Drawing attention to Africa's art

 

A Picasso show is proving a sore point for African artists who feel they aren't taken seriously, writes Joe Humphreys in Johannesburg

South Africans will queue to watch sports. They'll queue for cooked meat at their beloved braais. Just over a decade ago, they famously queued to vote in their first fully-democratic elections. But queue for an art exhibition? Never has it been seen. Never, that is, until Picasso in Africa came to town.

The exhibition, which covers the Spanish painter's career-altering "dark period", drew more than 56,000 people to the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg - an unprecedented crowd for an artwork show in South Africa. Further hoopla was expected in Cape Town where the exhibition has just opened for its second and final leg. The level of interest has led to excited talk about a new dawn for the arts in Africa. But it has also agitated old sores, stirring up a debate about the thorniest of domestic subjects: racism.

The touch-paper for a particularly bitter dispute was lit by Sandile Memela, spokesman for the South African Ministry of Arts and Culture. Irked by the large crowds flocking to see the work of a dead European, rather than a living African, he wrote to a local newspaper: "The truth is on display that Picasso would not have been the renowned creative genius he was if he did not steal and re-adapt the work of 'anonymous [ African] artists'."

Calling for "serious questions" to be asked about the exhibition, he argued that Picasso "lacked the courage to admit [ African art's] influence on his consciousness and creativity." Memela continued: "There seems to be some clandestine agenda . . . that projects Picasso as someone . . . who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it to the world . . . "

The art establishment reacted with horror. One newspaper critic described the official's letter as "yet another example of warped Afrocentrism, the sort of cultural fascism that is typical of the starched dashiki brigade" (a dashiki being a colourfully-pattered Mandela-like shirt). Another columnist described Memela as "sad and pathetic". To which Memela curtly replied: "Whites think they are the only ones allowed to debate the arts."

Writing an article under that heading in the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times, he proceeded to identify a "racist status quo in the arts". He continued: "At the moment, many African creative intellectuals are self-censoring themselves for fear that speaking openly and honestly about these issues will deprive them of economic opportunities and make them look anti-white."

Some blacks have expressed embarrassment at Memela's remarks. More still have criticised his playing of the "race card" as a debating tactic. But few would deny that he has a point.

"People dictating what is going into museums today are white," says Monna Mokoena, one of a new breed of African art dealers in Johannesburg. "In general, the people making decisions happen to be old, white, middle-class women - and that results in a distorted picture of where we are at today."

Mokoena's tale illustrates both how much, and how little, has changed in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He says he has always wanted to "manage the arts" but was unable to get a foothold in the business until 1995 when the so-called Rainbow Nation was born. His big break came when the family of the late Dumile Feni - one of the giants of 20th-century art in Africa - asked Mokoena to represent the estate.

Dumile was celebrated for not only his striking illustrations but his political activity. He went into exile in 1968 because of his support for the ANC, and died in New York in 1991. Among individual collectors of his work are senior government officials, including President Thabo Mbeki.

Mokoena notes that 10 per cent of his business now comes from black collectors. "That is an indication of the upward mobility of people in this country." There is a flip side of course, and he says: "The tables won't change quickly to 90 per cent black collectors. We have had 400 years of enslavement, and we have had apartheid. It's a lot to shake off. We still don't have economic power."

FOUR YEARS AGO, Mokoena had earned enough money to open up his own gallery in a trendy, northern suburb of Johannesburg. Located in a converted residential home, Gallery Momo has earned a reputation for discovering new African and international talent. With a philosophy of showing "art for art's sake", it recently exhibited the work of Belfast painter Raymond Henshaw, among other European artists.

Gallery Momo is the exception rather than rule, however, as Andrew Nhlangwini, a painter who has recently exhibited his work there, notes. "The big galleries are still owned by white people. Only a few black people have galleries."

The effect on artists, he adds, can be stifling. "White people are in charge. For a black person to be recognised as an artist he had to copy Picasso, or some other Western artist. For an artist to have a piece of bread you have to do something the buyer wants. Most of our artists are in that line."

