What is African in African Contemporary Art? A Review on ARS 11

by Vlada Müller

26th of October 2011

Mary Sibande: The Reign, 2010 (Photo: FNG/CAA/Pirje Mykkänen)

The ARS Exhibitions that have been held in Finland since 1961 are important cultural events, which aim to introduce international contemporary art to the Finnish public and provoke a discussion on art of our time, to broaden and change “the expectations, viewpoints and attitudes of art experts and the general public alike” (Kiasma). The ARS 11 investigates Africa’s place in contemporary art and claims to change our perception of Africa and contemporary art itself.

In the beginning of the 20th century European avant-garde artists begun to discover aesthetic vigor from African art that was earlier perceived merely as ethnographic artifacts, curiosities from colonized cultures. European artists found in African sculpture new aesthetics, concentrated not on imitative reproduction of real objects such as human beings and animals, but rather on spiritual and essential aspects of reality.

Pablo Picasso described his experience in the exhibition of Trocadero Museum of Ethnology: “I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path”.

His Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1907, where two female figures were depicted with faces resembling African masks was epoch-making in modern art. “By these means, the status of visual art was changed. Art ceased to be merely and primarily aesthetic, but became also a true medium for philosophic and intellectual discourse, and hence more truly and profoundly aesthetic than ever before” .

Actually we are witnessing today in contemporary art a tendency that has even given rise to a general aesthetization in our society by its liberation of form, line, colour, and aesthetic notions – as by its mixing-up of all culture, all styles (Baudrillard). There is no topic today that would not be in the eyeshot of artists, who convey their artistic vision with different technical means. ARS 11 perfectly reflects this situation.

The liberation from dictatorship of European colonial powers and becoming independent countries in the middle of the 20th century brought about intellectual changes in African countries. The intellectual liberation can be seen first of all in the works of female artists in ARS11. Mary Sibande is a visual artist, whose works are inspired by her personal history. She remodels the long line of her female ancestors, who were servants, by creating a fictional character that is actually her alter ego, a glorious woman Sophie. Sophie’s Victorian blue dress is made from material that is still used for making servant dresses, but its gorgeous appearance and situations where Sophie presents herself transform the woman, who perhaps used to be a submissive maid, into a heroic figure. In a new, post-apartheid South Africa “Queen Sophie” turns the rules upside down and appears as a conductor of a new order in Silent Symphony or as a leader of a new-born nation on a prancing horse.

Nandipha Mntambo: Emabutfo, 2009 (Photo: FNG/CAA/Petri Virtanen)

Nandipha Mntambo works with taboos and on taboos. Her installations are made from cowhides and tails, which she handles herself through the whole process of manufacturing. Traditionally in the kingdom of Swaziland, where the artist comes from, only men are allowed to dye and cure the hides. Cow has a high value in this culture – cow tails were used for weapons and ritual items. Besides, young girls at nubile age were symbolically called ‘cows’. In her installation Emabutfo, which means traditional regiments of the Swazi-king, she challenges societal and cultural codes not only by using ‘male’ materials, but by molding warriors onto cast of woman’s body – her own. With her work she offers a new approach to male and female roles in traditional African society.

Postmodern and contemporary artists play with citations from other epochs by putting them in another context and giving them a new meaning. In my opinion, Abraham Onoride Oghobase’s Ecstatics Series refers to Yves Klein’s Un Homme Dans l’Espace. For Klein levitation means an important ability of an artist to advance into space in order to be able to paint it. For Oghobase – levitation is expression of human emotions. He shows its physical but not the spiritual character as Klein does. In Klein’s concept the weightlessness becomes an immanent feature of an artist. Oghobase in contrast withdraws himself from urban spaces of his hometown Lagos while still referring to them.

Baudouin Mouanda from Kongo shows what imprint French colonial culture has left in his country. In his series S.A.P.E., Congo Brazzaville he depicts Congolese sapeurs – a subculture of elegant gentlemen, who are obsessed with luxury clothes made by famous designers and who worship western haute couture. SAPE stands for “Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes”, that can be translated as Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People (Messy Nessy Chic). They are all dandies in Baudelairean sense. Baudelaire described dandy as “the wealthy man, who, blasé though he may be, has no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness, the man nurtured in luxury, and habituated from early youth to being obeyed by others, the man, finally, who has no profession other than elegance, is bound at all times to have a facial expression of a very special kind”.

However, Congolese reality has nothing in common with Paris of 1863, when Charles Baudelaire wrote his “The Painter of Modern Life”. Congolese sapeurs show off with most expensive suits, shirts, accessories and impeccable shoes in their slums and in a war-torn country where per-capita-income was about 3.732 USD in 2010 (U.S. Department of State). Despite Baudelaire’s statement, that without time and money “fantasy, reduced to the state of ephemeral reverie, can scarcely be translated into action” (Baudelaire), Congolese sapeurs have to work almost a year to buy a piece of designer clothes. Beauty is what they are living for, and this is not merely a trend, but a Weltanschauung that makes them artists.

