2005 was also the year when the United Kingdom chaired the G8 summit and held the presidency of the European Union, and Western policies on aid to Africa was at the centre of the year’s political debate. In retrospect I think that London’s “Africa Remix” came across as a mere feature in a British cultural fad, and had its message drowned out by the media hype surrounding other, larger events such as the “Make Poverty History” campaign and the Live8 concert in Hyde Park.
Surrounded by so many voices which were claiming to provide all-encompassing solutions for Africa, at the time I went in to the exhibition profoundly skeptical as to how it could claim to represent Africa when it doesn’t even feature as many artists as there are countries in the continent. It is only now, here in Tokyo – in the first country the exhibition has been shown in which did not have a colonial relationship with Africa – that I can look at the show without the political cacophony going on in the background, and realize that it simply does not aim to provide answers to the many, many questions it raises. On the contrary, it seeks to confuse you, to overturn all your preconceptions of what this continent is about.
The first part of the exhibition deals with the concepts of “Identity & History” and therefore the issues of race and colonialism which often preoccupy Westerners when they look at Africa, but thereafter the works in the “Body & Soul” and the “City & Land” sections deal with themes which are common to us all. For those of us who haven’t been there and have grown up with the media’s representation of Africa as the eternal source of bad news, the challenge this show presents is to accept that while these problems do exist, they do not define the continent.
The exhibition is simply too big to make generalized comments about the works on show. Highlights for me included Yto Barrada’s beautifully composed, transcendental photographs of urban and rural life in Tangier; Julie Mehretu’s large-scale, abstract, cyclone-like line drawings; and Omar D’s photographic portraits from Algeria.
Unfortunately, my favourite work from the London version of the show has been ruined in its presentation here. In London, visitors were greeted straight away by Romuald Hazoumé’s “Armed Can”, a tower of jerry cans arranged on their sides so that they resemble wooden masks: their handles become noses and the water-nozzles become gaping mouths. In the comparatively low-ceilinged rooms of the Hayward Gallery, the work had a commanding, totemic presence. Here in the Mori museum’s atrium, which must have something like a ten-metre high ceiling, it has been shoved to the side of the escalators, where it stands like a stunted pile of junk in a shopping mall. It’s a sad waste of one of the exhibition’s most iconic pieces of work, and it diminishes the initial impact that could otherwise be felt when walking into the show.
Where African art and its representation in Africa and abroad will go from here remains to be seen. However, what is clear is that the Euro-American centrism of the contemporary art world is slowly giving way to an increasingly international culture of artistic exchange, as one can see in the meteoric rise of the Chinese contemporary art scene and the increase in biennales and triennales appearing all over Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa. The work on show at “Africa Remix” will no doubt appear unfamiliar to many of those who see it and most reviewers, like myself, feel compelled to explain the exhibition’s purpose. The curators hope that this will be the last “introductory anthology” African exhibition of its kind. And I hope that in ten or twenty years from now people will look back in disbelief at how it has taken us so long to get to this point.