[Sharlene Khan sets up a discourse for looking at 'contemporary' African art, in particular from a curatorial perspective, seeking to challenge the role of Western curators taking on the job of selecting African works and taking them to the world stage. This is a comparative text calling upon Edward Said''s idea of the intellectual and curators to seriously consider the implications of their role as intellectuals in contemporary culture. This article has been structured in a way that considers 'representation and responsibility' and moves on to discuss 'accountability'. Major factors which are examined are the problems with contemporary/craft representations in taking African art to western audiences as well as issues surrounding race, education, ethnicity and questions the morality of such curatorial procedures.][1]

[Image: Sharlene Khan and Collen Burrows Hung Curator 2007, digital photograph]

Politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought or, for that matter, into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory (Said, 1994: 16).


African art has, since the 1980s, gained ground in the Western contemporary art world as large-scale shows featuring African art have set the stage for portrayals of a post-colonial Africa. This has not been an easy task of course when one has to negotiate a minefield of myths and fallacies about a continent filled with hundreds of cultures, religions, languages, traditions and histories.


Despite this, the all-encompassing ‘African’ label has perhaps been necessary not only in bringing attention to the continent and its cultural productions, but also in trying to challenge and dispel prevailing stereotypical notions of whether Africans can actually make ‘art’, what is ‘African art’ and how it should be included in international showcases, the usual ‘is it art/is it craft’ debate, what constitutes an African artist and what is ‘contemporary’ in Africa? Curators such as Jean-Hubert Martin, Francesco Bonami, Okwui Enwezor, Olu Oguibe, Salah Hassan and Simon Njami have all been faced with these difficult artistic and ideological challenges when featuring African art in mega exhibitions, pavilions and biennales.


While many of said curators have had the best interest of Africa at heart, our ‘saviors’ have also come under intense criticism. The many Western curators who have traversed African countries picking artwork to represent the continent have been criticized of perpetuating some of the very same stereotypes that they themselves have tried to challenge: they can be seen as exploiting ‘Africa’ in the same way colonist traders, anthropologists and historians did; and more recently of engaging with African art one dimensionally, that is through focussing on socio-political art work exclusively and then through a ‘supermarket shopping’ mentality.


It is based on these paradoxes that this article questions the role of curators, quite specifically Western curators, who engage with ‘Other’ contexts like Africa. Their importance in the global system is not under question here, but rather what their roles and obligations are as purveyors in cultural knowledge systems. This article does not deal with the ‘business’ side of contemporary curatorial practice, but rather questions curatorship on an ideological, moralistic level. This is partly because curatorship is not only seminal in the dissemination of information on different African experiences, but is also actively engaged in promoting Africa as cultural capital in the wider contemporary art circles and Western culture. In this, I compare curators to Edward Said’s idea of the intellectual in the ‘art of representation’, and call upon curators to seriously consider the implications of their role as intellectuals in contemporary culture.


In his The Role of Intellectuals (1994), Said identifies that the ability to represent is what implicitly defines an intellectual,


Today, everyone who works in any field connected either with the production or distribution of knowledge is an intellectual in Gramsci’s sense. …. The central fact for me is, I think that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. (1994: 7, 9)


The above quote accurately defines a curator in today’s art culture, as curators are constantly seeking to represent not only new art styles and practices, but increasingly local contexts, situations, perspectives, identities and histories (which is the ‘artwork’ of a curator). Representation, though, comes with a level of responsibility and accountability not only to an audience and sponsors, but to those being represented.



Representation and Responsibility:


Attempts to showcase African art inevitably runs into a number of representational problems. Curators are faced with various expectations of what a show on Africa should encompass from historic ‘traditional’ artworks that have come to typify African art, rural or informal creative works (craft) to new media works that fit neatly into twenty-first century contemporary art exhibitions. An established First World/Third World polemic that significantly differentiates between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ has resulted in any African shows ignoring craft or showing more new-media works being attacked as being untrue to the Third World-ness of Africa.[2] Another expectation that is heaped upon art from Africa, is the constant association of works which deal specifically with the socio-political and economic woes of Africa. African artists can often be heard bemoaning that while Western artists have the luxury of modernism’s ‘art-for-art’s sake’, Third World artists have to be the moral conscience of the world, consistently serving up disaster after disaster of Third World existence for consumption. While one has grown accustomed to this type of representation in the mass media, that they constantly flood the supposedly more critical realm of the visual arts is indeed troubling.


