Interview with Okwui Enwezor.
I am not carrying the African flag!
Okwui Enwezor speaks about the view of Africa as a unity, the cultural wealth of the continent, the commitment of African artists, the hype surrounding Africa in the German cultural scene and the struggle between authenticity and mimicry.
Okwui Enwezor, director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich speaks with Daniela Roth, art historian, sociologist and expert on the art scenes in Africa
Daniela Roth: Is there an Africa-hype in Germany or Europe that concerns art and culture?
Okwui Enwezor: I don’t know if there is an Africa-hype and if there is, the question one has to ask is Why? Why is there an African-hype in Germany? Considering the obvious fact that Africa is nearly ten times the size of Europe, has a much larger population and has hundreds if not thousands of many enduring traditions, it makes me quite curious why the continent should be placed in one monolithic box. But it seems to me that if there is any hype it may have to do with a growing recognition of the human capacities of Africans. For too long, Africa has represented a kind of foil that enabled many cultures and places around the world to feel superior about themselves, to feel good about who they are, to feel ennobled. One has to consider the meaning of this alleged hype in consideration of this role that Africa has played for a very long time. But maybe any discussion of the hype can be converted into how we might explore and negotiate a new kind of paradigm based on mutual interest in terms of exchange, and how that exchange should be predicated on the recognition of the human qualities, values, and the complexity of Africans, both on the level of individuals and the potential for Africa to play an important mediating role in the rest of the world. This is where my own personal interest lies. Nevertheless, I am still very curious why Germany is very interested in Africa.
Why do you think it is like this? Africa is so huge and has so many different cultures and regions. Do you see it critically that Africa is considered as a unity?
I think it is a very important question. I do however, worry very much about the consequences of good intentions. On the one hand good intentions also carry underneath them an element of power which is oftentimes both hidden and transparent. There is a sizable industry devoted to “helping” and “supporting” Africa. It’s as if this enormous geographic and complex geopolitical space is a child with a perpetual training wheel attached that then needs this industry of experts and knowledge bureaucrats to keep it from falling. I worry about this relationship between Africa and Europe because of the possibility of flattening a very jagged, complex terrain or topography; the smoothing over, the generalizing consequences, the notion that complexity is suddenly completely erased when dealing with the continent. I would call this “developmentalism.” I see it in the way in which certain projects, under the auspices of the German political sphere, whether it is IFA with their magazine, the development organizations work as projects of patronage rather than projects of exchange. Patronage has what I would call a “tribute economy” into which Africans have to pay with gratitudes. However, I think what is required is a serious debate and interrogation of organizations which always succumb to the same outmoded paradigm of developmentalism. We have to open up spaces of discourse, to enable us to understand what is going on.
Many of the projects I see function on a certain kind of amnesia, in the sense of forgetting what happened in previous periods. For example, in the sixties, seventies, and eighties there were really incredible moments when African artists, musicians, performers and writers travelled all over Germany. Where today is the record of those encounters? How might we use those records today within a broader intellectual and cultural discourse? We also forget there are so many Afro-Germans. Sometimes I think that there is a kind of blind spot that exists in not recognizing this very question. Africa should not really just be a new hype. Even Germany’s own colonial past is not as well explored as it should be. Germany had its colonial adventures in Africa: in Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, and in Namibia where German is still actively spoken. How might Germans and various Africans explore the terrain of this historical past? How might we examine the difficulty of Africans in negotiating their way through German society? To make these questions palpable, we need to think about the tension between hospitality and hostility. It was Jacques Derrida who explored the etymological link between these two ideas. For me it is very interesting to think about this in a serious way.
Excuse me please, I also ask you these questions as an African. You are more a global player, a cosmopolitan. But may I ask you these questions as an African, a Nigerian, an Igbo? You mentioned the struggle in the sixties. Meanwhile Africa is seen in more detail. Maybe also artists have fought for this – and you as a curator also – especially in not playing this role of being an African?
