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ATLANTICA ERA DE LA NEGRITUD

A decade after its first opening this landmark exhibition continues to speak volumes about what is now being established as “contemporary African art”

The Era of Negritude. The Short Century, Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994

By Alanna Lockward

I remember that visit to the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich with utmost clarity; it was one that changed my life, literally. After that first encounter with the epistemological connections between the political and artistic movements in the Caribbean and the African continent my understanding of my own Caribbean legacy was completely turned. From this new dimension, which I know recognize as the beginning of the process of my own (material, spiritual and theoretical) decolonization, my gratitude to all those involved in making this exhibition possible continues growing through the years. Writing this review took me six months. After completing this task my relief was, of course, enormous. It might be unnecessary to add that this relief has turned into a great satisfaction but please allow me to share this deepest of feelings. I am also very thankful to the editors of Savvy for re-publishing this article at such a timely moment. Last month, in December 2010, I was invited to the III Black World Festival, which was an original idea of Léopold Sédar Senghor. It was a celebration of Negritude and Pan-Africanism, an extraordinary event that embraced all participants in a deep sense of historical achievement; the perfect corollary for the road opened to me by The Short Century ten years ago.

“It was at this meeting (Berlin Conference, November 14, 1884-February 23, 1885) that Africa’s final fate at the hands of the imperial powers of Europe was sealed. To be sure, the colonial enterprise was short, a mere but brutal seventy years (as the history of the Belgian Congo under Leopold II reminds us). Yet it left an indelible mark, whose crude, schematic features remain difficult both to erase and to reconcile with civilized conduct”.
Okwui Enwezor

“We suddenly realize that the new has been new for quite some time. This accounts for the fact that there are no disciplines. It is impossible to speak of one thing without referring to others, but this is not an instance of the interdisciplinary; rather it is the image of a global world.”
Yona Friedman

In the face of these reflections, a complicated and comprehensive framework of modernity became established as a model in the African continent: this modernity being understood as the systematization, deployment and use on the different countries in the continent of structures, values and forms of the modern.

As a metaphor of liberation and counter narrative to the methodology based on the immovability and demarcation of both geographical and cultural and disciplinary territories, Okwui Enwezor and his co-curators wove, from the standpoint of social scientists and aesthetes of history, an infinite, multilayered fabric, accessible and striking, but without the slightest trace of sensationalism. The linear narrative of each element – artistic, documentary, journalistic and studio photography; science fiction and documentary films; sculpture; painting; drawing; engraving; architecture; textiles; posters; music; literature and theatre – with the rest to establish its right to monopolize meaning production in the optimized space of Munich’s Villa Stuck Museum.

Each room was a set where it was just as easy to find the scene of a crime (David Goldblatt, No Rest Location, 1986), as it was to watch the construction of the utopia of a fantastic metropolis (Bodys Isek Kingelez, Stars Palme Bouyjeus, 1989), or an invisible individual pedaling away with his bicycle saddle precariously tied up with a piece of jute rope (Kay Hassan, Flight, 1995). And it was in this area of convergence, with an elaborate choreography of image and thought, where a vision of the shortest and bloodiest century of the West commenced, steered by a monumental capacity for synthesis.

In the basement, the intimate and the social, the individual and the urban experience, underpinned architecture of modern times in the African continent. In the tiny space, five tacit (anti) rules which governed that new, global approach to the continent´s last five decades were elevated to the heights of sublimity. A review of its counter-strategy, or parts of it, has enabled us to make a more thorough interpretation of the relationship between the omnipresence of meaning production and its iconography, bringing in countless exegeses.

