'Angaza Afrika' preview

Time Out looks at the contrasting fortunes of African artists and why many remain underappreciated

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    Mohamed Omer Bushara's violent and beautiful collage, 'Untitled', 2007

    How African is African art? A similar argument (How black are you?) raged in the late 1980s over the Rasta livery – the red, gold and green of the Ethiopian flag – when it became a popular accessory among African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and even a few dreadlocked white folk, to signify a similarly confused range of messages from African pride through to vague musical appreciation of reggae. The colours were emblazoned on T-shirts, beaded trinkets and Africa-shaped leather pendants, supposedly in a show of African solidarity and of protest against South African gold, but just how ‘conscious’ were the wearers of their meaning? (Red for the blood of the martyrs, gold for the sun and green for the land, in case you’re interested). Was this really an Afrocentric movement or just a dedicated following of fashion?

    The same question could be asked today, when faced with an art world currently in thrall to all things African. Some might say it’s high time, because even a century after explorers and cartographers nicknamed Africa ‘the dark continent’, western curators and collectors rarely set foot there. Perhaps the clearest response comes from the artists themselves, who are being celebrated in a new book ‘Angaza Afrika’, launched this week with an accompanying show in Bloomsbury.

    ‘I don’t give a toss about Africa’; ‘To hell with African art’ and ‘I’m an artist who paints for humankind who just happens to come from Africa’, are just some of the forthright opinions gathered by the book’s author, Chris Spring, who has been to Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal and many other countries in his capacity as the British Museum’s curator of African art. ‘Angaza’ means to ‘shed light’ or ‘look around’ in Swahili and Spring has spread his search to include a good number of artists who work outside their native Africa, in the art capitals of the western world. Many of these outsiders, who have escaped what Ghanaian artist El Anatsui calls ‘the invisibility syndrome’ of those who remain, might well feel aggrieved to be lumped into the unformed mass of African art when they’ve been steadily chipping away at wider contemporary art acceptance for years.

    ‘I’m not rejecting my background,’ says Sudanese artist Mohamed Bushara, who’s been based in Oxford since 1999, ‘but I’m just an artist. People might be expecting a certain kind of tribal or traditional art from Africa but nobody would group together work by English artists in the same way.’ Bushara’s colourful abstraction differs wildly from the junk-metal aesthetic of London-based Sokari Douglas Camp, but in the book she too admits to feeling somehow ‘outside’ the cultural heritage of both Britain and Nigeria.

    Other artists have held their ground and waited for the international scene to find them. ‘Would I ever leave Africa for Europe? No, absolutely not,’ is photographer Samuel Fosso’s blunt response to the identity crisis facing many expatriates; ‘When I look in the mirror I am not looking to find out if what I see is an Ibo, a Central African or even a black American. The only thing I can see is Samuel Fosso, who is trying to make himself as handsome as possible before taking a self-portrait.’ Fosso had to wait 20 years for his discovery in the West; another photographer Malick Sidibé’s first real honours were awards for lifetime achievement in 2003 and 2007, while the self-taught portrait photographer Seydou Keïta died eight years before his work reached its current dizzy heights at Tate Modern.

    However, even hard-won success can come at a price. Keïta’s first New York show (aged 76) featured his pocket-sized prints of mid-century Malian natives blown up to giant, market-friendly size, and control over his imagery has been fraught ever since. The world’s foremost collector of African art, the Swiss buyer Jean Pigozzi, whose holdings are now hanging at the Tate, once claimed ownership over Keïta, despite never having visited the continent himself.

    As Spring’s book suggests, the work being made in Africa is as diverse as the socio-cultural mix therein, and that’s what makes it such an enthralling ride. Africanicity is not a blanket term or a coat to be worn and taken off – by its very nature it’s sprawling, unknowable and unstoppably energetic. It’s not just red, black and green, like the colours of the Pan-African flag, but comprises all kinds of light and, inevitably, some darker shades.

    'Angaza Afrika' is at The October Gallery until Jun 28. 'Angaza Afrika: African Art Now’ by Chris Spring is published by Laurence King on May 19.

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