#CreativeUprising Op – Ed: African Power Station

#CreativeUprising Op – Ed: African Power Station

Over the next few days in the lead-up to the ACT | UJ Creative Conference, we will be posting several op-eds from our ACT Team members as well as the conference presenters & performers. This will allow the delegates to interact with some of the key themes and ideas around this year’s #CreativeUprising.

Today’s Op-Ed comes from ART AFRICA editor Ashraf Jamal. Catch his presentation at the ACT | UJ Creative Conference on Friday 28 July 2017. 


In Condition Report, a collection of essays concerned with ‘building art institutions in Africa’, Koyo Kouoh – Director of 1:54, the largest annual exhibition of contemporary African art in the northern hemisphere – asks the following: ‘How is Africa after fifty years of Independence, really determining its artistic landscape?’ Kouoh’s approach turns on ‘platforms of criticality and production’ that ‘question hegemonic viewpoints, canons and narratives of art, and develop and manifest approaches of knowledge production outside state institutionalisation’, the better to permit ‘in-between zones, spaces in flux that connect theoretical, visual, practical and local knowledge’.

Wary of the easy canonisation and essentialising of contemporary African art, Kouoh’s vision – nothing short of a manifesto – is designed to challenge the blithe absorption of African art within a global economy. Simon Njami, a contributor to Condition Report, shares this line of questioning.  ‘Can we grasp the needs of our times with contemporary tools’ Njami asks. ‘Can we move beyond the codification of a monolithic history of the world that is outrageously simplified? Can we change the analytic schemas whose purpose was to lock identities into geographic essentialisms?’

For Kouoh and Njami what is needed is a post-national, post-institutional vision – one in which a given institution becomes, after art historian and curator Alexander Dorner, ‘a power station, a producer of new energy’ – and in which, after Njami, ‘a new citizenship is being developed … that rejects all forms of elitism and destroys the barriers between those who know and those who do not know’.

This questioning of ‘hegemonic viewpoints, canons and narratives of art’ is the driving force which is shape-shifting the production and reception of contemporary African art. As Koyo Kouoh and Simon Njami have pointed out in Condition Report, much needs to be done to create ‘a new [global] citizenship’. Francoise Verges concurs, adding that ‘We still have not finished with the decolonization movement that promised to reorganise the world more fairly and “decolonise our minds”. Europe, the West, the Occident, these certain territories denoting economic, military and cultural power continue to dominate even though they are increasingly threatened by other centres of power’.

Hence Alexander Dorner’s intriguing notion of an African ‘power station’; a producer of ‘new energy’.  A utopian idea, it is nevertheless  a thrilling trope through which to reconfigure African art practice and the hubs which generate, shift, and codify that practice, be it the art galleries, art fairs, social media, established art institutions or the long-awaited Zeitz MOCAA, the Museum of Contemporary African Art scheduled to open its doors later this year.

An ambitious PanAfrican project, Zeitz MOCAA aims to redefine African contemporaneity for the world. As Jochen Zeitz notes, ‘We want to use this institution to connect our artists with the rest of the world … and vice versa. For so long, so many African cultural artefacts were taken from us. But now we are – very fortunately – in the position where we can import these back to where they belong. And this, in turn, allows us to export our cultures ourselves; to take them all over and make a much broader cultural community aware of exactly what we have here’.

Given the on-going uncertainty regarding African art and its role in the world, an uncertainty compounded by guileless talk of a ‘new scramble for Africa’, I nevertheless prefer to stick with Jochen Zeitz’s optimism and see the provenance of African art as stemming from more than a filtered and rarefied system of exceptionalism. I refuse to fix the continent’s artists in some ‘ghetto of the imagination’. If decolonisation of the imagination, according to Verges, is not completed, it is certainly under way, and the core of this change lies as much in innovations celebrated within the white cube as in does in the digital sphere and on the streets.

When Koyo Kouoh describes herself as ‘a proud “digital-idiot”’ I understand the sentiment, given my own relative disengagement in the field of digital technology. However, if one is to reconfigure African art in the global sphere, such an enterprise demands an earnest reconsideration of the vital importance of digitisation in this reconfiguration.

Tom Chatfield’s handbook, How to Thrive in the Digital Age, proves a helpful entry point. As Chatfield notes: ‘When we look at the nature and the quality of our interactions with those around us, the very systems that gift us control – email, text messages, status updates, social media – have the potential to denude us of what it means to thrive as human beings: shared history, depth of feeling, the acceptance of each other’s uniqueness’.

For all the talk of the democratisation of the net, what matters for Chatfield, as it does for John Seabrook, author of The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, is an optimistic belief that social media can transform lives. Celebrated as a sphere for the democratisation of art and culture, social media for Seabrook was never a horror story but a triumph. ‘Because more people could make art, more did. The market became flooded with art … The real and important artists had to compete for attention with every kid with a guitar and an interesting haircut. Virtually everyone under twenty-five I met at MTV was an artist of one kind or another’.