The large-format color prints of Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled, 1998, portraits in which individuals face the camera, dressed in their best clothes as they stand at the corner of their shelter-cum-home where every single detail seems to reflect dignity as the modus operandi of survival, looked across at the nitrates belonging to David Goldblatt’s photographic essay, The Structure of Things Then, 1998, situated on the left-hand side. In a lyrical manner, they document the brutality of the systematized uprooting practiced under the Territorial Apartheid Acts (1), with the absolute relinquishment of the commonplace of police violence, which, until now, has constituted the almost mandatory reference to the issue. The ostentatious facades of the Gereformeeerde Kerk and the Dutch Reformed Church stood in contrast to the desolate scenery of a township christened by its inhabitants with the name, No Rest Location, an adaptation of the original New Rest Location, in reference to police harassment. This image was paired with one of the Apostolic Multiracial Church in Zion of South Africa, a tent with a sign rocking tenuously to and fro on a framework of rods and material, harboring a space which gives no assurance that more than three people can congregate there.

Here we had the illustration of two (anti) rules. The first, no to the spectacle of the helpless victim; the second, no to the distancing between the organic relationship of the individual and his existential container; and of the latter with the anthropological reading of reality. Human experience is calculated in terms of ergonomic meters.

To the left of the entrance, Kay Hassan´s installation of two bicycles (of German origin, perhaps purposely) spoke of the forced traveler. The two bicycles pointed in opposite directions. While the “service lift” of one transported a television, on which a red and black overcoat tied with a hangman’s rope was resting, the second carried an old brown suitcase with a blanket beneath it and the entire cargo was crowned with a bundle of black material and a red overcoat. Apart from the difference in direction, one bicycle was covered in dust while the other was not. The urban connotation of the monitor was a reference to obligatory urban migration. The bicycle was quite clean. The rural one spoke of a longer journey: the dust reflected this and tempted the viewer to touch it to make sure that it was not the result of negligent maintenance.

Behind the eloquent, visual dramatization of the exodus, two huge color prints, Untitled, 2000, by Zarina Bhimji, presented a form of “universal” modernity on the facades of two spacious residences which could just as easily belong to the urban genealogy of Mexico City, or Havana.

Immediately to the left, another large-format, this time by Sue Williamson, For Thirty Years Next to His Heart, 1990, brought together 47 laser reproductions of identity papers, the organization paraphernalia of Apartheid. In 1979, two years after the assassination of the charismatic Steve Biko, Williamson and some of her white colleagues boycotted the international representation of South Africa until their Black peers were allowed equitable access to the states’ artistic institutions. This art of resistance, peculiar to the seventies and eighties, underwent profound change after the fall of the segregationist wall in South Africa. While some, like Williamson, have remained true to their political activism, with the conviction that the artist should be committed to her/his social environment, others have pursued the path of the inner search, exploring personal narratives, investigating identity and the awareness of gender, or experimenting with art as the legitimization of individual narratives.

Liberation brought similar consequences in other countries, such as the Congo. The idiomatic corpus of Bodys Isek Ingelez sent the imagination flying in different directions. It revived the nostalgia for what might have been achieved by independence – with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, as the backdrop – while re-creating the decadent, consumerist optimism of current times in a fantastic proto-architecture where syncretism between the Moslem, the European and Hollywood late 50´s set aesthetics ironized kitsch as a metaphor of utopia. In its hallucinated synthesis, two options of the contemporary artist in the African continent are clearly intermingled: without forsaking his socio-historical links, she/he repositions her/his chimera, feeding it with her/his innermost visions. Individuality is not negotiable.

Two of his playful scale models, as intricate as they are transparent in their ability to communicate, acted as a portico on the narrow corridor, on either side of which stood glass boxes containing architectural projects and city-planning documents refereeing to different places on the planet. Between them was the bicycle saddle of which we spoke earlier.

The emotiveness of Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire prefigures the foundations of the continent´s construction of modernity:

“My Negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through the opaque prostration with its
upright patience”.