So because strife-ridden Africa remains highlighted, curators of these large scale exhibitions end of in the paradox of trying to challenge stereotypes of exotic craft-based, timeless Africa but often dishing up representations of collective or personal struggle that continues to ‘Other’ Africa. ‘Struggle’ becomes our cultural capital and passport to international art exhibitions and continues to be defined in this way to a Western audience.


But, Michel Foucault reminds us that the masses have agency in their self-determination in his essay on ‘Intellectuals and Power’,


In the most recent upheaval, the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves (Foucault, [1972] 1977: 207-208).


If Foucault is correct about the masses being able to articulate themselves, why is it so hard to hear expressions of Africans about themselves and their art except through these Western curators who use Africa as a knowledge base? Foucault understands that though the knowledge base of the intellectual comes from ‘the masses’ themselves, those who are represented are not heard in centralised discourses and that the intellectual’s position in, and access to, these dominant spaces is what essentially allows them to present Other voices. It is therefore not that hard to understand the problems that arise when a ‘middle-man’ is needed to legitimise one’s voice and presence. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear of intellectuals becoming authorities in an area, but still being out of touch with its people. This disconnectedness may occur when intellectuals stop communicating and listening to various voices and their dissent. Said (1994: 84) warns that ‘… there is the appalling danger of thinking of oneself, one’s view, one’s rectitude, one’s stated positions as all-important.’


Contemporary art curating has not been immune to such dangers. Many of those who have curated African art exhibitions either have an academic interest in African arts and/or some sort of cultural tie with ‘Africa’. Problematically, some Western curators use their black skins as an automatic qualifier to access various African contexts and have subsequently become ‘gatekeepers’ to Africa art. Many of these curators were born and educated in different Western countries, and yet have gone on to become authorities on contemporary art from Africa, some of them never having lived for more than a few months at a time in any African country.


Firstly, let me say that in questioning the positioning of these black Western curators, there is a question that always nags me. Surely any person, anywhere, has the right to become educated about a context, and to then go on to represent and teach about it? My answer is usually yes, but it is problematic when these outsider voices become the ‘official’ experts at the expense of locally-based voices. Even more worrying is when these outsider experts seek to control what is shown about Africa, where, when and how, and eventually become intellectual filters for the representation of all things African. This became evident in the disagreement between academics/curators Enwezor, Hassan and Oguibe with regard to the open call for submissions in 2006 for the African pavilion of the Venice Biennale. On the South African website ASAI, Oguibe accuses Enwezor and Hassan of trying to channel proposals for the Venice Biennale African Pavilion through their arts organisation Forum for African Arts. The fall-out between these former curator buddies ultimately reveals a level of politics that apparently people based in Africa seem to have little say in. Although the Forum can be seen as ‘overseeing’ shows on Africa (in terms of logistics and funding), such spaces can easily become a vigilante position – the ‘all-important’ position that Said cautions against. Oguibe writes in his letter,


‘We may have clout and connections, but we have no monopoly on vision. We cannot turn our advantage into a right. Moreover, we cannot afford to be part of any demand, idea, arrangement or suggestion that seeks to limit the opportunities of African practitioners in the art world. We simply cannot afford to turn ourselves into gate-keepers’.[3]


The authoritative antics of Western-based curators have also resulted in the manifestation of ‘supermarket’ curating, which sees curators with hectic schedules jet in for a day or two to view artworks in one city then the next, before jetting off to the next African country. Often, these curators are looking for ‘brands’, i.e. artists who are already well established in the art scene, whose works represent a distinct African struggle and who won’t present any difficulty for time-strapped curators to work with. While ‘supermarket’ curating occurs in wider contemporary practise and is not restricted to Africa, for Africa it has had some serious implications. Artists from only a select few galleries are chosen; tried and tested artists are shown repeatedly at the expense of a host of younger artists who are never given exposure; while many different types of artworks are ignored in favour of individual or collective identity explorations.