This is an important point. I by no means see myself as an outsider. In the context of the art world I am an insider, and I do not pretend that I am not somehow fully integrated or fully part of a broad, complex, global discussion, and I appreciate that very much. You made a point about the role of artists and intellectuals. In contributing to a broader understanding of Africans this is very important. Last year the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died at the age of 83. His work, not only as a great writer but, in my view, as one of Africa’s great sons, as a Nigerian, as an Igbo, all of these identities make up the full picture of who Achebe is to Africans of my generation. Achebe’s point throughout his life was predicated on African narrative and discursive agency, what he called “the balance of stories.” To him this meant that the balance of stories should not only weigh negatively against Africa. It also means that Africans have to tell their stories. Africans have to invent new imaginative geographies. They must invent ethical spaces that have just as much universal appeal as they have very specific African appeal as well. And I think, for me, this is what art enables us to encounter, to encounter that imaginative geography of Africans, to respond to their ethical commitment to contribute to a broader human conversation, to contribute to this balance of stories. Achebe in one essay borrowed a Massai proverb, that basically says that “until the lions invent their own historians the story of the hunt will only be told by the hunter.” Art, writing, curating, what have you, represents the techniques of evolving and developing the “balance of stories.” I see my own work in this way, as part of an African worldliness. My ethical compass in the world, the instrument that enables me to encounter the world of others (Germans, French, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.) with curiosity, understanding, respect, empathy is based on my African, Nigerian, Igbo worldview. I think it is safe to say that in the last 30 years African artists, writers, intellectuals have really entered into the global sphere in a very formidable way. This is important and great, because each time we encounter the work of artists, writers, and so on we also engage with the complex ethical and cultural gestures they bring into the arena.
African artists – whatever this is, to be African and to be artist – do they react to what is expected of them? To be “exotic” or to be political? To be political in their countries?
One can say the same for European artists. When I look at the work of a European artist I see an artist who is working within a certain tradition. That European tradition in Africa might also be very exotic, and it is exotic. This is what I mean with the balance of stories. A European is just as exotic in Africa as an African is exotic in Europe. There is a kind of exchange of exoticisms. I don’t know if Africans are responding to be exotic– responding to whom? The point that is very important to underscore is the context of artistic production and the different conditions of artistic production. They produce different understandings of form, and what Michel de Certeau would call the “grammar of everyday life.” They produce different concepts of aesthetic language. They produce different articulations of artistic intention. I cannot take anybody seriously who looks at an African artist and says, oh they are doing what is expected of them or they are doing political art. That is actually a reflexive response, rather than really dealing with the complexity of what is before one’s own eyes, people lazily resort to silly, unproductive clichés. My commitment as a curator is always to look past easy judgments and easy conclusions. I am always very interested in being confronted with what I don’t know. I relish the opportunity to learn something about an artist, about their intentions, their choices, their conception of ideas and how they put them together in whatever form they do it. One of the points we are getting to is the point in which people no longer give themselves permission to make generalizations and conclusions about Africans because the world is very big and very broad.
I was just recently in Nigeria. I spent two weeks during the holiday with my daughter visiting my mother. My daughter was born in New York. For all intents and purposes she is a Nigerian, African, European and Arab, because of her mother, who is Polish and Libyan. But she is also an American. “I am a Soho girl,” that is what she says because that is where she lives and grew up. But it was very fantastic for her to be in this world in Nigeria, this network of cousins, uncles, aunts and extended family. And suddenly the picture of herself became a little bit different. For the first time in her life she can step outside of the house and blackness was very normal, it is the everyday, and there are no anxieties about it. Africans really exist in a cosmopolitan context that for better or for worse includes so many different intersections with so many different cultures in the world. We want to celebrate these different intersections. We want to sit and think beyond the narrowness of the identities we see. In Nigeria for instance, where I come from, there are over two hundred and eighty languages, not dialects. We really have so many micro-communities, we live in an ecology of intense co-existence.
Nigeria is mighty, Nigeria is huge, Nigeria is rich, there are many art spaces, CCA (Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos) or whatever. In smaller countries it is mostly the Institut Français, British Council or Goethe Institut that support the arts. Is there the danger of cultural imperialism?
I am not really concerned with cultural imperialism because I think that one of the things that is very interesting is the way in which artists build networks of relationships. I think we should encourage this. I don’t really see the participation of Goethe Institute or the Institut Français or any other organization as cultural imperialism if it is based on a kind of mutual exchange. It could be very productive. These institutions have really contributed enormously to enable the inter-African, as well as trans-European-African collaboration. For very little investment that the Goethe Institute and Institut Français make in Africa – the return they get is enormous in terms of credibility, in terms of cultural capital. It is a two-way exchange. The Goethe Instituts and Institutes Françaises of the world have a role to play in the world, important in this context of exchange, this is very good, and I am not saying this because I live in Germany. I very much admire the commitment of Goethe Institute or DAAD to have very engaged long-term participation in the different local cultural scenes. Going back to the point you made, that there are many spaces in Nigeria. There are not enough in my view, there should be more. It is important for Africans to begin developing the institutional frameworks in local contexts in Africa. This has to be independent of the patronage of the Goethe Institutes of the world. Even though, as I already mentioned The Goethe Institut and the Institut Français have a role to play. I think it is important.
Should there be more museums, archives and art history? There is not much written about art history in African countries. Should it be a copy of the European model or do you see other possibilities?
We are always in this constant struggle between authenticity and mimicry, right? And this tension between authenticity and mimicry is also understood as when you employ a particular technique it is immediately assumed to be copying Europe, rather than seeing it as participating in the development and cultivation of a particular disciplinary model, in the development and the cultivation of a particular disciplinary form. Art history is nothing that Europe invented. The Chinese had art historical written accounts. I think Europe should take a little bit of a modest approach of its own self-understanding. I think it is a little bit too self-important. Written accounts or art historical disciplinary methodologies is not the province of any particular part of the world. Art works tell their own stories and the people who use those art works also have ways of carrying forward those stories, whether you write it down and have a formalist analysis of it, or do an archaeological analysis, a good idea is a good idea regardless of where it comes from. There are so many words in European languages that come from so many other cultures that have nothing to do with Europe, and they are not rejected. Europeans are very good at integrating and absorbing other influences and making them their own. I suppose that Africans or Asians can also absorb qualities that exist in European culture and make them their own. That is part of the fundamental form of exchange of ideas. Should algebra or algorithms not be used because it was invented by an Arab mathematician? No! It is the process of the construction of world culture and African art historians must surely find methodological approaches to define and to describe things that have taken place on the ground there, but at the same time I hesitate about any kind of disciplinarian essentialism such as this is proper African art history, this is proper European art history. It is a mixture of many things. Art works tell their own stories. Nevertheless art historical production in Africa is growing, and it can only grow when we have audiences for it, when we have more participants in the debates and discussions about the role of art in evolving contexts and societies in transition.
TURN would like to support the exchange between German institutions and artists from African countries. By this means it might also support artists in developing societies, artists working on democracy, although this is not the focus of the fund according to the Federal Cultural Foundation. Is it not a kind of influence or selection?
As you know artists are not limited by the funding, their conceptual architecture is not rigged up by funding alone. They will meet the requirement of what it takes to move their thinking forward. It is a sort of game: the patron wants the validation of a certain ideological, political or policy framework, and the artist finds a way to exploit the weakness in that framework and simply supplies it. But their concerns are not necessarily stuck in that framework. I am not trying to say that TURN is not a good project. But the question is, I go back to what I was saying before, we must be aware of the consequences of good intentions. I am not afraid of this program. African artists and intellectuals will write the books that they want to write, they will produce the art they want to produce, will make films they want to make regardless of what TURN does. And by the way the amount of funds committed to Africa is a drop in the bucket. We can’t really say that this is a huge amount of money given how big the territory is! We are talking about 53 or 54 countries. TURN cannot cover it. TURN cannot even properly cover one country. It cannot even fund Nigerian artists if we really are serious. Today if you go to Nigeria we are in the midst of a very dynamic literary renaissance. Nigerians are publishing more globally relevant literature today than I would say German writers are publishing. One can make this claim. It is a very dynamic intense landscape of emerging writers of global significance, writers in their thirties and early forties, and there are dozens of them being published all over. So we mustn’t take this approach of being like a kind of midwife, being a kind of nursery teacher of Africans. If TURN were to go to Nigeria and engage in a discourse, they will hear something entirely different. But from Berlin it is kind of sitting in a safe zone without the complications of exposure. But that does not mean it is a bad project. I think it is important to develop different instruments for what I would call cultural diplomacy. This is what it fundamentally is about. It is like the contemporary African art magazine that IFA publishes. How IFA decided to publish an African art magazine, I do not know. Sometimes I read the conjectures and the big claims that people make in that magazine and I am completely astonished at the level of this engagement. But it is an interesting effort. Maybe I am saying too much, being too critical?