The nationalist dreams and aspirations of its leaders urged on by the voices of their peoples, translated into a contradictory architectural language. An instance of this is to be found in Ghana´s Arch of Independence, commissioned by the country’s flamboyant prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, an evident adaptation of the Roman triumphal arch, which forces one to question the crisis of memory and identity it causes. However, on the basis of Sartre´s approach to Negritude´s poetry, it could be argued that the colonial codes haven been reverted by the perspective of the oppressed subject in her/his effort to lay the foundations of her/his dissidence. As Nnamdi Elleh states, this does not mean the exclusion of the possibility that a bit of an inferiority complex may have influenced Nkrumah´s decision. Elleh goes to say: “Certain North African architects, like Hassan Fathy, have adapted Islamic heritage, but architects in West, East and South Africa, instead of exploring how precedents in traditional African architecture can be applied to contemporary needs, are reproducing European inspired forms (2).”

Here we had the third (anti) rule: no to the non-critical approach of ethnocentric revisionism, no to forgetting shared notions of social, historical and political accountability.

Partly as a result of the situation described by Elleh, the architecture created in the African continent has been banished historically, theoretically and visually from Western studies. This omission conveys the false message that it does not belong to the experience of modernity, despite the fact that many contemporary architects, such as Femi Majekodunmi and Oliver-Clément Cacoub, have executed major project in other continents.

At the end of the corridor, a model by Yona Friedman, Bridge City, 1963, defied the patterns characteristic of the late European colonialism of the continent, which was officially proclaimed in Germany during the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884-1885. As a permanent reference to discriminatory projects stands Le Corbusier´s Tunisian “Obus Plan”, whose aim was to separate the colonialist part from the colonized one. Friedman´s Spatial City, 1958-59, in contrast, was dreamt up amid the dunes of the Sahara Desert.

To the back of the concise architectural corridor, commencing the aforementioned interaction between the photographs of Mthetwa and Goldblatt, pioneer Ousmane Sembènes’ short film titled Borom Saret, 1963, (the first in this genre to be financed by the French Ministry of Cooperation and award-winner at the Tours Film Festival) tells of the ups and downs of a street seller in Dakar. The city, still segregated after independence, with its modern blocks and apartments, is captured by Sembènes’ social-realist lens, a reflection of the training he received at the Gorky Studios in the former Soviet Union.

The organization of 550 objects of varying affiliation into an area of 1,000 m2 was the task of the New York firm, kOnyk Architecture (Craig Konyk, director; James Tichenor, Christian Reinhard and Arthur Bürgel project managers). The infrastructure, which took two weeks to assemble, consisted of white plastic panels, prefabricated in the United States. The continuity of the panels facilitated the visibility of 22 monitors, with the twofold effect of isolating them from the other components while producing their integration.

In the rest of the rooms, a number of film productions were projected, some without audio, others with headphones, some at an extremely low volume and others with subtitles. The exception was the module by William Kentridge, located on the second floor: a camera obscura in which his emblematic film, Ubu tells the truth, 1977, was shown. The combination of his drawings and puppets explores the culture of violence, while its parody asks questions of the drama staged during the hearings of the Commission of Reconciliation and Truth in South Africa.

In Kentridge’s painful satires, a central issue of this critical biography of the continent is outlined, namely: the examination of the links between independence movements and struggles for liberation as methods to attain both autonomy and awareness of cultural identity. Initially, these movements formed part of two different political programs, as Okwui Enwezor explains. On the one hand, strategies of non-violence were used, as was the case of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), whose leaders empowered themselves through editorial platforms, speeches, campaigns, strikes and trade union activism to unhinge the colonial economic machinery and undermine its legal authority. Nevertheless, this peaceful tactic was not exempt from outbursts of violence, such as the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya, in 1952, with 50,000 local casualties against a mere 20 on the British colonial side. On the other hand, in Algeria, Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, armed struggle was the last resort used to oppose the colonial intransigence which rejected any possibility of negotiation.

With the independence of Ghana, in 1957, a powerful psychological and ideological force paved the way for the most important political event of 1960, not only in the continent but on a global scale: Kwame Nkrumah declared the Decade of Independence during the First All-African Congress, held in Accra, in 1958. Two years later, not only 17 countries attain this but they would also be admitted en bloc into the United Nations.

