All the art in the world
by Jean Loup Pivin
Loss of faith
Revue Noire was invited to conferences in New York, Düsseldorf and Lomé to speak and hear about contemporary African art and the future of African museums.
We came away from these events both satisfied and then again not. Satisfied, because we'd met new people or seen people we already knew. Dissatisfied, because not much new was said, despite the enormous expenditure of time, money and energy. Since the necessity of such colloquia is not in question, what we seriously need to discuss is the form they should take.
Basically, the time of a conference is a time of pretence and non-action, a time for putting off until tomorrow the resolutions made today.
One of these conferences costs $ 800.000 not including the time of the professionals in attendance. This is equal to the cost of making ten T.V. documentaries, recording the work of ten African musicians, funding two ten-country touring expositions, publishing 100 monographs on African artists or putting out a magazine for 4 years. With this same sum one could support 200 African artists for a year, or fund 100 working artists on a two-month, south-north exchange. In short, the expense of such conferences is totally out of proportion to the result, which is most notably the self-aggrandisement of the organiser.
Revue Noire surveys the paths of African creation, and the paths of creation in general. The artwork, in all its forms, is there as living testimony to the artist's words. Our discussions attempt to analyse the character of the artist himself, his background, and cultural identity, but the main, underlying issue in these analyses, in everything Revue Noire has been able to present up to now, is the motor of creation, the stimulus to action. For the artist's desire to create is of the same nature as an entire people's desire to act, and to react, to what they are and to their relation to the world.
The big and the small
The issue of the nature and cultural identity of peoples and nations is bitterly disputed today. On one side is the international homogenisation of culture, creating behaviour and products more and more alike the world over. On the other side is the fractionalization of culture, seeing regional particularities as the phenomenon of identity reduced into smaller and smaller units.
In this debate, artistic output itself can shed light on a number of things, for the "pleasure" sought by an artist through painting or sculpting has never been closer to the search for identity the whole world faces today. The trick is "to be in this world" and "to be oneself". The world is the marketplace and sphere of influence for the artist and for society in general but at the same time, one needs an existential identity to draw from. While premised on the autonomy of the individual, the artistic process refers to society as a whole.
The unit of measure
There is no dysfunction which is not cultural in nature. How else can one explain industrial, technological, infrastructural, and/or educational underdevelopment in one country while a similarly handicapped country in a similar part of the world is more advanced. Either not enough importance is placed on these problems or, a given society at a given time is culturally unable to deal with them. To see the explanation as simply imperialism, neo-colonialism, or the hegemony of the superpowers is to forget what made economic determinism collapse in the face of culture and man.
To think colonialism alone is responsible for the present condition of Africa is tantamount to saying Africa is still colonised. This is why Revue Noire tries, in its own way, to show that the spirit of Africa has progressed, that Africa is not in need of pity or even aid, but of recognition of and support for what it does. Otherwise we will remain in the make-believe and the unspoken of the hierarchy of civilisations.
The gloss of heritage
The phenomenon of identity relates back to the nature of heritage and its role in contemporary African society. When Alpha Oumar Konare said, at the conference on the future of African museums (in November 1991, in Lome), that "we must kill the western model", it 's perhaps not the westerness he objects most to, but the existence of a model. Today, the museum in its traditional western form, is perhaps not the best means of bringing an awareness of national heritage to the public at large, whether in Africa or in Europe. The message of a national heritage to a people is something totally other than a collection of historical, ethnological, or archaeological objects. What heritage means to a nation informs what that nation is and does in the world.
This discussion of national heritage relates to the discussion of contemporary art. The fashion designer Chris Seydou said to me, "after dreaming of Paris and studying in Paris, and leading the crazy Parisian life, I realised there was no difference between working in Paris and working in Bamako. But in Bamako I've finally found my niche, where I feel at home, and can work with African material and African craftsmen, while knowing full well that I'm designing for the world and not just for Bamako". And it's the same for the majority of African artists, most of them trained in art schools, instilled with high artistic ideals including the idea of the artist as solitary genius, trying to play the role of reference or witness for an changing, self-questioning society. The artist looks at national heritage and reinterprets it. But the artist expresses himself not only to his own countrymen or continent, but to the world. All this is quite a bit more than an individual endeavour.
Today, in Africa, the heritage which survives is of a religious, even political nature. It's not an accident that private museums exist only in Benin, Nigeria and a few other countries. It's simply because the need to safeguard and preserve the living cult of the ancestor is more strongly felt when a Marxist government threatens to annihilate it, as was the case in Benin at the end of the seventies. But is it a question of museums or safe havens?
Until you've lost everything you won't miss it
One characteristic of the phenomenon of identity is that it must be threatened, even denied before it is asserted. Left without a sense of identity, one searches, imagines, fantasises, sublimes.
Africa is divided: on one side are rural youth who carry their identity like a heavy load and want nothing more than to be liberated by knowledge of the city and the world. On the other side are urbanites longing for the lost cultural identity of yore.
The culture of the acultural city
The problem one thinks of as African is in fact universal, it simply occurs at different times in different places. We dream of a pastoral paradise lost, of a harmony between man and nature which we no longer experience. Even when a city-dweller moves to the country, he remains a city person in his mind. Bruly Bouabre spoke to me very nostalgically about his village and his father, a "great witchdoctor". But of course he lives in Abidjan, because he knows the only audience for his writing, theories, art and new religion is a cosmopolitan, international city: his work addresses itself to the world of cities.
The reflex of identity comes into play only in the deculturization guaranteed all new urbanites. A non-African example is the throwing off of the soviet yoke. If the peoples of the new ancestral republics of the East believe freedom from soviet influence will permit the reconquering of regional identities, they are in for their second great disillusion.
In this world for better and for worse
Whether we like it or not, an internationalisation of urban culture is taking place, and the benefits of who knows what, replacing separate urban cultures, are as yet unknown. The problem of youth fleeing the countryside to the city and delinquency and hardship in poor as well as middle-class suburbia the world over, are more and more alike. The future of nations seems identical and unrelenting. The same confusion reigns among the young, unemployed suburbanites from Paris, Abidjan, Lagos, New York, and Sao Paolo.We are in this world for better and for worse.
Let us not be astonished to see the currents of art become more and more similar from one end of the planet to the other. For why should African artists behave any differently from French, American, or Japanese artists, aside from where they're from, like everyone? Creativity itself requires both an openness to the world and a withdrawing into a self condensed from all the cultural tensions everyone faces in their own way. This is part of the reason Revue Noire was born, voilà, one year ago, to better explain the African continent's existential quest as it relates to the questions posed by everyone in the world.
by Jean Loup Pivin
(published in the magazine Revue Noire RN07, Dakar, December 1992)