Not long ago in an interview for Kaleidoscope magazine, Carson Chan asked me if we would ever be able to get rid of the qualification ‘African’ for African artists…

Otobong Nkanga: Arrested Moment before the State of Amnesia crops in 2006
Otobong Nkanga, Arrested Moment before the State of Amnesia crops in 2006

Well, I think we should.

We should if being an African artist means to be limited to a restricted geography, a certain aesthetic and a palette of themes and motifs. However, I truly believe that a nuanced engagement with the continent should prevail alternatively, and whatever that is, it should be first and foremost the artist’s choice. A geographical provenance should not be considered an aesthetic category.

One should avoid persisting in what Raimi Gbadamosi calls:

The new ethnography, in which the artist realises that the predominant Object for sale is its personal history made into a comfortable narrative. At best this narrative is non-reflexive, as it would appear that the desire for scrutiny (of voyeurism) is best served by material perceived innocent. Not only does this non-reflexive material allow for a guilt-free concentrated look at the other, it brings with it a mark of authenticity.

The art scene within the continent doesn’t seem to engage any more in debates of that kind, why then, does one sometimes feel the need to systematically respond to a call of a representational African-ness imposed from the outside? What defines an artist’s work as African? How does art narrate the society to which an artist belongs? How do artists, artist collectives and cultural agents deal with issues such as identity, history and agency?

To date, as these questions prevail, it seems that no major contemporary exhibition has fully satisfied them — whether in some cases they tried and failed or because in others they assumed from the very beginning the impossibility of grasping Africa in its plurality. In many occasions, the clearest responses to those matters are to be found within particular pieces on the shows, addressing artists’ individual takes on a subject, or featuring a representation of a collective response to specific concerns. Frequently, exhibitions rely on their accompanying catalogues, and on the multifaceted visions of other curators and experts, to deepen the subject that the curatorial pursuit articulates.

A brilliant response to some of the questions posed above is to be found in Achille Mbembe’s essay ‘Afropolitanism’, included in the exhibition catalogue of Africa Remix, in which the historian calls into question the three politico-intellectual paradigms that have dominated African discourse historically, namely, the various forms of anti-colonial nationalism, African socialism and pan-Africanism, to deal with a new possible answer to the question on African identity.  

Mbembe’s work calls for a new cultural, historical and aesthetic sensitivity from the bottom upwards — from individuals and groups to the institutions. Afropolitanism, Mbembe clarifies,

is not the same as Pan-Africanism or Négritude. Afropolitanism is an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity — which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world. It is also a political and cultural stance in relation to nation, to race and to the issue of difference in general.

Otobong Nkanga: Social Consequences I: Limits of Mapping 2009
Otobong Nkanga, Social Consequences I: Limits of Mapping 2009

One of the artists participating on Africa Remix, Otobong Nkanga is taking part in the first event of Across the Board, this weekend. She as well as Nástio Mosquito, the other protagonist of this first event of the series, share an ‘awareness of interweaving of the here and there, the presence of the elsewhere in the here and vice versa, the relativization of primary roots and memberships and the way of embracing, with full knowledge of the facts, strangeness, foreignness and remoteness,’ in sum, that new sensitivity that Mbembe identifies as Afropolitanism.

Across the board: Politics of Representation explores further Afropolitanism, to add a twist to the above-mentioned inquiry by trying to comprehend how to address those concerns on identity and politics whether the term under scrutiny is national, regional or international. In doing so, it also tries to muffle those usual voices that endlessly question what the authentic identity of the African artist is.

Across the board: Politics of Representation takes place on Saturday 24 November: 10.00–19:00 Otobong Nkanga; and 20.30–22.00 Nástio Mosquito. Visitors are requested to book in advance for the Nástio Mosquito performance, however please drop in throughout the day to see Otobong Nkanga’s presentation.

More information

Otobong Nkanga

Nástio Mosquito 

Across the Board is a two-year extended project taking place in:

and will raise questions on politics of representation, institution building, public space/public sphere, and interdisciplinary practices.