, has been working for seven years on a show of contemporary African art. The show is now ready and is the largest survey of African art ever held. It is currently in Berlin, then travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art/P.S.I in New York, and then to South Africa.

“The short century: liberation and independence in Africa 1945-94” focuses on the era of decolonisation in Africa and the liberation of its cultural energies, a process that began with decolonisation, and finished with the dismantling, in 1994, of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Okwui Enwezor’s intention as curator was to create a “critical biography of Africa”, to challenge and alter preconceptions and to think about the cultural regeneration of Africa.

As a result, the exhibition’s scope is very broad: painting, sculpture, photography, video art, installation, graphics and the applied arts, as well as historical documents, music, literary texts, theatrical productions and architectural projects.

In the catalogue, essays by all seven of the co-curators present historical and socio-political analyses, art historical analyses, and enquiry into liberation movements and their heroes (Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, etc). There are studies of “revolutionary kitsch” and of the relationship between African music and Pop.

Particularly close attention is paid to the role of artists, writers and intellectuals in the process of the modernisation of the continent and the emergence of its various identities—sometimes as the result of continuous dialogue with the European Avant-gardes or with the Western civil rights movements.

The growth of self-awareness in Africa was a complex phenomenon, often supported by Western artists. For example, in the battles led by Breton, Picasso, Sartre, Camus etc to promote the “negritude” movement in France.

The biographies of individual artists make clear just how much they gained from exchanges with former colonists, and from a subversion of the dependency which previously characterised these relationships.

Many of the artists trained in Europe, and nearly all of them have exhibited, as African artists, in big exhibitions in France, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Italy, but most of all in the US. The “African” art of today is based upon this dichotomy.

The Africa which Mr Enwezor clarifies is a synthesis of different ideas that defies generalisation.

The features of “Africa” displayed in this exhibition are endless variations on the theme of the cross-fertilisation of African and Western art, of artists who have travelled to the West and back, such as the South African Ernest Macoba, the Ethiopian painter Gebre Kristos Desta, the Senegalese architectural student Iba Ndiaje, the Egyptian Gaziba Sirry, who founded the Modern Art Group, and the South African William Kentridge, whose large retrospective is now touring five museums in the US.

The other rich theme of the show is the sheer variety of work on display: Georges Adégabo (highly coloured, spectacular installations); Oladéle Ayiboye from Nigeria (video art); Isek Kingelez from the Congo; Pascale Marthine Tayou from Cameroon with the photographers Seydou Keita and Samuel Fosso from Mali, concentrate on African folklore, life and the chaotic townships.

In fact, a whole section of the exhibition is devoted to new cities in Africa, with town-planning projects and architectural models.

The exhibition tries to show how these cities, falling somewhere between high-tech conurbations complete with skyscrapers and shanty towns, between Utopia and dire poverty, provide the seedbed where much of today’s African art germinates. It offers an interesting comparison with the Western metropolis.

The final section is devoted to regional artistic trends, such as the Egyptian Awakening, led by Mahmoud Moktar, and the South African Resistance art of Paul Stopforths.

More than 90 lenders, public and private, have provided works of art and documentary material for the exhibition, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Museum of African Art in Washington, the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris and the Musée royale de l’Afrique centrale in Tervuren near Brussels.

The exhibition has the usual round of complementary conferences, lectures, and an internet chatroom, www.theshort century.com, where one can correspond with the curatorial staff, including Mr Enwezor, and with the artists whose work is represented in the exhibition.

“The short century: liberation and independence in Africa 1945-94”, The Martin-Gropius-Bau, Stresemannstrasse 110, Berlin, Tel: +49 (030) 254 86 112, fax:+49 (030) 254 86107 (until 29 July). Then to the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago Tel: +1 312 280 2660 (8 September to 6 January 2002), P.S.1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Street, Long Island City, New York 11101, Tel: +1 718 784 2084, fax +1 718 482 9454 (10 February-5 May 2002)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Authentic Africa'