Pottery is traditional African handicraft that is spread throughout the continent and continues to be the essential equipment of households. Though artists from the Ardmore Ceramic Art studio do not use traditional techniques but implement western technology, they draw their inspiration from traditional African culture and refer to actual issues that involve whole South African society. Art is a very powerful instrument of propaganda that appeals to human emotions and enables people to see social problems in a different, but very direct way and helps to educate society about controversial issues. One of those issues is AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa approximately 3600 people die everyday from this devastating disease. In their forthright way artists at Ardmore Ceramic Art created special AIDS awareness pieces that bear significant message against concealment of this global danger.

Pieter Hugo: From the series Permanent Error (Photo: FNG/CAA/Petri Virtanen)

Another topical issue on which African artists reflect using different means is the impact of global economy on African environment. In his series Permanent Error Pieter Hugo represents apocalyptic landscapes on the outskirts of a slum known as Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where electronic waste from industrialized countries is brought for disposal. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly cause a great damage to ecology and to people’s health. When artist asked locals what they called the pit where the burning takes place, they repeatedly responded: “For this place, we have no name” (Hugo). Hugo’s photographs and video installations depict motionless people who stand or rest in the dead grey landscape that has no resemblance with earth how we know and imagine it. There is no sky – only puffs of black smoke. The only colorful spots in the landscape are the people looking like survivals of a nuclear catastrophe and the orange flames coming from burning electronic devices. People look at us, viewers, from video screens and from photographs, as if they were waiting for help. With postmodern artistic means Pieter Hugo shows the other side of progress and technology that bring us to the edge of existence.

Another artist whose work is concerned with African place and identity in globalized world and its relationship to the West is Romuald Hazoumé from Benin. He emphasizes internationality of art, its universal language. The artist says: “Art is essentially like a potato: it grows everywhere in the world, but it has different tastes” (Hazoumé). With Duchampian humor he creates his masks from old oil canisters referring to them as artifacts of African culture most evocative for Europeans and at the same time as symbols of West African oil industry and illegal oil trade that became a genuine social phenomenon.

Romuald Hazoumè: Bob the Shell, 1994

South African artist Andrew Putter constructs in his works presented at ARS 11 an ideal history of a peaceful cohabitation between native population and Europeans who have been settling in southern Africa since the 17th century. Calling themselves “Afrikaners” they have a different cultural identity that roots in their controversial history on African continent. Putters work Secretly I will love you more “draws on the secret utopian potential of the historical encounter between the Hottentots and the Dutch at the Cape in the 1600s. …Within fifty years of the Dutch arriving, the ancient culture of the Hottentots (who called themselves Khoikhoin) had been all but extinguished in their encounter with the Europeans. Over the centuries, the pre-colonial life of the Cape Khoikhoin has been erased from popular memory. They have been forgotten.” (Putter).

Putter’s video installation was inspired by the story of a Dutch commander’s wife, who shortly after her arrival in the Cape adopted a Khikhoi-girl. The artist creates an intimate space, a kind of nursery, where the picture of a woman of the 17th century Dutch paintings comes to life. The woman looks at us from historical frame and sings a lullaby in Khoikhoin-language. Andrew Putter notices that there is no evidence of any Dutch colonist ever learning to speak the language of the native people from Cape; on the contrary: the Khoikhoin were forced to speak Dutch. With his narrative Putter writes an alternative history of his home country that is shaped by love and not by racial segregation and emphasizes “the exhilarating potential that exists between two people facing each other across incommensurable cultural universes (Putter).


In the 60s NASA space missions showed us the earth from beyond in its fragility. In 1965 American politician Adlai Stevenson compared our planet with a little spaceship and thus introduced a new world view by saying: “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil” (Spaceship Earth, Wikipedia). Torrential developing of technology annihilates space. Dwindling essential resources such as water, forests, and oil make the world seem smaller.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has described the state of affairs where the “old” reality dissolves as postmodern. In The Transparency of Evil (1993) he analyzes the state of art today and claims that art has penetrated all realms of existence and has disappeared as separate and transcendent phenomenon. Baudrillard calls this situation transaesthetics. “In the postmodern media and consumer society, everything becomes an image, a sign, a spectacle, a transaesthetic object — just as everything also becomes trans-economic, trans-political, and trans-sexual”.

As evident from the few examples given above, African contemporary art reflects on universal issues that affect us all. Art, involved in globalization processes, has developed an international language. By looking at an artwork you cannot tell today where it was “made”. As Romuald Hazoumé put it: “We need to understand that we have the same problems all over the world on different levels. We all take up this “Coca Cola’ culture, which makes us unaware of our own culture” (Hazoumé). African contemporary artists use international aesthetic forms to realize their artistic visions, but they put global issues into national, African context, enriching them with genuine culture, deeply rooted in tradition.

The writer participated Art Theory and Criticism I: History and Theory class at Helsinki University autumn 2011. She has also travelled largely in Africa.


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