Africa as a theme for an exhibition of contemporary art is more or less doomed to failure. Consider this: what if a group of Nigerian curators decided to mount an exhibition of contemporary European art. What would it be about?
If one had to choose 30 European artists, who would they be? What would they stand for? And what would be the European identity purportedly expressed by such an exhibition? Might it perhaps be about something else altogether? Maybe the way Nigerians regard Europe and its many nations?
African identity is even a more problematic issue than European identity, if only because the African continent is such a vast and complex place with thousands of languages and cultures. It would be foolish indeed to try to present the entire range of contemporary African art in a single exhibition. The question of what constitutes contemporary African art is just as nebulous and impossible as a similar question concerning contemporary European art.
Instead of sweeping generalisations, a much more interesting proposition is to consider the work of a few dozen artists, and the themes and ideas that for some reason have become so important for them that they have wanted to turn them into art. Another interesting perspective is to turn attention to our reality, to the selection criteria of the exhibition. Why have these particular artists been included? What is the story of the relationship of Finns to Africa that the exhibition is relating?
VIEWPOINTS ON AFRICA
The ARS 11 artists have been selected over the course of a two-year research project. While each one of them has their own viewpoint on Africa, they are all engaged in contemporary issues and a shared world, often through very personal concerns. The art they make speaks across all boundaries. Instead of making assertions, it questions or suggests or interprets things.
ARS 11, therefore, is not an exhibition of contemporary African art. The common factor instead is the artists’ relationship to Africa, to a continent saturated with myths, yet where a great deal more is happening than we see on TV, a place full of cultures, histories and events few people know much about. All the artists featured in the exhibition have their own personal attitude towards Africa. Some were born there. Some explore issues in their art that have to do with some particular African country, or its real or imagined history. Some tell stories about their own life, some create imaginary things.
Some of the ARS 11 artists exploit the expectations or myths associated with African culture or African art, turning an ironic and deconstructive eye on them. On the other hand, some of them hardly consider themselves representatives of Africa at all, and why should they? Perhaps ARS 11 might also be regarded as a statement that ethnic identity or place of birth can never be the sole defining factors of a person.
There is much nostalgia for a genuine and authentic Africa. Naturally enough, some people coming from Africa take advantage of the sentiment over here. Underlying the demand for authenticity is the notion of the familiar and the alien, of us and them. Do we still today want to see art that bolsters the things we already know?
Cultures and art are always in a constant state of flux, merging and influencing each other; it is therefore impossible to connect with something genuine, because it simply does not exist. Why is it so difficult to let go of the concept of authenticity? Instead of authenticity and a search for familiar comparisons, it might be more interesting to let the artists speak for themselves through their work.
Some of the artists in the exhibition explore very personal and intimate issues: longing, love or the lack of it, reaching beyond everyday reality. From the private sphere they move nimbly to the public, and the themes addressed in the works are also global, touching all of us. ARS 11 frontlines stories about migration, the movement of people and goods, and the restrictions on movement. Some of the artists focus on environmental issues, such as the recycling of goods, while others concentrate on consumer culture or waste problems. Many works pulse with the rhythms of urban life. History is present in city streets as well as in the countryside.
Africa is rife with powerful mental images that have been constructed in our western minds through the imageries produced by movies, literature and explorers, through the entire collective and painful history of colonialism. The works in the exhibition recall authentic events from the past, yet they also suggest new and alternative interpretations of the past and thereby also of the future. The roles adopted by the artists, sometimes sheer poses, force us to re-evaluate our own relationship to Africa.