And in an intriguing turnaround that thoroughly quashed my prejudice regarding the digital realm, Chatfield points out that ‘contrary to popular belief, “sex” is not the most searched-for term on the internet. If you ask Google about “sex”, it will offer just under two and a half billion results: enough to beat most enquiries but, charmingly, still less than a third of the more than seven billion results for “love”’.

This reassuring fact regarding love reaffirms the central concern of this position paper: The need to develop a global connectivity and to do so by reconfiguring the role of contemporary African art within that sphere. For as Kouoh, Njami, and Verges have pointed out, it is not enough to celebrate the new-found global prominence of African art. Rather, one needs to challenge the ‘scramble’ for African art by generating a counter-narrative to the prevailing prejudices regarding what contemporary African art represents.

African art, therefore, is not merely a rebooted play-thing, sex toy, or fetish, but a potent resource in-and-through which to change global – largely Western and Occidental – perceptions. In other words, shifting from the fetish and the taboo to the open sphere of ‘love’, African art, potentially, can generate a vital shape-shift in received and largely prejudicial perceptions.

The digital sphere is one of many arenas in-and-through which to begin to challenge what Kouoh terms ‘hegemonic viewpoints, canons and narratives of art’. After all, after five hundred years of colonial exploitation surely something has to give? This question may for some seem naïve, however, it is my view that the new-found interest in African art, or in Africa generally, stems from a potent shift in the global – Western – imaginary. Indeed, the intensive interest in African art stems not only from a pragmatic investment in a new market but from a deeply rooted desire for a new global humanism; a humanism in which Africa, and the South in general, is regarded as a healing trope.

On a more pragmatic front, it seems that there is no global economic future without Africa. For as Tom Chatfield reminds us, ‘In Africa … there are now over six hundred million mobile-phone users: more than in either America or Europe’.  So, whether one’s position is pragmatic or utopian, the engagement with Africa as a resource or trope is inescapable.

In ‘Digital Africa’ J.M. Ledgard further reminds us that ‘Connectivity is given: it is coming and happening and spreading in Africa whether or not factories get built or young people find jobs. Culture is being formed online as well as on the street: for the foreseeable future, the African voice is going to get louder, while the voice of ageing Europe quietens’.

Ledgard’s view dovetails well with Koyo Kouoh’s celebration of ‘in-between zones, spaces in flux that connect theoretical, visual, practical and local knowledge’ and Simon Njami’s call that we ‘grasp the needs of our times with contemporary tools’. It is connectivity that matters, a connectivity which thrives outside of institutions, be they existing ones or those still to come into existence. As Ledgard emphatically points out, it is networking, flexibility, open source, and flow which are the determining factors in changing the fate of Africa, together with its vast captive youthful population. Therefore, to understand how Africa can be changed we have to understand its youth.

Ledgard adds, ‘Speaking is still preferred to writing and Africa happens to have timed its digital age to coincide with new voice-activated technologies. The generation gap between those who were trained to guide a fountain pen with their fingers, those whose kinetic memory is dominated by their thumbs, and those even younger who are used to the sweeping movements of the touchscreen, will give way to the return of voice – Africa’s voice’.

Ledgard’s vision is a provocative one, and, for those concerned with what it means to be contemporary in Africa and the role of art-making therein, the vision suggests a very different digitised scenario. In this current-yet-futuristic context perhaps the role of contemporary African art is to find new reasons for bridging what, after all, is nothing but a false divide.

In an essay on renowned architect, Norman Foster, J.M. Ledgard affirms the compelling view that it is cities which ‘supercharge ideas’, and that in these cities it is the slums which supercharge ideas all the more. Ledgard further states that ‘most of the economic growth in the world in the coming years will be from the poorest bits of cities in the poorest countries’. It is evident, therefore, that in Africa innovation will continue to abut hunger; that inspiration and desperation will remain snagged together. Perhaps it is this rich embroiled context which could help us to create art for this world?

It is not a solution I am offering here, but a way of interpreting the world we live in; a world that is indisputably uncertain, in which the very grid that defines the value and meaning of art is vanishing before our very eyes.

In speaking of an ‘African power station’, a ‘producer of new energy’, it is implicitly this brave new world caught between on-going struggle and innovation to which I defer. By fusing the visions of Koyo Kouoh, Simon Njami, Francoise Verges with that of J.M. Ledgard and Tom Chatfield we forcefully come to realise that, in the very instant that African art is being co-opted by global, largely Western, interests, that yet another seam or current of energy is being activated. It is not enough to champion an African art which, reactively, speaks truth to power, or which satisfies received global taste.

This art of which I speak – an art which remakes the way we make things – thrives on the streets, in the slums, and in the digital realm. It is not surprising, therefore, that in addition to being the Artistic Director of 1:54, that Koyo Kouoh is also the Director of Raw Material, a company that focuses on ‘art and intellectualism as a raw material for human development’.

