Guggenheim’s map–Where is the rest of Africa?

The recent announcement of the Guggenheim Foundation’s new “Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative” bears all of the hallmarks of the present era. It is funded by a bank. It has the word “global” in its title. It claims explicitly to challenge “a Western-centric view of art history,” according to the Foundation’s director, Richard Armstrong, in a piece by Carol Vogel recently published in The New York Times. The project will mount this challenge by investing in series of linked-up residencies, exhibitions, acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collections, and public programming with artists, curators and educators in parts of the world hitherto largely ignored by the museum. The modus operandi is encouraging, particularly when compared with late-20th-century attempts to bring non-Western art into dialogue with institutions in the North. The list of regions is long, and includes South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. One thing it is not, however, is global: Africa south of the Sahara, and thus 2/3 of the continent, has been excluded.

We were disappointed to discover this, but not entirely surprised. Africa is not the only omission (Central Asia and Australia are also missing), but it is the most conspicuous, and it casts doubt on the initiative’s stated aim of challenging “Western-centric” views. How can such a large and dynamic part of the world remain invisible—must it remain invisible—in the midst of this rapidly shifting institutional landscape? Given the efflorescence of exciting new initiatives in Africa, doesn’t a map that leaves most of the continent out start to look rather retrogressive?

Many reasons for the exclusion of most of Africa from this and other “global” initiatives are not difficult to divine. They are connected with the motivations of banks and bankers, and, by extension, wealthy patrons, collectors, and dealers, whose relationships to the museum world have always been shaped by broader economic trends. We have already grown accustomed to the idea of a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (or, closer to home, the BMW Guggenheim Lab). Money from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and more recently, a handful of countries in North Africa has created new flows, deepening collections in European and North American museums for some time. And no one, at least not anyone with any practical experience of fundraising, is going to criticize a museum or other arts institution for adapting its agendas, un tant soit peu, to fit those of its financial backers.

Yet the concentrations of wealth that are connected with both museum boards and the high-ticket art sales that the art market chases—and that are associated, precisely, with a Swiss bank’s clients—are few and far between in Africa. South of the Sahara, they can be found with critical mass primarily in South Africa, Angola, DRC, and Nigeria, where they remain closely tied to the oil, diamond, and other mining industries and, in South Africa in particular, the power of white elites. It seems a safe assumption that no American museum would be content to forge a “global” partnership with African artists, curators, and institutions that was brokered exclusively by white South Africans, or that showcased work by white South African artists—although some have come perilously close. We recognize just how difficult these negotiations are. But surely these are the very negotiations that those wanting to cultivate “global art” as a category should be embracing rather than shying from?

This brings us to a second point. Rather than simply lamenting the conservatism of the museum world, or throwing up our hands at the narrowness of vision exemplified by programming that moves in lockstep with “global” capital, we would, above all, urge our colleagues at the Guggenheim and elsewhere in the American museum world to consider the opportunities they are losing when they leave most of Africa off their map, and to reflect more seriously on whether, and where, art institutions have room to challenge the status quo.

When one considers the contemporary art scene in Africa, the lost opportunities are extraordinary. In our own recent writing about art institutions on the continent, which has focused on photography, we have underscored the intensity of the creative scenes in many African cities, where, thanks to the inspired efforts of a rising generation of artists and activist curators, new institutions and initiatives are popping up daily. If one sticks to photography as a test case, there is a richness and diversity of events, projects, and platforms emerging that cannot be confined to a single city or country. Beyond Bamako, whose photography biennial has been a growing favorite with European curators since 1994, Harare and Cape Town both host exciting annual photography festivals. Dakar and Abidjan have both been important hubs for more transitory, but no less important, activity. Most recently, Addis Foto Fest, in Addis Ababa, has been added to the roster of influential gatherings, where photographers, artists, and curators meet to enter into precisely the kind of transnational and cross-cultural dialogue that the Guggenheim initiative, and others like it, want to invite. Cairo, Johannesburg, and Algiers are characterized by their own varied and thriving art scenes, which include inventive photographic scenes. In a moment that valorizes flow and the expansion of transnational networks, the interconnectedness of these cities with others on the continent is particularly crucial to note. This is one of many reasons for not subscribing to the North Africa/sub-Saharan Africa fracture, a legacy of both European colonization and racial ideologies. Linked to Algiers, through a series of artist-led exchanges, is Lubumbashi, where a promising photography festival has established itself.

It is instructive to contrast the Guggenheim’s approach with that of another recent initiative, which has placed a premium on African inclusion. In October of last year, a Nigerian bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, entered into an intriguing partnership with Tate Modern, which has created, and funded, a curatorial post (Curator International Art), a comprehensive acquisitions remit, and related programming dedicated entirely to increasing the presence of contemporary African art in that museum. Like Guggenheim/UBS Wealth Management, the Tate Modern/Guaranty Trust partnership has been imagined on a model of institutional networking and “knowledge exchange,” which is now very fashionable. Significant in the case of Tate was the appointment of a new curator (Curator International Art), who, according to the press release, will work not only to bring African art into Tate’s galleries in London, but also to “to broaden Tate’s international reach in Africa.” It is too soon to tell what will come of this initiative. But we find it promising that the new curator, Elvira Dyangani Ose, has focused on artists’ collectives—an increasingly hot topic that is, in fact, directly relevant to Africa, as Holland Cotter underscored in an article that appeared in the Times on Sunday (April 15, 2012). Indeed, Dyangani is the artistic director of the 2012 edition of the above-mentioned festival in Lubumbashi, where collectives have played an extremely significant role. Not only have collectives been of immense historic importance on the continent, but a new generation of artists is privileging the collective in order to ask its own questions about mapping, or re-mapping, the terrain of “global art” in the 21st century from a unique vantage point.

What we admire about so many of these initiatives that we and our colleagues are following in Africa is precisely that they have taken it upon themselves to analyze, query, and challenge “Western-centric” views of art practice and art history. Beyond this, they are challenging all of us to think more carefully about what is lost when the term “global” is selectively deployed to refer to the movement of capital rather than of creative energy or ideas. To miss out on the energy, and ideas, that are swirling around these initiatives in Africa, in a program that announces itself under the banner of breaking down barriers and expanding knowledge, would be at best a provincial move.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.