Nipping it in the bud

by T Leibbrandt


Arguably one of the main attractions at this year’s art fair was Tate Modern director Chris Dercon’s day three Alpha Romeo talk on ‘Audiences: How Much Do We Really Care’ and indeed many interesting assertions presented themselves. One of the more eyebrow-raising sections emerged with regards to the Tate’s future plans in terms of incorporating African art both into the permanent collection and into future exhibitions. The result could be broke down as such:

“All methods of African art production that are going to be ignored by the Tate in the future please step forward. Not so fast Young African Contemporary Photographers and Historical Artists.”

In other words, the crux of the matter seemed to be that Tate’s view on the increased inclusion of African Art into its collection will revolve around “historical modern artists from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s…and of course Photography, young contemporary photography” to quote Dercon. As to why everyone else is still sitting on the bench, Dercon asserts that “lack of knowledge and expertise is the principle problem from Tate’s perspective” and it is “easier to engage with contemporary art on an international level than historical”, hence why they feel that focussing on the historical is more “ambitious”. Couple this with the talk’s concluding video (which declared the Tate to be the model for the “Museum of the Future”) and a fairly perplexing scenario presents itself.

The question that is thus begged is “What are the photographers doing right that everyone else is doing wrong?” If one throws in the four decade block of historical artists, the alarming logical conclusion is that there is a sect that neatly perpetuates the pigeon-holing of Africa as the turmoil-ridden dark continent that everyone else can turn to and say “Hey, at least we’re not those guys.”  This may seem like the easily-assumed “autogripe” position but when Dercon enthusiastically makes reference to the fact that Okwui Enwezor is working on a photographic exhibition about apartheid or Tate’s currently exhibiting of “an amazing body of work” of Guy Tillim’s photographic series depicting the 2006 Democratic Republic of Congo elections, it doesn’t necessarily contradict that position.

In a sense this approach forces African artists to adopt a specific position (and indeed mode of production) if they wish to gain recognition. This is not unlike the horticultural pruning process of snipping the apical buds in order to fashion the growth of a tree or bush within a very specific, pre-determined range of shape, size and degree of productivity.

Granted this article is dwelling on specific aspects of Dercon’s talk that weren’t necessarily central to his discussion of audiences and the future of the museum. And indeed it is not the article’s intention to imply that it is suddenly Tate’s responsibility to single-handedly propel every last sect of African art to the forefront of the international art market. The point rather is that the projected approach to incorporating African art into the collection, as outlined by Dercon, seems to perpetuate the current trend of imposed latency that is charitably bestowed on African art acquisition on an international level. “Anyone can do contemporary art, so you guys stick to what you do best”, seems to be the implication. Focussing on modern African art is fine, but does it really have to be so Modern?

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