He says African artists should be more confident in their own traditions, as well as "honest" about their work. One of his recent projects is a series of paintings of an historical incident during the British occupation of the Eastern Cape. Legend has it that British soldiers exploited the superstitions of a local group of villagers in order to get them to kill all their cattle and burn all their crops - so as to effectively make them slaves.

Nhlangwini, who is also a university lecturer, said: "There was just a small passage in the history books about this event. That made me interested in finding out more." He said he pieced together the story from academics, chiefs, "keepers of tradition", and even clairvoyants from the region. And then he painted scenes from the tragedy, using traditional painting styles. "I did not want to draw realistic portraits in a Western way. I wanted them to be more African."

A telling characteristic, reflecting perhaps the relatively forgiving nature of Africans, is that he did not seek to apportion blame. "I didn't want to provoke anyone. I don't have blood spilling. I don't want people to get angry."

He is well aware, however, that being "more African than European" artistically means running the risk of being labelled underdeveloped, raw, or primitive by the mainly-white critics. Indeed, he identifies a tendency, both at home and overseas, to lump the work of any black artist who has a political conscience under the tag "protest art". When he goes to the US, the gap between audiences becomes particularly noticeable, he remarks. "The blacks in America feel at home with African art, but the whites? Well, remember, most Americans are taught Western art. When they look at African art and scrutinise it, and look at the composition and proportion and perspective and so on, they believe, just like Europeans, that their art is the best."

Stung by such criticism, or otherwise shamed into action, a number of artistic institutions in South Africa are trying to change their ways. The Department of Fine Arts at the University of Witwatersrand is next month setting up a fellowship award for a black artist in an effort to address the race imbalance in arts academia. Prof Penny Siopis, overseeing the project, says: "Since the end of apartheid, a lot of black artists have emerged but very few of them go into teaching."

Even the student base is "predominantly white", she adds, noting that many people mistakenly believe that a qualification in fine arts will not lead to a "proper job". "A lot of black students do dramatic arts instead because they think they can be presenters on TV," she says.

The successful fellowship applicant will be able to continue doing artwork while teaching - with the promise of a personal studio, and an exhibition space at the end of tenure. "We want this person to be a role model - to be talented and articulate too," says Siopis.

Mokoena says such initiatives are "fine" but only go so far. "Certain institutions have been the beneficiaries of the legacy of apartheid. You need to look at the make-up of lecturers in these departments. You need to look at the curriculum. It's all skewed. We are still looking at Western art as the only barometer. We measure everything against the West."

WHICH BRINGS US back to Picasso and Africa. The exhibition showcases more than 80 of the Spaniard's paintings - the most extensive collection assembled in the region - alongside a selection of African masks and statues similar to those that inspired him. Picasso's "epoque nègre" period began in 1907 when he encountered various wood figures and masks at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris.

Picasso later said that these "magical objects" changed his view of painting, making him realise "it's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe." Thus began his shift toward cubism. The influence of traditional African art on Picasso is there for all to see. However, the exhibition lacks a parallel narrative on how other artists - and particularly African artists - have learnt from the masks and figures of yore.

Again, the question is raised: must African art be manipulated by European hands before it can be deemed beautiful, or acceptable? To some black artists, Picasso and Africa reflects a staid Eurocentricism, or something of a tokenistic nod to the "dark continent". The target of such complaints, however, seems to be not so much the exhibition per se but the phenomenon it has become.

The event is backed by a number of big-hitting corporate sponsors - sponsors who have largely claimed the arts world for themselves in the absence of meaningful government funding.

Mokoena says the arts have "fallen down" the list of priorities for a government eager to house and educate people first. He says it is the only sector for which there has never been a "white paper, or a green paper or a blue paper" despite the strong artistic tradition among ANC activists in exile. Nonetheless, Mokoena is optimistic. African art is on the up, he says, and Picasso and Africa may only help things further.

"I have friends who have never been to my space but they have been to the Picasso exhibition," Mokoena says with exasperation. "Most people" have reservations about the event, he adds. "But there are positives too, and maybe Picasso - being a draw-card - can change people's perceptions about art. In the end, it [the exhibition] is basically a validation of African art."

Picasso and Africa runs at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town until May 21

Andrew Nhlangwini's work can be seen at www.gallerymomo.com