Africa, Art, Emeka Okereke, Exchange, Exhibition, Photography, Politics, Project, Social Change
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Exchange In Changing Times

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As I sit to write this article, I am yet again confronted with a double intuition: should I? Should I not? This stems from the fact that the issue I intend to address contains aspects that lends itself as inevitably important because of its positive attributes, so much that it feels incomplete not to pen it down. But within this also contains situations that breed causes for unrest and scepticism usually seen with dealings of exchange involving these two concepts: Africa and the West. In my mind, it is as if this mixture is unpleasant, as if one contaminates the other, making the option of saving my mind’s breathe very tempting. But again, my mind has a way of rejecting all the sleeping pills especially if it is saddled with something worth sharing. So as an attempt, I will endeavour to sift the grain from the chaff, not to eliminate the chaff, but to place them side by side with the grain.
In June 2010, I got an email from a Spanish organisation known as AECID, an arm affiliated with the Spanish ministry of culture. It was for a photographic project in Spain. The concept was short and direct to the point: seven photographers living in Africa are being convened under a project known as Africa.Es (Africa dot Es), a project which will see each photographer from a particular country photographing an assigned city in Spain, for just a period of one week. It is an initiative which rides on the back of the AECID’s many agenda towards promotion and development of cultural exchanges between Spain and Africa.
Exchange! The big word, the contemporary word, a word with several connotations, some use it when they want to mildly say “aid”, or “globalisation” and to add the good old brother, “colonisation”. Therefore whenever I hear that word, my antenna instinctively begins to tingle, watching out for underlying meaning. Such was my impression of the first email, but then this proposal came with an adjoining clause: the photographers are to be invited for seven days to their respective cities in Spain, and could use their time in the city as they wish without any limitation nor suggestions as regards the theme, style and the medium with which they approach their work. There is no specific amount of images to be delivered thereafter; neither was there any curator to play the middleman. Equally, the monetary promise could actually be termed quite satisfying, the photographers will be well paid from the author’s fee to cost of pre and post production, which leads me to the first argument about exchange:
It is the norm for African artists and curators to be invited to exhibitions and commissioned projects only to be promised little or most times nothing in the way of a financial reward. I speak here specifically of the plight of the artist from Africa, much worse, those living in Africa. If there is a slight shift for the better, it is mostly seen with those of the Diasporas, who through proximity and a true knowledge of the system could obstinately insist on their right, but even at that it is still deplorable. In the spirit of exchanges as they often claim, how can one ever justify the fact that despite the shortages in funding, that an organiser is able to produce an exhibition and sometimes even invite the artist to the opening but could not afford an author’s fee? And sometimes even a per diem? Recent cases involve utter humiliation of the artists by transporting them several miles to a venue only to offer them dungeons for accommodations. Some that I know tend to answer this question by asserting that exhibitions in museums and festivals are not the key source of income for artists, but rather galleries and art fairs. But in counter-argument, any exchange suffices as a source of income for the artist as long as a budget is designated for such a project. In my opinion, it is the vestiges of the utter undermining of the artist in relation to her works, coupled with the fact that negotiations demands a two-way agreement and African artist seem to assume or rather have been conditioned to believe that they can’t peel off the price tag on a commodity and call for a renegotiation.
It is not so much about the actual amount than is a sense and a feeling of mutual exchange which becomes absolutely void when an artist is deprived of any of her rights. Beyond the monetary implications of an author’s fee, it also plays a symbolic role especially in Africa where most people still regard art not as a career. It is a manifesto in counteraction of that notion. It becomes increasingly important, that a certain amount of money is earned for every honest artistic endeavour. It does not devaluate the artist or her source of inspiration, if anything the lack of money is counter-productive. There are countless examples of such extortions in the name of exchanges but one pattern I have noticed is that, these people tend to “help” the artist in public, but steals from her in private. When I say this, my thoughts align with all these kangaroo awards and call for applications, reminiscent of wolves in sheep clothing.
Having ascertained my position on the above, it is imperative to point out that a selected few in the wheel of the artistic mechanisms do embrace the concept of exchange by according the artist her rightful compensations both monetarily and ethically. The Africa.Es project falls deservedly in this category. The artists were not considered beggars who even with their consistent record of outstanding talent and achievements still needed to be sympathised with. The terms of exchange were clearly spelt out, “you have what I want, you want what I have”, and it was respected. Furthermore, the monetary implications of the profession was not intertwined with the artistic demands of the project giving rise to one patronising the other, but rather each entity had its own orbit of operation and was treated as if on par with each other.