Both the ideology of Negritude and Pan-Africanism were sources of inspiration for this decade of liberation. The former, nourished in Paris through the literature of Martinican, Aimé Césaire, of Senegalese, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who became his country’s first president, governing from 1961 to 1980, and of León Damas, from French Guyana, went back to the fascist Europe of 1934. Pan-Africanism came into being during the post-war period. During the Manchester congress of 1945, soldiers from the Caribbean and the African continent, alongside students and trade union leaders demanded, among other things, independence and the right to self-determination of the African continent and Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean. Hence Negritude would be a phenomenon associated with French-speakers, whereas Pan-Africanism aroused more sympathy among English-speaking activists, artists and students. The Pan-Arabism of Gamal Abder Nasser found its own sphere of influence in the Maghreb.

By way of eulogy of Afro-Caribbean liberation tour de force, to the left of the entrance to Kentridge’s module was found the work of an Antilles intellectual– the third to be included in the exhibition, together with Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon – Lumumba, death of a prophet, 1992, by Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck.

Outside the black-cloth module, at the back, the photographic installation by Santu Mofokeng projected a recovered archive of South African urban families, Black photo album/Look at me 1980-1950, 1998. The individual prints, point to an unconstrained imagination whose historical relationship with social memory is rewritten through the retrieval of the documents. Goldblatt’s influence is noticeable in this perspective where the links between photography an identity constructions are arranged. The work, still in progress, goes beyond simple commemoration by means of touching up and copying. Instead of presenting it like a misplaced paradise in Black History, Mofokeng questions the motivations which led individuals to have their portraits taken and be recorded in documentary form; he ponders about how the colonized subject sees himself and what his identification patterns could be. The clothing, the solemn stance and the quasi-Victorian atmosphere of the backgrounds hold the key to these very questions which the artist leaves open to interpretation, although in some of his other forms of installation, such as the version in Villa Stuck, he uses texts intercalated with images. The texts are taken from extracts from magazines and comments by/on the person portrayed of her/his inheritors (3).

The fourth (anti) rule prevailed in this piece: no to easy short-cuts, no to univocal answers; or, as Enwezor puts it: “That Africa was a staging ground for some of the most important questions of post-war politics and society and that these questions made a crucial impact in identity, modernity, freedom, subjectivity, ethics and culture can no longer be debated. The more salient question arising from this exhibition is: What is African and what is Africa to us? This is, of course, a question neither philosophy nor metaphysics can provide answers to. But suffice it to say that The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1995 represents an Africa of the imagination as much as it addresses Africa in the context of her lived experiences and realities (4).”

Just a few steps away, Georges Adéagbo drew on his characteristic bottomless pit of free association – an award-winner at the 47th Venice Biennial – to fill a cubicle with the ordinariness of a ubiquitous modernity: Colonisation Belge en Afrique Noir, 2000. Long-playing records and Bavarian liqueurs, European and African magazines and newspapers, kitsch books and sculptures from both continents, invited the viewer to decipher the method in its madness. Because it does have one. All that was needed was time and patience, two fundamental enzymes for the digestion and enjoyment of the sumptuous feat offered by this exhibition, which defied not only the visitor’s capacity of assimilation but also the political will of her/his eyeballs, forced time and time again to align themselves in the “right” direction, overcoming the desire to take a quick look and move on to what is coming next, so close at hand, so compelling.

A mural by Yinka Shonibare, One Hundred Years, 2000; the sculptural installation by Ghada Amer, Le Lit., 1997; and Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys, 1986, monstrous and neo-classical, left no room for doubt that the second and last floor was the realm of the contemporary. By way of a complement, a small side gallery contained Touhami Ennadre’s early photographic works, where black light revealed the riches to be found in cutaneous self-designed scars, every keloide mark provoked a state of antagonism towards the irreverence of writer Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude”. The photographs seemed to be responding to him: “That’s perhaps because liberation must first be named in order to be achieved”.

