contemporary african art through african eyes

May 1, 2019
1.4K Picks

In an art world where commercial fairs are a dime a dozen,1-54 is special because of the kind of work it exhibits, and the ideas behind the work that it puts forth. Founded in 2013 in London, by Touria El Glaoui, daughter of the Moroccan artist Hassan El Glaoui, 1-54 bills itself as a Contemporary African Art Fair. And its FORUM section is a smorgasbord of intellectual stimulation, conversation and dialogue — exchanges that are especially pertinent now, when the boom in art made by artists on the continent is experiencing unprecedented critical and commercial success.

Richard Mudariki, “On Instagram (Africa is not a country)”(2018); oil on canvas, 90 x 90 cm. (Courtesy of Barnard gallery and the artist)

For 1-54’s fifth New York edition, set to take place at Industria in Manhattan’s West Village (May 3-5), the main theme of the FORUM’s programming is building infrastructure. Curated by Black Chalk & Co., an interdisciplinary collective founded by Zimbabwean artist/scholars Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti (who work out of, respectively, Harare and Richmond, Virginia), this year’s FORUM carries the subtitle, Why don’t you carve other animals?, and will be a series of talks, panels and screenings that will explore a range of relevant, unfolding and exciting topics.

In a Q & A with AFROPUNK, Mr. Mushakavanhu and Ms. Mutiti shared the clarity of their intentions and brought a sense of optimism in regard to the infinite potential of Black diasporic art and thought. Their insights on the development of a nexus of networked art practitioners, the importance of convening across geographies, leveling the playing field and intellectual visibility; interdisciplinary knowledge production and the force of collective action are invaluable. The age of Black Art Renaissance  is real, multi-faceted and has a lot of faces and meanings. So if you are in New York and interested, get a ticket and sit in on the action.

Black Chalk & Co. (L-R): Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu (photo: Daniel Diasgranados)

Tell us a little about yourselves as individuals, and about Black Chalk & Co. What are you creative focuses? What are your goals?

Black Chalk & Co is a collective that brings together writers, artists, designers, academics, and technologists with a mutual interest in publishing and curating public conversations. Our work embraces different modes of research, learning and making as we move between spaces. Every project, every collaboration we’re a part of is a means of knowledge production or an act of surfacing histories and aspirations that dominant cultures submerge. Black Chalk & Co. was founded by a writer-scholar (Tinashe Mushakavanhu) and a graphic designer (Nontsikelelo Mutiti). For us, the shift was from thinking about our individuality to thinking about institution building and the collective impact we can have. That has been exciting, how to elevate the great work that is found within ourselves, among our communities, home and abroad.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Black Bloc” (from the series ‘Our Present Invention’, 2012).
(Courtesy of the artist)

Tell us a little bit about your relationship with 1-54, and what you see as 1-54’s role in the growing global engagement with contemporary African art. What is it about 1-54 that makes it a good platform for Black Chalk & Co. to engage audiences from?

When 1-54 was introduced in New York a few years ago we were part of the African diaspora community who supported the platform through attendance. We went to all the previous editions with our network of friends, just to hang out there, or sit in for some panels. The opportunity to be guest curators of 1-54 FORUM, was for us an opportunity to produce something we can’t easily find as Black artists invested in history, archives and knowledge production — intellectual visibility. 1-54 FORUM was initiated as a space for knowledge exchange and growth, a space for collective cultural imagination, a space for listening to one another, speaking contemporary truths, and re-evaluating the ways in which we can engage and understand history. Our program and line-up of speakers seeks to challenge audiences, artists, art critics and buyers and the culture at large to think about African aesthetics and intellectual production in new ways.

Nirit Takele, “Exposed Identity” (2018); acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150cm. (Courtesy Addis Fine Art)

One can probably be overly utopian about how the art market and creative world’s gaze is now on African artists – or you can be overly cynical about that attention. Can you share your perspective on the art world’s increased interest in contemporary African art and creativity?  

The presumption here is that African art is new. It has always existed. The world (white) is late to the game as far as African art goes. The question for us now is: How do we subvert this white gaze so prevalent in the art world? For a long time the debate has been choreographed, or even curated by power brokers in Euro-America, but African artists and curators are upending the narrative.

Seydou Keïta, “Untitled” (1950-1955); Gelatin Silver Print, 22 x 17 inches, Edition of 10. (Courtesy of Danziger Gallery)

Can you tell us about the title you selected for the 2019 series of talks you have organized for 1-54 New York, Why don’t you carve other animals?

Our decision to dedicate our program to the legacy of Yvonne Vera was informed by the need to restore and recover the historical contributions of women in art which are often erased or ignored. Vera is mostly remembered as a novelist, but her work as one of the pioneering Black female gallerists in post-independence Zimbabwe has hardly been acknowledged. Vera’s major exhibitions such as Thatha Camera [1999, Bulawayo National Gallery of Zimbabwe] and Thatha Baskili re-examined the past, unearthing histories of Black people in Rhodesia that had been previously excluded. Unconfined by the art world establishment and working outside the limited perspective of a predominantly male art world, Vera effectively broadened it. Through our series of planned talks, panels, film screenings and performances we are extending the conversation Yvonne Vera started about opening spaces for women, people of color and other marginalised groups. Our theme is based on her title short story, Why don’t you carve other animals, which captures ideas around the agency of the artist, the imagination of the artist, representation, creative output, and placement.

Henry ‘Mzili’ Mujunga, “Afronaut [detail]” (2018); oil, acrylics, and tempera on canvas; 170 x 130 cm. (Courtesy of Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi)

What are the themes that seem to be most relevant, urgent and innovative that you hope to explore?

The program attracted some of the most important artists and thinkers in the U.S. and the African diaspora today to reflect on institution-building, the relationship between home and diaspora, who are the brokers between the audience and the work of art, what is the place of Black architecture in art. We are highlighting very important voices of our time, not just the panelists but also moderators who are themselves specialists, curators, critics, architects and artists.

Boris Nzebo, “Ashouka Ngagali” (2018); acrylic & posca on canvas, 200 x 230cm. (Courtesy Jack Bell Galle)

Can you speak a bit about your collaboration and the significance of having outposts in the United States, in Richmond, VA, and on the continent in Harare?

Moving between geographies is so much a part of being African and Zimbabwean in this millennium. We use displacement as a creative force to negotiate the necessity of leaving Zimbabwe — our home country, a place of little creative freedoms, political repression and violence — to other places for economic sustenance, and to feed our intellectual curiosities. Even though we may be physically away from home, we are simultaneously in more than one place at any given moment, constantly communicating with family, friends, colleagues spread around the world. America under Donald Trump has also forced us to interrogate what it means to be an immigrant in the world today.  

Devan Shimoyama, “Miles [detail]” (2019); oil, color pencil, jewelry, Flashe, glitter, collage, sequins and fabric on canvas stretched over panel; 152 x 122cm. (Courtesy De Buck Gallery)

What have been some surprises and some of the obstacles in regard to the evolving global interest in African contemporary art? Where do you see the most resistance? The most acceptance?

Rather than focusing on obstacles, we are really preoccupied with the relationship that the art scenes in Africa can have. There have been so many institutional and historical obstacles that frustrate the development of strong networks between art practitioners on the continent. There continues to be an emphasis on an art market or audience that is outside of our borders and cultures. It is such circumstances that motivated an individual like Bisi Silva (now late) to run the Asiko program, a roaming art school, which facilitated deep connections to be made between artists,curators and critics who are operating in different contexts on the continent and in the African diaspora. There is no way to express the profound impact that this had on participants, facilitators and their communities. We feel the impact in our work and can directly trace the ways in which we have been able to move and build even as we are living and working in the United States. The world comes to us — but we are also moving through the world. We are able to convene in spaces nestled in cosmopolitan cities like Addis Ababa, Berlin, Harare, Johannesburg, Kumasi, and London.

Are there any regional nuances that you can share that may not be as obvious to art enthusiasts with less exposure to the African contemporary art scene?

Africa is such a huge context. Our work is directly inspired by our community in Zimbabwe and in the broader global context in which we move and operate. Many artists and practitioners are directly involved and invested in building infrastructure(s). This is so important in thinking about how artworks are produced. What are the constraints, expectations with regards to materials, forms and formats? Who are the primary and secondary audiences and how does this impacts the work?

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, “Strut [with twins]” (2018); Thread, ink, graphite on tracing paper; 61x61cm. (Courtesy 50 Golborne)

CCA Lagos, one of the notable initiatives that Bisi Silva also cultivated, is situated in Lagos, Nigeria. This space is a lighthouse signalling the existence of dynamic homegrown platforms for the presentation and study of art within the African context. Another space in Lagos is The Treehouse, run by Wura-Natasha Ogunji as a gathering place for her peers in the community. In Zimbabwe, there is Animal Farm, founded by Admire Kamudzengerere. Village Unhu, run by Misheck Masamvu and Gina Maxim in Harare, is a collective that houses artists studios and a gallery. They have been instrumental in bringing Zimbabwean artists to regional art fairs such as the Cape Town Art Fair. Other spaces like First Floor Gallery and Njelele Art Station have become hubs for exchanges, hosting artists from abroad and other parts of the continent for exhibitions, panel discussions and residencies. It would be a mistake to not mention artist Helen Leiros, whose mentorship and example that was such an important foundation for many young artists from Zimbabwe. We continue to be inspired but the work of other colleagues such as Keleketla Library, Alphabet Zoo in Johannesburg. NLS an artist run space in Kingston, Jamaica also has a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and open access. We are very excited about the work Deborah Anzinger is doing there and have a number of colleagues that have been supported by this initiative.

Stephen Towns, “All is Vanity” (2016); acrylic, oil, metal leaf on canvas; 91 x 91cm (Courtesy De Buck Gallery)

If you’re in New York this weekend, here’s a full-list of the programming at 1-54