A second argument relates to the concept of freedom of manoeuvre within the volatile abundance of the creative magnetic field. A project which assembles artists together but offers them the freedom of free thinking beyond the safe-margins of themes, subjects or models creates the foundation and the only platform needed for genuine creation. Already there is a sense of “fresh emanating from the anticipation that something new for the artist – even if not for the art scene – will take form. In cases like this, it is even alright for the artist to be confused with an absence of a landmark to begin her creative process, for inherent in this confusion is the ability to detach oneself from familiar norms.
The South African artist, Zanele Muholi who amongst other things she suffers as a result of the subject of her quest, is at the brink of being marked with the stigma of a “queer photographer”. Being a Lesbian herself, her works are stark revelations of her sensitivity towards the marginalisation surrounding same-sex. For the same reason, she is somewhat of a hotcake for all those art projects that would want to identify with such boldness. But to her, she feels she is becoming an object of art-politics because the essence of her work was as a result of a natural course of events, that which has to do with the artist investigating her personal unrest, but it does not conclude her essence, she is other things besides a lesbian photographer, and as a young artist, the only way to explore that part of herself( which could still be unknown to her) would be through projects which do not play to into the hands of order and classification.
In the Africa.Es poject, she was assigned the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Plagued by the language barrier which was a shared predicament between all the photographers except Arturo Bibang from Equitorial Guinea, she found herself in an unfamiliar terrain. As Patrick Wokmeni from Cameroun stationed in Seville asserted in his essay “being away from home is confusing, but this uprooting experience could be productive artistically speaking”, Zanele found herself struggling with the absence of verbal communication (which is confirmed was a deficiency) coupled with being faced with a different subject – the Island. From that came a new body of work which lacks nothing in the intensity and starkness of her previous subjects. She photographed landscapes which embody the juxtaposition of beauty with imperfection, not as something to be repudiated or condemned, but as the inevitable adverse of the human condition – “as long as we are human beings, we will always produce a by-products in the quest towards perfection, so take note even in the white man’s land there is imperfection far from the stories we’ve been conditioned to”. She didn’t need naked female subjects to make her point.
In the same light I perceive the work of Mamadou Gomis, from Senegal who photographed in Bilbao. The rendition of his perception of the city through the elderly, enveloping them in an aura of vivid but subtle colours and shades, forces the question: did he have to specialise in how to photograph the white skin? Of course not, but in detaching himself from the reality of his Senegalese backdrop, immersing himself in a new space, helped by the fluidity that comes with the freedom to just observe, tantamount to a retreat, he was able to capture those images that could have easily disappeared in between the lines was he to approach the subjects with the seriousness of a thematic assignment.
Other photographers not yet mentioned are Nii Obudai, from Ghana, assigned to Valladolid, Mohamed Konaté from Mali who worked in Barcelona, and myself, from Nigeria assigned to Madrid. The catalogue of the project, of about 283 pages featuring about 12 to 25 works of each artist also bears texts from these artists. Texts from Miguel Albero (head of departments of cultural cooperation and Promotion), Santiago Olmo and Salvador Nadales both independent writers herald the concept of the project, providing a backdrop for the understanding of its departure point. All textual contents are in three languages: Spanish, English and French (in that order). Looking at the catalogue, one agrees immediately that nothing was compromised in terms of quality, at the same time was not overloaded with over-ambitious ambiguous chit chats which would have been distracting. The texts from the two writers were rich in content, while being modest. It is not a book made in Spain for the photographers, it is a book made by the photographers, in Spain.
Having said all this, we are not oblivious of the fact that such a project is a political agenda, and as such must fulfil that purpose. During the opening we witness in various instances, politics at play. Some photographers pointed out that a few of the images they would have preferred in the catalogue were omitted mainly due to its content. While such an argument could easily get lost in a valid counter-argument that not all works could have fitted into the catalogue, it still remains viable that the photographers think this is not proper. But most important is that the photographers own the exclusive rights to their images and are not restricted in any form to show them in any of their future projects, including those not shown.
Such is one of the models of exchange in these changing times, worthy of commendation if dealings between two long-opposing concepts – Africa and the West – will ever be considered anything near the fruitful expectations of human equilibrium.
The views I have expressed above are my analysis from a point backed by opinions picked up from artists who also were part of this project. Though I may have sounded too certain of my views, that is because I am certain of the point from which I analyse. However, I do not claim any authority besides that bestowed on me through the power of the freedom to express. That suffices for me.
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© Emeka Okereke. The Hague, March 2011

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