The Nigerian Nobel Prize-Winner forms part of the anthology as an ingredient added posthumously to the catalogue of almost 500 pages, in which two categories are covered: politics/ideology/ethics and culture. Other names to be found are: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Amílcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Alioune Diop, Ben Enwonwu, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Rajat Neogy, Njabulo Ndebele, Julius Nyerere, Jean Paul Sartre, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Sékou Touré. The contributions on each of the themes represented in the exhibition belong to: Okwui Enwezor (Ed.), Chinua Achebe, Ulli Beier, Wolfgang Bender, Rory Bester, Chinweizu, John Conteh-Morgan, Manthia Diawara, Nmandi Elleh, Laurie Firstenberg, Mahmood Mamdani, Marilyn Martin, Maishe Maponya, Valetin Y. Mudimbe, Mark Nash, Chika Okeke, John Picton, Obiora Udechukwu and Gwendolyn Wright.

One of the most frequently quoted among the classics of a continental awareness is the Caribbean thinker and liberator of Argelia, Frantz Fanon, appraised in depth in the full-length feature film by Isaac Julien and Mark Nash, Frantz Fanon: Black skin, white mask, 1996. It was projected in video format in the small room described previously. Here too are works by Willem Boshoff, Gavin Jantjes, Samuel Fosso and, lastly, Ghada Amer, one of the eight women included among sixty participants.

A showcase on the ground floor displayed historical editions of Sartre’s Black Orpheus, Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land; a range of publications by the paradigmatic publishing house, Présence Africaine, along with issues of Life magazine. On the spacious upper surface, there was a black and white portrait by Seydou Keita, a studio photographer and deft engineer of the performative circumstances of his teatre-like studio. The image succeeded in conveying the individual`s trust in a new order, as someone who feels sure of her/his modernity. Here and on the first floor, the visual arts from the forties to the seventies displayed their graphic, pictorial and sculptural legacy: Skunder Bhogossian, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Uzo Egonu, Ibrahim Mohamed El Salahi, Ben Enwonwu, Dumile Feni, Kamala Ishaq, Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, Gebre Kristos Desta, Vincent Kofi, Sydney Kumalo, Christian Lattier, Ernest Mancoba, John Ndevasi Muafangejo, Thomas Mukarobgwa, Iba Ndiaye, Malangatana Ngwenya, Demas Nwoko, Amir Nour, Uche Okeke, Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae, Ben Osawe, Twins Seven-Seven, Lucas Sithole, Gerard Sekoto and Gazbia Sirry.

There were also some white Europeans, such as English Georgina Beier, Marion Kaplan and Cecil Skotnes; Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, director of the legendary film, The Battle of Algeria, 1965; and French photographer Marc Riboud. The fifth and last anti-rule wass revealed: no to retaliation; no to paying back colonial disdain of the African continent’ modernity with the same coin.

The pungency of Nigerian academic Chinweizu produces harsh words to describe the relationship, by now discussed to satiation point, between European and African visual arts modernisms: “Once upon a time, the Pan-European world claimed that Africa was the heart of darkness and that Black Africans were subhuman. Living Africans were exhibited in Europe’s zoos (5), next to gorillas and lions; and African sculptures were dismissed as the crude products of primitives who wanted to work in naturalistic European styles but just didn’t know how. That was before Picasso and Company drank from the fountain of Black African art and brought forth Cubism and other brands of [white] European modernism (6)”. [] By the author.

It seems unlikely that such a dramatic epistemic turn in the political economy of meaning, in the notion whereby colonialism is not a “natural” state of things, should have occurred in a mere quarter of a century; and it seems even more improbable that one word, Negritude, the cohesive epigram of penetrating, bitter-sweet connotations, should have baptized the rebirth of dignity not only in the African continent but also in colonized areas of the Asian continent and the Pacific, where the Oxonian definition of Non-white is used to refer to all of its peoples as a whole. The Short Century is a literary loan from the English historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who coined the term in his work, Age of Extremes. In Enwezor’s vision (and it proves practically impossible to disagree with it), it gravitates towards the Age of Negritude; a utopia that took a last look at its close reflection before disappearing, devoured by the propaganda of failure and its apocalyptic dimensions.

For other reasons, the momentum could not be better synchronized. In addition to covering a significant segment of the international audience (after Villa Stuck, the exhibition was taken to Berlin’s Martin Gropius-Bau, where it remained from May 18 to July 22; from September 8 to December 30, it was presented at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; and from February 2 to May 5, at P.S.1 MOMA, New York), The Short Century included a synopsis of Enwezor’s intended career just before the inauguration of the next Documenta 11. Furthermore, apart from this exceptional illustration of his approach to the relationship between art, its content and its container, there is the extremely valuable contribution of the catalogue or, should we say, the book, of the exhibition, a true masterpiece of publishing.

In the book, the tenuous borders, between reality and its interpretation and representation established, with a clarity which is both academic and accessible, their “cross-territorial” perimeter, as Octavio Zaya, one of the co-curators of Documenta 11, would say. Like all the rest, African modernity is the product of interaction with its counterparts elsewhere in the world. Anyone learning of it through The Short Century had at her/his disposal as many touchstones as her/his capacity, or propensity, for free association will allow. If seen from a Caribbean perspective, for instance, there were plenty of references from which to construct a building, or a poem, or a song. They key was sent in G major and its poetry is alive with the innermost sounds of Yoruba, Spanish, English and French, languages which, in the golden age of high life, flooded the dance floors of the Africa of the fifties, just before the continent invented its freedom with the word, Negritude…

“There, where paths fade away, where silence ends, I invent desperation, the mind that conceives me, the hand that draws me, the eye that discovers me. I invent the friend who invents me, my fellow man; and woman, my opposite; a tower which I crown with flags, a wall climbed by my foam, a devastated city which is slowly reborn under the domination of my eyes. Against the silence and the hubbub, I invent the Word, freedom that invents itself and invents me each day”.
Octavio Paz

Notes

1. „One almost unknown contribution of Germany to the global history of Apartheid is that the first Apartheid Laws were not introduced and implemented by the Boers in South Africa, but were already conceived and established by German colonialists, in 1907, in today’s Namibia, (formerly German South-West Africa).”
Lockward, Alanna, 2010: Diaspora. In: Nduka-Agwu/Hornscheidt (Hg.) 2010: Rassismus auf gut Deutsch. Frankfurt a. M..: Brandes & Apsel.

2. Elleh, Nnamdi: Architecture and Nationalism in Africa, 1945-1994. Catalogue, p. 236-237.

3. Firstenberg, Laurie: Postocoloniality, Performance and Photographic Portraiture. Catalogue. p. 117.

4. Enwezor, Okwui: An Introduction. Catalogue p.15.

5. In Germany the “tradition” of showcasing nations of the continent is still framed on the context of Zoos. In spite of the continuous protests by activists, this practice is not perceived by the white majority as particularly racist. The most recent episode is the celebration of independence of the former German colony of Namibia at the Berlin Zoo, in 2010. Racism is a taboo theme in white German society at large. For more information: http://www.derbraunemob.org

6. Chinweizu: The weapon of culture: Negritude literature and the making of neocolonial Africa. Catalogue. p. 320.

Curator:
Okwui Enwezor
Co-Curators:
Rory Bester
Lauri Firstenberg
Chika Okeke
Mark Nash
Museum Villa Stuck, Munich
15 Febr. – 22 April 2001
Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
18 May – 29 July 2001
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
8 Sept. – 30 Dec. 2001
P.S.1 and Museum of Modern Art, New York
10 Febr. – 5 May 2002

Official webpage of the exhibition
http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/specials/2001/the_short_century/

And here the scanned article with images originally published at Atlántica, Nr. 30, October 2001:

ATLANTICA ERA DE LA NEGRITUD

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS AND/OR THE VILLA STUCK MUSEUM.

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