The exhibition GEO-graphics. A Map of Art Practices in Africa, Past and Present is the largest part of the Visionary Africa festival in the Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo and 16 other African countries. It is also the first stage in a four-year collaboration between the art center and the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, that characteristic museum of colonial museology that will soon be subjected to reconstruction and expansion. Obviously, this double occasion shared by two museums makes its ambition at least twice as great – the fact that the vast volume that accompanies the show features forewords by the Chairmen of both the European Council and the European Commission, as well as the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium, says it all. But does that also make it twice as good?
It certainly made the show twice as spectacular. Bozar's biggest gallery, down to its smallest corner, is used to house this enterprise. Most of the space is dedicated to towering glass cases filled with masks, statuettes, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculptures, furniture, and some utensils and musical instruments from Central Africa, collected over the years by private Belgian collectors and the Africa Museum – 220 pieces in total. These ubiquitous showcases are juxtaposed with an itinerary mapped out for eight African centers of contemporary art, such as the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA Lagos), Raw Material Company in Dakar, Darb 1718 in Cairo, and the oldest of them, Doulal'art, based in Douala, Cameroon. They were all enabled to install a gallery for themselves but limited their presentations, relying on documentaries of their practices (such as Picha of Lumbumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo) or a multi-screen installation on the urban experience of Cairo (Darb 1718). Only La Rotonde des Arts of Abidjan took the opportunity to fill the allotted space up with paintings, whereas the others kept things sparse and restrained, certainly in relation to the ethnographic cacophony.
To be honest, it is quite embarrassing to have contemporary art related to such an overwhelming and shameless showcasing of colonial trophies. The two contradictory perspectives behind all this stem from the two museums that joined hands for whatever opportunistic reason. Surely, there's an inherent logic for the Africa Museum to rethink its presentation. In GEO-graphics it is done the way the World Museum in Rotterdam recently reshaped its presentation: ethnography "shown as art" – that's to say, in showcases with hardly any contextual references or, in GEO-graphic's case, hardly more than a very rough regional classification (such as the "forest region", which of course includes Congo).
However such a concept relies on the decisively wrong assumption that art doesn't have, or need, a context. As if a mere "art" presentation automatically unveils an inherent and recognizable aesthetic quality. Of course it does, but contemporary art has long since taken quite a different position, in which contextualization, in particular critical elaboration, has become part and parcel of almost any given exhibition. For example, what does a space for experimental art such as L'Appartement 22 in Rabat have to do with a rainforest in Congo and anything that was looted from there? Nothing more than the rather Eurocentric and narrow vision that combined these things in the first place. So as its contribution, L'Appartement hardly shows anything in the exhibition. Instead it took the invitation as an opportunity to extend its space with web radio that can be viewed/listened to online (and at Bozar if one wishes). But this is implicit criticism from outside that is completely lost within the spectacle. Any critical curatorial note could do the job better. Now, with quite some effort, one can find just one brief but striking opinion in the catalogue, by Jean Muteba Rahier .
Bozar and the Africa Museum chose a less self-conscious path: they hired renowned architect David Adjaye to be responsible. They gave him the impossible task of carrying out the already fixed plan of combining the ethnographic collections and contemporary African art. His main solution was to introduce a third major element in the exhibit, consisting of hundreds of his own photographs of the capitals of the 17 countries that celebrate their independence (including Egypt). These are then wallpapered all over Bozar's galleries. In the cityscapes, Adjaye pays exclusive attention to modern urban architecture, making it all look the same and only function on the immersive level of overkill. The connection with the rest of the show is based on some general assumptions and statements, the main justification – radiating from Adjaye's equally personal and jumbling introduction in the catalogue – being that African creativity is still alive and has moved from the countryside and forests to the cities. Hence the presence of the contemporary art centers that are located in cities (although not exclusively in the capitals portrayed by Adjaye). Like the unavoidable towering showcases, this supplementary, physically unavoidable statement in the show and catalogue functions as yet another means of distraction from more urgent issues or, to put it bluntly, from any field of artistic interest whatsoever . What it does manage, though, is to avoid precisely any serious attempt to relate the ethnographic pomp with contemporary art and art practices. It only provides the setting for a predicament whose expiration date fell in the days before Centre Pompidou's equally ambitious Magiciens de la Terre exhibition (1989).
The show is partly saved by the contemporary art section. This was also given in commission, in this case to Koyo Kouoh, who runs Raw Material Company – not an art space but rather a vehicle for her own internationally oriented curatorial practice. She was responsible for the invitation of the other African art centers and took the opportunity to install the major contemporary art contributions in the show: works by Theo Eshetu, Kader Attia, George Osodi, and Mansour Cis. They all occupy a gallery of their own, their work thus pretty isolated from the rest. In a way this makes the whole contemporary section quite inconsistent. Why making it look as if the curator also invited herself and allotting her Raw Material Company occupy so much more space? On the other hand, these major contributions do reflect on colonial pasts in terms of dichotomies between the West and Africa. Especially Kader Attia's Open your eyes is a direct response to the show's discursive inertia and distracting spectacle. In a two-channel slide projection, Attia juxtaposes, among other things, images from the African Museum collection with portraits of veterans wounded in World War I. Both underwent serious reparations: the African objects show provisional repairs made by the indigenous people who hardly cared about aesthetic consistency but all the more about practical functionality. The faces of the soldiers are proof of the then still nascent practice of aesthetic surgery, which was likewise a matter of sheer improvisation based on adding alien material to flesh and bones. Other sets of images show Western restoration practices applied on ethnographic objects by adding alien material – quite differently from the indigenous improvisations – and historic photos of body modifications in certain African traditions, such as extreme stretching of lip and earlobe, as well as skin scarification. It is a work with a keen eye to modernity and its double-faced attitude toward "Africanness". Theo Eshetu's contribution, The Return of the Aksum Obelisk, is a video on the replacement of the Ethiopian Aksum obelisk after its restitution from Italy. It is basically a registration, which is unnecessarily presented on multiple screens for exhibition purposes, but it nevertheless recalls the aspect of looted African artifacts so blatantly neglected in the main exhibition.
But, apart from Raw Material (and La Rotonde des Arts), for the other invited art centers, the show's character of showcased statements must have felt rather politically repressive. Within such a dominant environment there was no way to curate a decent show other than to more or less withdraw, as L'Appartement did, or to rely merely on documentary images and just a few smaller works here and there, as with Jude Anogwih's Maps (in CCA's room). The inclusion of that piece could also be considered a deliberate criticism of the kind of colonial mapping that still haunts this very enterprise. It is their statement, so to speak, against the other statements – only less empty of content. In other words, it would have been much more fruitful if both Adjaye and the African Museum would have been equally modest.
All in all, GEO-graphics signals a few ambitions too many. It is an explicit showcase not for art, but of hurdles not taken. It is an indication that Visionary Africa still has a long way to go, and so far can look back on a costly experiment that should mostly be called a non-event at best.
Head of Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
A Map of Art Practices in Africa, Past and Present
9 June - 26 Sept. 2010
Rue Ravensteinstraat 23
Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Koyo Kouoh, Nicola Setari
BOZAR EXPO & The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium
With the participation of the art centers:
CCAEA Nairobi, Kenya; CCA Lagos, Nigeria; Darb 1718, Egypt; Doual’art, Cameroon; L’appartement 22, Morocco; La Rotonde des Arts, Ivory Coast; Picha, Congo; Raw Material Company, Senegal