It is in this spirit of uncertainty and innovation that Jonathan T.D. Neil reminds us that ‘contemporary art today, on the whole, doesn’t know how to authorise itself. It doesn’t know what values it subscribes to or what good it is for’.  It would seem, therefore, that the global artworld has come unstuck, that, contra Kouoh’s challenge to preordained canonical or essentialist systems, that, in truth, these systems only possess a simulacral power these days. Indeed, can one truly speak of an ‘African’ art, or even of a radical contemporary African moment, as Kouoh, Njami, Verges, or Ledgard would wish us to? Surely the digital landscape has radically altered any nominal notion such as a defining continent? How ‘African’ is African art? How transcultural? How diasporic?

In South Africa the canon which was created to explain the role and agency of our artists during the resistance and post-resistance years seems no longer satisfactorily operable. Rather it is the heightened fusion of the local and the global and the consequential blurring of that deemed discrete or singular which has emerged as the outcome of the new internationalism and transculturalism.

For J.J. Charlesworth this development signals what he terms a new ‘Esperanto’. ‘As the artworld becomes increasingly global, does it run the risk of destroying cultural difference in its efforts to promote art that is legible, easily understandable, instantly translatable and culturally exchangeable?’ Charlesworth’s question is a critical one, for the pursuit of a unifying Esperanto can also produce the dulling effect of sameness.

‘The artworld … is no longer simply international, but global’, says Charlesworth. ‘Where once there were national art cultures, something different has begun to emerge – a single “artworld” that is no longer dominated by a few powerful national scenes’. We live today in the age of ‘the “networked artist” – the artist who finds opportunities in multiple localities across several continents’. It is within this ‘dispersed, nodal, twenty-first-century paradigm’ that Charlesworth chooses to hold onto the criticality of the local. Art’s task ‘is the task of all localities, together, against the power of the global’.

How, given the absorptive power of globalisation, is this possible? How, in other words, does one hold onto, cherish, or even find the power to express a singularity of place? And does this singularity – this hyperlocality – truly matter? For Charlesworth it emphatically does because it is the homogenisation of cultural difference which we must be wary of. And yet there is no doubt – particularly in this digitised world – that this new twenty-first century artworld paradigm is alluring, for with an accelerated globalisation comes ‘the spread of common intellectual points of reference, as critical production is dispersed across centres, further consolidating artistic communities around common questions’. The problem of course is that within such a paradigm local matters only become relevant once they have found their parallel elsewhere in the world. However, despite the hype about sameness, differences prevail, and it I these differences which Kouoh, Njami, and Verges have sought to outline in Condition Report.

Omar Al-Qattan concurs, for he sees the globalised market as ‘nothing but a colonial market by proxy’. It is precisely this globalised market – this Esperanto – which, he says, will nullify ‘cultural turmoil, conflict and contradiction’. The danger is that the local is being ‘swallowed up by a world in which artistic expression is made banal by easy money and borrowed ideas and fashions, and marketing and public relations considerations rather than the struggles for freedom, equality, authenticity and originality that some artists, thankfully, continue to consider as central to their creative endeavours’.

Paradox abounds. There is no doubt that the artworld is caught in a fraught contradiction. As for the South African artworld in particular, and the African artworld at large, a battle is afoot regarding just how to move forward. Does one forego the national in favour of the continental, and, in so doing, just how does one absorb cultural differences – in the name of some essential unity – without falling prey to indifference?

The challenge is to break the pernicious bonds and the inhibitive frames which have overdetermined and underdeveloped Africa’s growth. No longer a global pariah, Africa is certainly emerging as a continent of choice, be it for business, social transformation, psychic growth, or artistic creativity, for, after five hundred years of exploitation, and, now that the Western world finds itself vulnerable, and the hemispheric vectors of exchange are volatile and open, it proves inevitable that future exchanges with the African continent must move beyond a prior unequal history.

Against the fatality of the cynic or the equipoise of the ironist, that which I believe counts far more is a proactive pragmatics, driving optimism, and radical innovation, for despite the plausible  viewpoints of the many doomsayers all about, a new ethical humanism is on the rise.




Omar Al-Qattan, ‘Culture and Power in a Globalised World’, ArtReview, November 2013.

J.J. Charlesworth, ‘Global vs Local’, ArtReview, November 2013.

Tom Chatfield, How to thrive in the Digital Age, The School of Life Series, Oxford: Macmillan, 2012.

Gabriel Clark Brown, ‘Launch of Zeitz MOCAA’, Art Times, December 2013-January 2014.

Jonathan T.D. Neil, ‘Is the artworld’s celebriphilia merely a symptom of a deeper insecurity?’, ArtReview 2013.

Ashraf Jamal. ‘Zeitz MOCAA’, Art South Africa, December 2013.

Ashraf Jamal & Koyo Kouoh, ‘!:54: A Conversation’, Art South Africa, December 2013.

Koyo Kouoh, Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa, Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013.

J.M. Ledgard, ‘The Space he is in’, Intelligent Life, November-December 2012.

J.M. Ledgard, ‘Digital Africa’, Intelligent Life, Spring 2011.

Simon Njami, ‘Imagined Communities’, Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa, Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013.

John Seabrook, The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Francoise Verges, ‘Mapping “invisible lives”’, Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa, Ostfidern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013.


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