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The complex art of African identities

2016-05-22 18:25

For the fifth year in a row, the annual !Kauru Contemporary African Art exhibition considers issues affecting the continent by using visual arts. Garreth van Niekerk speaks to this year’s curators from Angola and Zimbabwe

Africans from across the diaspora and on the continent have embraced the power of visual arts as a tool to escalate the project of decolonisation, most recently in South Africa – with its freshly fallen monuments and newly mobilised task teams.

But what has the decolonisation project created? What do we do next? Who gets to contribute to the bigger plan? These questions will take years to answer, if at all, but the artists in this year’s !Kauru Contemporary African Art project attempt to dismantle, erase and rewrite them, asking us: “How do we construct our evolving understanding of what it means to be an African?”

The series of collaborative exhibitions, workshops and talks – created in conjunction with the department of arts and culture – opens at the Unisa Art Gallery on Africa Day every year.

This year’s theme, Being and Becoming: Complexities of the African Identity, invites curators, artists and institutions from around the world to express their interest in creating a dialogue about the conversations taking place in and about Africa.

Tshepiso Mohlala, the director of the !Kauru project and founder of the Black Collector’s Forum, told #Trending this week: “The reason I partnered with the department of arts and culture five years ago was to try to use what tools I have to address the past four years of xenophobic attacks, which really affected me.

“We look at issues of racism, decolonising and accessibility to art through the eyes of the people on the continent who are already addressing those issues.”

The focus of !Kauru falls largely on video and photography work, with older pieces such as Moyo – a legendary 2013 video work by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai – and newer works such as Cimarron by American-born, Joburg-based artist Ayana V Jackson, which are being presented alongside one another.

One of the exhibition’s curators, Raphael Chikukwa, who is the chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, said this nod to the past created a context for the work of contemporary artists.

He told #Trending this week: “There is a need to look back at those who came before us; at those who have contributed immensely to identity issues after World War 2. I am talking about the African Nationalist movement, the Black Panthers and the rise of the African-American who questioned the issue of representation in the American art systems in the 50s. After fighting alongside their white counterparts in World War 2, many Africans felt the need to liberate themselves, and Being and Becoming is a dialogue with those who came before us because the struggle is not yet over.

“The artists in this exhibition, with their multiple voices and different mediums, present their works to the South African audience to create dialogue on these complex issues. These are by no means the only artists in Africa interrogating these issues, but the exhibition provides an opportunity to examine parallels in working processes and strategies. As we celebrate Africa Day, this exhibition is important because art provides us with ways of thinking, or looking, that can be of value in our lives at this time,” Chikukwa said.

I asked Angolan curator Paula Nascimento, who released a magical book looking at the modernist cinemas of Angola last year, to pick one central work in the exhibition.

“It is difficult for me to choose only one piece, but if I had to, I’d choose New Words for Mindelo’s Urban Creole by Irineu Destourelles.”

It is a minimal yet extremely complex piece that uses language as a tool to explore and deconstruct the complexities of identity and social behaviours in colonised countries, as well as its role in the creation of new narratives. The artist creates definitions for invented/imagined words for the creole of the city of Mindelo in Cape Verde, a place that has been through a process of change and adaptation to democracy and to the processes of modern globalisation. The piece reveals the ambivalence of those processes of adaptation and transformation by creating a vocabulary for a set of social behaviours existing in the creole culture but inherited from its colonial past.

Being and Becoming runs from May 25 to June 25 at the Unisa Art Gallery in Pretoria

March 29 2020