I like the expression “cultural diplomacy”. On the other hand there is the art market. For example the art fair 1:54 in London was a great success.
What many people forget is that when you go to Nigeria or to South Africa or many other countries there are many artists who actually make a living from their work. They work purely as artists. And their work is not dependent on the international market. They have local patrons. We are coming to terms now with the fact that there is a growing middle class in many African countries, more people are travelling. Nigerians constitute the fifth largest group of people who buy luxury goods in London. So the British government will start respecting their visa applications because they spend money in England. Last year the trade between Uganda and Kenya overtook the trade between the UK and this region, for the first time in nearly a century. What we are really seeing is an incredible economic mobility and transformation. So the success of this art fair in London is a consequence of a new story that is being written. Africa is not the Africa that we often times hear about. I will give you one example. If I look at Germany, I am always amazed that Germans’ biggest concern or debate is about their pension. There is a kind of economic hysteria that makes it impossible for people to be inventive and take risks. Africans, given their experiences over the last 30-40 years, have really learned how to manage risk, how to manage crisis, how to survive. The discussion has always been how to economically aid Africa from the West. Take for example, Nigerians living outside of Nigeria send back to Nigeria nearly 15 billion dollars each year. What that tells you is that the hype of Western aid is a construction. Africans, individually and collectively, actually give more aid to their countries than the aid all the G8 countries put together give. Nigerians give more money every year than all the aid coming from the West to all the African countries. So this is the balance of stories in this sense. So when TURN gives this money, what often times is negated, like so many other times in which artists receive support, and that is what I say the art fair in London did well, because suddenly there were all these young African and westerner bankers showing interest. The market exists only when we begin seeing the possibilities of that market in a holistic manner.
You mentioned Chinua Achebe and I read the essay on Joseph Conrad. It is very dense…
The infamous essay! And very important one. Achebe just wanted to underscore the fact that the view of Africans, at least their representation in this novella, “Heart of Darkness” reduced the Africans as mere objects against the backdrop of the deterioration “of one petty European mind” as he put it. Even the title covers up the inhumanity, the genocide committed by the Belgians in the Congo. So when the person against whom this genocide is committed becomes reduced to somebody who had no language, what we do is that we withdraw any kind of ethical commitment to this person. And Achebe was challenging that. Africans are not savages. Africans are people. Africans deserve recognition in terms of the kind of brutality unleashed against them by an imperial pirate. Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” about this also. How a population of nearly 15 million people could be reduced to 8 in a generation? That is astonishing! It is not merely the critique of “Heart of Darkness”, but a critique of the incredible violence of Belgians in the Congo. I do not know if we are going so far away from art, but one always works with a historical understanding that part of the hype of Africa today is also an attempt to smooth over some of these histories that Achebe touched upon in his review and critique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” But I am very excited about the potential of young Africans coming forward, because most African countries have such a huge surge of young people, and they do not want to be seen in an advertisement in Munich Airport running barefoot, chasing after a Coca Cola bottle. That does not mean that people are not struggling, that people are not in want, that many children do not go hungry. But we need to begin transforming our relationship to that picture because it is something that we cannot accept for children anywhere.
I was reading the other day, in terms of this surge, that Kenyan Airways is taking delivery of its order of Boeing 787, the new Dreamliner. Air travel in Africa has barely started. Imagine when it really takes off? We have a continent of over a billion people. It is massive. The potential is huge.
There is a market for visual arts, there is the energy of so many young people, writers, performance artists, dance, theatre, all kinds of…
Cinema! In Nigeria there is a twenty-four-hour channel for Nollywood. People are not necessarily interested in Hollywood but they are interested in this new cinema because the stories, the context and the figures are relevant to their social-cultural-political worldview. Nigerians built this industry in the last 30 years and there are more films made in Nigeria every year that caters to this audience. You might not consider it cinema but they have a huge transnational audience in the Caribbean, in the West, in Africa, and there are so many different versions. There is a Nigerian version, a Kenyan version, all over. They also have it in French and in the local languages, this is amazing. And they are developing this cinema, which is growing and getting better, there is so much production going on. We have to understand the complexity of what people are trying to construct in different African contexts. Of course, next to the institutional framework of art in the West, it is nothing. But there are so many exciting things happening in Africa. I think it is a good thing that there is an Africa hype. And I hope the perspective that it brings to Africa is more nuanced than it was before. We are now looking at content in an interesting way. There is not a day in which a new novel does not come out. There is a robust and dynamic music scene, lots of young producers and musicians across every genre you can imagine. They do not live in New York or in London. They are based in Lagos, Nairobi, Dakar, Johannesburg, Maputo, Kinshasa, Enugu or wherever else. So we have to look at the arts, not only visual arts. I worry about getting trapped in a very narrow conception of African art within this so-called African hype.
