In the beginning of the 20th Century, black art refused by the academic establishment as primitive and bizarre in its lack of proportions has inspired the greatest revolution in modern and contemporary art: Pablo Picasso found inspiration in the African sculptures for a new code of forms and dimensions completely innovative. Black art has not influenced just the cubists movement, through the work of Picasso and George Braque, but also the fauvism of Henri Matisse, the expressionism of André Derain, and painters such as Max Ernst and Paul Klee.
If these artists are today celebrated in every gallery and museum of the world, and their works, once anti-establishment and contested by institutions, are now celebrated as a bastion of occidental culture, sold as luxury merchandise to the capitalist market, black art continues to be undervalued in spite of emerging with unique charm, often the kind born of and inspiring freedom of expression, to degrees that European art might lack.
Only ten of 54 African states have been invited to participate in the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale 2017. Despite the reduced number of artists, Africa has stood out with talent from Peju Alatise, Nigerian artist with the breath-taking installation “Flying Girls,” to the Egyptian filmmaker Moataz Nasr with the suggestive film “Mountain;” from Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng and their sharp research and interviews on migration, to the curator of Tunisia, who created a work on the crisis of refugees: a “freesa,” a passport with the only detail that really counts: “only human.”
It is rather saddening to see how this festival of arts that should be the mirror of global creativity is in fact the reflection of remnants of a postcolonial and capitalist logic of the world, where the space more important of the island of Arsenale is reserved to the white and rich countries, and the outskirts of the city to the rest, a separation that bears the mark of colonialism, never defeated, with art still used as an instrument to suggest the superiority of a country over another.
This forced hierarchy does not, however, refer to creativity, but to political and economic status, as has happened in this year´s edition of Documenta, partly hosted in Athens, in addition to the usual host – Kassel. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek minister of Finance has commented about the move comparing it to the phenomenon of “crisis tourism: “It’s like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country, doing a safari, going on a humanitarian tourism crusade. I find it unhelpful both artistically and politically.” This speaks to a sort of tokenism at the heart of curatorial decisions, which are invariably impacted by wider political realities.
If these lingering phenomena of colonialism persist in the politics of the art world today, it´s worth questioning the role of creative freedom in relation to social and political realities. Can creativity push against these obsolete modes of organising the art world? Are there structures and platforms that can develop and host strategies of decolonisation?
This year, museums such as MACBA museum of contemporary art in Barcelona and the Kunstmuseum in Basel have organised conferences about the topic. From these meetings, a new way of conceiving the art space and participation emerges: the creation of a space that moves past the Western/Eurocentric model, and which remains accessible to every country, not dictated by the rules of economic profit, but moved by a genuine desire for knowledge and cultural exchange.
Words: Veronica Mafolino
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu