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Poetics of Location: Beyond “Africa Focus” of the Paris Art Fair 2017

Version  fraiçaise traduite par Janine Gaelle

In the train from Paris to Berlin, I reflected on the events of the previous days. It was the last weekend of March 2017 and the Parisian art world was busy. This year, Paris decided to jump on the bandwagon of one of the most fashionable rave: the renewed focus on the African continent and its artists. The events, grouped under two main headings  – the Art Paris Art Fair and 100% Afrique – were further broken down into satellite programs of exhibitions and talks in such places as La Villette, Galeries La Fayette, Galerie Des Galeries, La Colonie and many more. The Art Paris Art Fair, however, was the most literal in its claim of focusing on Africa by adopting “Africa Guest of Honour” as its subtitle. In this, the well-meaning intention was to give African artists a world stage and the corresponding red carpet to showcase and sell their artistic productions.

The Art Fair took place at the Grand Palais, a large historic site and exhibition hall built in 1897 in preparation for the Universal Exposition of 1900. “One of its pediments calls it ‘monument dedicated by the Republic to the glory of French art’, reflecting its original purpose, that of housing the great artistic events of the city of Paris”, says the Wikipedia page dedicated to it. To this one may add that considering France was at the height of colonial exploitation and robbery of its African and West Indian colonies, during the period this building and its likes were constructed to showcase French art, the true meaning of “glory of French art” is, at best, paradoxical. This line of thought is further buttressed by W.E.B Du Bois in his book The World and Africa, where he referenced his attendance of the Universal Exposition of 1900, and how the whole affair reeked of a display of French Imperial power.1 After 117 years, African artists are gathered here again, as France mirrors her image back to herself – in the shadows of Africa.

When an invitation was extended to me to show a video piece in the curated section of the Art Fair, I respectfully declined. To begin with, I was explicit about my discomfort with the notion of Africa being a “guest of honour,” no matter how well-intentioned. Africa, by virtue of our relationship with Europe, and most especially France, cannot be regarded as a guest. Africa fought in Europe’s wars, died for them, and side by side their own soldiers. Picasso, the most famous progenitor of modern art, was greatly influenced by African realities. France or England would not amount to much today without their former colonies. It is possible to have a uniquely African experience in Paris, and still say “I went to Paris for holidays”. These are obvious and accessible facts.

There are many more latent situations – yet crucial to everyday dealings – which make up the threads intertwining African and European narratives. As such it is no longer an acceptable oversight to distance Africa from the Occidental reality. That distancing, if ever possible, would require a painful gruesome surgery as the word “guest” somewhat suggests. If the word “guest” suggests a painful dislocation at the joints, that of “honour” resembles administration of local anaesthetics. It is no different with the much-abused expression “Africa is the future” which does more to relegate or postpone Africa to the future and blindside everyone to the fact that Africa has always been the present – both today and in the past. Africa is not arriving or emerging. Africa is here and has always been.

What is worse, and perhaps an indication that the anaesthetic was successfully applied, is that very few African artists who took part in the Art Fair bothered to ask questions about the implications of their participation beyond being part of a mainstream art event. More so, in a context where, although on the surface it seemed the artists and their works were the protagonists, most of the galleries were owned by white Europeans, with only a handful of African galleries— again, a repetition of the precepts of colonialism where the centre of production was in Africa or Asia, and that of commerce in Europe, and controlled by Europeans (think London in relation to the exploitation of India for instance).

Fair enough, as artists, it all comes down to where one’s work gets the most visibility for sales and the possibility of exchange. But while exchange is constant, and must be encouraged beyond frontiers both real and imagined, as Africans (artists and non-artists alike), it is an obligation befitting the times to always insist on the terms of exchange – most especially, wherever this concerns the trading of values in relation to the extractive tendencies of the so-called superpower nations and economies. To insist on the terms of exchange is also to enter the space of negotiation which becomes possible at the intersection of differences. It is a necessary process in the navigation, but also demystification, of the distances between respective subjectivities. It is neither a boycott of relationships nor an insistence on dichotomies. At most, it places us, although different, beside or across each other with aims of arriving at or entering a third dimension.

Here I also speak in relation to Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation and his concept of tout-monde en relation (one-world in relation),2 but with a forewarning against the dangers of taking for granted the often conflictual, not-so-rosy nature of the hard, granite-like road stretching across the distance-space between our relations. There is nothing about Glissant’s position that suggests a one-world void of conflicts as precursor to harmony. Where there is difference, conflict is inevitable. To transcend this condition of “the messy workshop of the Middle Ground” – as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once described this conflictual space between differences – is to engage in perpetual negotiations within it.

To speak of a proactive African continent is not mutually exclusive to equally addressing how, over many years and centuries, Africa has permeated and reshaped world cultures far and wide. As a matter of fact, the proactivity of the continent lies in the elasticity of her sphere of operation. Africa is a story of distances, of myriad journeys, of many comings and goings mediated by vast distances connecting locations in a rhizomatic manner.

What then do we make of the complex networks of roots, origins, and tentacular stories of displacement? There are no easy answers, nor is the aim to arrive at any in particular. However, some suggestions were made during the panel talks “Inhabiting the border” at La Colonie, convened by Marie-Ann Yemsi, the Artistic Director of the Paris Art Fair. This day of discussion, divided into four sub-themes, and lasting from 10 am to 7pm, was Yemsi’s way of animating a platform which allowed for discussions around some of the blemishes and inadequacies made apparent by the Art Fair positioning, but also to go beyond and propose answers, however indefinite, and a possible way forward. I participated in two panels during which I touched on the question of artistic processes and the complexness of African realities.

In a desperate effort to escape a constricting moment during one of the talk sessions when the discussions seemed stuck in the French-English dichotomy within the frame of decolonization, I suggested a revisit to Kwame Nkrumah’s premonitions and admonitions in his work Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. Today, much of the problem on the African continent is just that – Neocolonialism. This, aided by capitalism and neoliberalism, is like a shape-shifter in its mode of operation. It does not push back when resisted, it co-opts resistance (and profits from the clash and protests of opposing ideologies) by offering the tools and premises for its commodification. The greatest danger, therefore, lies in the fixation with specific forms of the decolonization argument without realising that this too, is simultaneously being high-jacked by neocolonialism. The conflict in Cameroun best defined as tensions between Anglophone and Francophone factions of the country is a telling example. We must guard against this, and find more flexible ways of engaging our disparities.

Thus my proposition in this light would be to revisit Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation and to find points where this intersects or intertwines with Poetics of Location. By Poetics of Location I mean conditions of artistic reflections and productions by artists and intellectuals that place emphasis on the never-ending, evolving nature of process (together with the ephemeral aesthetic experiences that accompanies this), and the relationship with artefacts (objects as symbols, as metaphors of displacements and dispersals) across distances between locations and spheres of historical and contemporary significance. Such artistic processes allow for the articulation of myriad forms of dispersal across locations necessitated by the exigencies of movement (be it errantry or exile) while bringing to the centre of artistic conversations, the question of the distances between our relations. It allows for entry into a space of negotiations, existing in the distances between differences, but also into points of arrivals and departures in the context of African/Black realities.

As examples of projects that engage in the poetics of location, I would naturally begin with the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project which, since 2009, has brought African artists together – photographers, writers, filmmakers – to explore the question of borders through road trip journeys across over 30 countries in Africa and Europe. Crucial to the project is the notion of using the body and presence in the remapping of imposed cartographies. The project employs as a metaphor the road’s unending nature, and as such is a work-of-process, an interminable voyage so to speak.

Another project of note is that of Thierry Oussou, the artist from Republic of Benin whose 2016 exhibition Don’t Sit In featured replicas of artefacts looted from his country by French colonialists and taken to France where it is today part of the Musee Quai Branly collection.3 Oussou reconstructed these replicas and took them back to Republic of Benin – home of the original object – and buried them in the ground. He then collaborated with archaeologists who dug up the replicas from where they were buried in order to ship them back to Europe. Through this long-duration, long-distance performative intervention, the project became a conversation about displacement (taking into consideration the mechanisms of suppression of movement – border officials, modes of transportation, paperwork etc), while employing the artefacts as the locus of enquiry. Similarly, the South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, in his project “Sincerely Yours,”,4 featured grass taken from the Upstate New York grave of the exiled South African writer and journalist Nat Nakasa in 2013, more than a year before the South African government announced that his remains were to be repatriated.

These examples are by no means exhaustive in relation to the field of visual arts, least of all performance arts, literature, music, cinema, and many other fields of artistic expressions. However, these African artists and projects are among many of the current generation whose poetics of relation intersects with that of location and as such bring to the fore the mechanisms operational in the distances between relations. By the virtue of their methodologies, they are simply saying: we cannot afford to take for granted the distances between our relations. We must highlight the negotiations characterising this space.

  1. A Forward of The World And Africa by W.E.Burghardt Du Bois. International Publishers New York. New Enlarged Edition, 2015. P. 2
  2. A notable reference is the essay by Manthia Diawara in the occasion of Documenta 14 titled Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World In Relation. 2017. Source: online
  3. Press Release of No Man’s Art Gallery on the artist’s exhibition Don’t Sit In. 2015. Source: Online / personal conversation in January 2017 between the author and another artist, Emkal Enyongakpa.
  4. Press Release of Gasworks on the artist’s exhibition Kemang Wa Lehulere: Sincerely Yours,. Source: Online. 2015 / personal conversation in 2015 between the author and the artist.

Featured Image: This Body, This New Cartography. Series: Exploring A Void. 2017 © Emeka Okereke.

Copy Editor: Emmanuel Iduma
English/French Translator: Landy Mbassi, and Janine Gaelle

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