Ekow Eshun is a British writer, broadcaster and curator. All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
African art is having a fashionable moment. People are very interested in him, but there is still a feeling of Africa and African art as a kind of exotic “other” that is on the periphery and not really at the center of the dialogues and debates. However, it is more important than ever to affirm Africa’s position as a place that has something significant to say.
There is a historical tendency to imagine Africa on the brink of history, cultural conversation, and global affairs. But across the continent, there is a powerful exchange of ideas, about who we are and how we live, that has not been truly recognized worldwide.
John Akomfrah’s work in the Ghana Pavilion, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim and designed by David Adjaye, at the 58th Venice Biennale. Credit: Courtesy of David Levene.
Yinka Shonibare: ‘Art should start the conversation’
It is not the role of artists, be it music, design, architecture or fashion, to represent an authentic version of Africa. Their role is to expand our expectations and our ideas of what Africa can be.
Africa is a place of multiplicity. You can stand in a corner of a certain city, in Dakar, Lagos or Accra, for example, and see different influences, cultures, colors and patterns that come from all over the world. That is what you hear in music. That is what you see in the movies. That is what you see referenced in art too. Africa is not a separate part of the world.
Some people argue that we should not look at African artists as African artists, that we should think of them as artists of the world. I personally don’t buy that.
Yinka Shonibare’s “Scramble for Africa” (2003) Credit: Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare / Stephen White / Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
I think the mistake we make is assuming that if you are an artist from Africa, your job is to faithfully represent Africa to the exclusion of anything else.
Your job, so to speak, is to be an African artist, which is just to say that you have the space, the freedom, the luxury, the possibility of taking out of Africa and making that lineage and that heritage what you want, and presenting to Africa not as a fixed proposal, but as a state of possibility.