The reason for TURN was so many applications for cooperation between German and African artists. Are they looking for new energy and input?
German artists deserve as much to be connected to the rest of the world as everybody else is. In Berlin they are beginning to develop the Humboldt-Forum. Germany needs to be in contact with the rest of the world. There are too many of the same types of museums around. I say break the mold, escape the comfort of uniformity; reject the monoculture of whiteness.
Also this Africa hype is maybe too focused on a mono-geographic perspective of Africa. You, here, have a global program. You do not have an African program.
It is not possible to have an African program in Haus der Kunst. We have a global program. And my work has not been confined only to Africa even though I am always very clear on the fact that I have a commitment and a longstanding disciplinary and intellectual interest in Africa as an area of research. This is something I do not deny. My job is being the director of Haus der Kunst. My practice is slightly different. I work as a curator and within my practice as a curator I can be more focused in what I do. But as the director of Haus der Kunst I think I have a responsibility to build a broad-based exhibition and artistic program that looks at the complexity of contemporary art both on a historical basis and otherwise. One of the things that we are getting an amazing support for, from Kulturstiftung des Bundes, is for our project “Postwar,” “Postcolonial,” and “Post-communism,” three exhibitions we are developing with other institutional partners such as Tate Modern, over the next few years. We have the first major conference “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and Atlantic (1945-1965),” a four-day conference that runs from May 21-May 24. We are thrilled and grateful that Kulturstiftung des Bundes is supporting the project with a major, unprecedented grant. It is an opportunity to bring together experts from across the world to rethink the geography of modern and contemporary art in this period because we have been so confined to thinking that modernism after the war was only happening in Europe and the United States with the rest of the world kind of on the edges. It is an opportunity to rethink the model of art history that we have inherited, the NATO version of art history. It is an attempt to reconsider this NATO version of art history, to show that there is an enormous field of analysis that we could gain from by looking at it much more carefully. This is the kind of program that Haus der Kunst is committed to. It is first committed to individual artists, their ideas and visions, but also committed to these individual artists in a broader, networked global level. This is something that I think, here in Munich, we have no choice but to do. It is important for us to learn something about the historical conditions in which art history is produced, to be engaged in a conversation with researchers in India, Philippines, China, Thailand, Japan, Croatia, Canada, Romania, Nigeria, Lebanon, Qatar, etc.
Recently you were appointed curator of the Venice Biennale 2015. We won’t expect an Africa-hype in Venice?
Not necessarily. I do not want to deny Africa or run away from it. If you look at documenta 11 I tried to bring African artists into the exhibition in a natural way, not as a hype. It really has to make sense within the context of the project. There are many African artists that I admire, whose practices I follow very carefully just like there are many Europeans. I have very strong relationship as much with European and American artists as artists from other places, Africa, South America, and Asia. That is for me the privilege of the work that I do. I am not carrying the African flag. When I was the artistic director of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, they had invited me because they felt that I could contribute to the development of their own discourse, because hopefully, there was a recognition through my past work that I could make a contribution. When I am invited to come and do Meeting Points in Beirut, Amman, Jordan, Damascus, Cairo, and Tunisia, there is a recognition that my work is part of this broader conversation. I feel enormously privileged that I am able to work across all the regions of the world with no restriction or limitation of my boundaries. But I do say this, that I am very much looking forward to “Divine Comedy” in Frankfurt. I think it is going to be an important contribution and Germany has every reason to be very proud of the history of initiating some of these projects such as “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa,” which was developed here in Munich at Villa Stuck (1998-2001), “Africa Remix” at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, etc. What I am trying to say is that these are important initiatives for Germany to see the history of its connection to Africa because we cannot always start from scratch. Institutions and individuals have been engaged in these projects for quite some time. It amazes me there are all these Voelkerkunde museums all over Germany, but they are somehow hidden. We must renovate and rethink these collections in an active, dynamic way.
Translated from the English by Anna Petersdorf