As many have noticed the partial flattering of cultural differences as an effect of globalization has at the same time produced new interests and meaning for local cultures. In other words alongside a more blurred division between western and non-western cultural narratives, other differences emerged and art has played a crucial role in the redefinition of local and global identities.
In this sense the combined work of institutions at both local and global level, including big corporations, have played an important role in the representation of local identities. An example that highlights this phenomenon is the two years project titled “Across the Board” supported by Tate and Guaranty Trust Bank plc.
The project, which was launched in 2012 and will end in 2014, is an international series of events taking place in London (UK), Accra (Ghana), Douala (Cameroon) and Lagos (Nigeria). The project is in line with Tate’s recent interest in African Art that started with an extensive acquisition of works of modern and contemporary material (a wing of its galleries is dedicated to two of the most important African artists operating today).
As part of this program the project called “Across the Board” is aimed at promoting emerging African artists in Africa and abroad and at encouraging innovative discourses (in line with more recent trends in postcolonial criticism for instance)about cultural identities. Additionally, exploring the current scenario of contemporary art in Africa, “Across the Board” outlines the imaginary “borders” of contemporary art practice in more general terms.
The programme of the project is structured in four sessions of events according to different topics: politics of representation, institutional building, public space/public sphere, interdisciplinary practices. The first three groups of events have already been hosted in London, Accra and Douala respectively. At the end of the programme a publication will be released to reflect on the links between art and society and the role of cultural institutions in the production of African art and culture.
The session called “Politics of representation” took place at Tate Modern in 2012 in the new space that the gallery dedicated to live and video performances called the “Tanks”, showcasing the installation and performance by Otobong Nkanga “Contained Measures of Shifting States” and the one by Nástio Mosquito “Flourishing Seeds”. Nkanga’s installation and performance alluded to the change in the representation of identities and cultural narratives through specific arrangements or settings of different objects using the metaphor of shifting states of elements such as ice, liquid and smoke.
The second series of events with the title “institutional building” was instead aimed at uncovering those artistic practices and cultural initiatives outside of the “box” of art institutions. The events examine some of those artistic practices in the African art scenario such as the work of artist Nii Obodai who is involved in hybrid and collaborative projects which combine photography, architecture and landscape such as the book project “Who knows tomorrow”.
The third event hosted last week in Douala is called Public space/Public sphere and consists in the participation by Tate and Guaranty Trust Bank Plc to the third edition of Doual’art’s “Salon Urbain de Douala” (SUD 2013) titled “Douala Metamorphoses”(3rd-10th December 2013) an international art festival organized by the contemporary art centre Doual’art. Like the title suggests the event tackles questions related to the urban environment and specifically focuses on the construction of public space which is often inefficient in African cities.
“PUB” (Pavillon Urbain de Bonanjo) is a remarkable collaborative project signed by Doual’art, ICU art project, The Raw Foundation with Lucas Grandin, Mauro Lugaresi, Amandine Braud, Berend van der Lans (African Architecture Matters) and others and presented on the 5th of December. The project of re-use of the pavilion in Bonanjo — previously storage for artworks of the institution Doual’art — aims to “sustainably transform the pavilion in Doual’art’s garden into a multi-functional art space”. Other projects to be mentioned which took part in this edition of SUD are the opening of the “Théâtre Source” designed by Philip Aguirre y Otegui and the re-opening of the “Jardin Sonore” by Lucas Grandin.
Finally “Across the Board” will conclude in 2014 with the events in Lagos, called “Interdisciplinary practices” which investigate the artistic praxis use of different media such as photography, performance, and video in the most recent production of African Art. In particular the project, in partnership with CCA Lagos (Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos), Terra Kulture, Chimurenga and others will focus on the impact of one of the most important events that the city has seen FESTAC ’77, the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture.
Three key concepts seem to emerge so far in the Across the Board project. First of all the artistic focus on vernacular language and everyday life and practice as essential elements to construct cultural discourse (as is the case of the projects presented in Doual’art SUD programme) in the contemporary African art scenario. Elvira Dyangani Ose, curator of International art at Tate, has outlined the phenomenon in her lecture “The Poetics of the Infra-ordinary”.
The second interesting aspect of Across the Board, is the collaborative and participatory aspect of most of the project presented (“PUB” is a typical example). The everyday and the participatory aspect are strictly related and are the effect of the postmodern collaborative notion of authorship as well as of the interdisciplinary nature of the contemporary art world. The actors and subjects involved range from the big names of Tate and corporations like Guaranty Trust Bank plc to local institutions such as Doual’art centre and CCA Lagos and other non-state cultural organizations and platforms to the individual artist.
The last interesting aspect of the initiative is the fact that Tate, even continuing its program of acquisitions to enlarge the collection of African art in the galleries, is re-inventing the role of the institution opening up more and more towards non-collectable art material – also remarked by the opening of the space of the “Tank” dedicated to performance art. What is in question at this point is whether we have to consider such action as detrimental for African art bringing it towards commoditization or as a positive action taken by the institution in favour of a more genuine production and showcase of art.
Is this process of inclusion of African art in Tate’s programme another attempt to commercialise or conquer an artistic territory or does it offer an opportunity for other institutions to look at cultural production and consumption from a different perspective?