In South Africa, it has meant engaging with more White South African artists who continue to have access to privileges that make it easier to contact and work with them. And while fellow curators can sympathize with trying to contact artists who can’t use email or provide them with jpegs or slides on a moment’s notice, or articulate even a paragraph on their work, when one comes into a local circumstance steeped in differential economic inequalities that has impacted greatly on art production, one can’t shy away from challenges simply because they are difficult. Of course a simple solution seems to be to work more closely with local curators to get a better idea of what’s going on locally and who would have more time to deal with the practicalities of curating local artists. While local curators come with their own level of politics the reluctance of working hand-in-hand with local curators may hint more at international curators being unwilling to relinquish their ‘authoritative’ status than anything else. Such working strategies of intellectuals ultimately reveal more about their integrity and lack of courage than it does about the artists and the local contexts. As difficult as this all may be, let us not forget that many of these curators have been propelled into the limelight by engaging with Other contexts. This engagement is a choice and implicates these intellectuals with their area of inquiry.





One would assume that curators coordinating a show on ‘Africa’ or a specific African context would be familiar with the socio-politics of that domain, even if it is limited to the visual arts field. It is therefore surprising when international curators dealing with Other contexts are quiet ignorant of the local political and socio-economic wranglings. Although this might be initially expected, often when these outsider intellectuals are presented with insider politics they still choose to ignore them. Increasingly in South Africa, black artists, writers and curators have found that in trying to make international curators aware of the warped apartheid-inherited art system that still exists, our complaints fall on deaf ears or is intellectualized ‘away’ as curators feeling that they are above internal politics and are reaching more towards a universal artistic stance that is apolitical.


This mentality was revealed by prominent curators Fernando Alvim, Ruth Noack and Donna Cornwell at Sessions eKapa in Cape Town in 2005[4]. It was disappointing time and again to hear them say that they did not believe they should get involved in the local politics of the (South African) art scene, despite how untransformed it was and despite being directly confronted by black South African artists who unequivocally vocalised how their curatorial methodology was perpetuating racialised and economic inequalities. Their denialism of the political dimension of art production, and their desire to keep art ‘free’ from racial, internalized politics is nothing new, especially for South Africans faced with a post-apartheid White liberalism that seeks to de-racialise things for the convenience of ‘moving things along’.[5] But the reality is that life in ‘Africa’ is inseparable from politics at every level. As Said’s statement that this piece opened with reiterates, politics is everywhere and there is no escape from it, especially for those situated on the ‘wrong’ side of the political divide. Even an apolitical stance is in itself a political stance. And while curatorial subjectivity is a privilege of the curator, it is a privilege that has accountability to the people and knowledge systems that it shares a symbiotic relationship with.


Before I end, I would like to exemplify the issue of gatekeeping with myself as its proponent – this is in keeping I believe with Said’s text which encourages self-reflection and self-monitoring precisely because it is all too easy to assume and become mired in positions of authority. A year ago, while I was serving on a university gallery committee which attended, among other things, to acquisitions and proposals for new exhibitions, we were presented with a case where the assistant curator was attempting to revive an annual exhibition of township artists but did not follow the usual channels of approval and hence the exhibition was due to happen all too soon with preselected artists. I was among the lot who made a big brouhaha about procedures and was sceptical about the ‘quality’ of the show of mainly self-taught artists which I felt bordered too often on flea-market, touristic art. The show went ahead and on opening day there was an unusually larger audience present, a few works sold and the local media even gave the show coverage (none of which was par course for exhibitions at this gallery). In one of these articles, artists were complaining about the unchanged conditions of being an artist in South Africa’s Black townships. Subsequently a colleague began lambasting the usage of the term ‘township artists’ used by these local artists – after all, they were not real ‘township artists’ (the term used by art historians to refer to Black artists between the 60s and 80s whose works predominantly dealt with the dehumanising conditions of apartheid). The authority with which these sentiments were expressed by my (White) colleague made me question my own stance towards the whole situation, after all these artists still lived in Black South African townships – many of which show little economic change post-1994 – and are defining their work in relationship to their social conditions, in which the township landscape and politics was once again at the fore (if it ever left at all). The assistant curator, who hails from such settings himself, had curated an exhibition which was more than a line on their CVs and a sale, but rather articulated the concerns of the local artists and validated them as relevant creative producers. This exhibition was more than a gallery’s commitment to ‘community engagement’ but a right to representation and access demanded by the curator and artists which brought into relief questions of ‘artistic standards’, ‘contemporary art’, relevance and historicism. These were questions that were, when I myself was a younger artist from an Indian township, a lot more fluid and contentious, to be subverted at any time. To have so easily become a purveyor of Western colonial modernist standards and definitions of art in my own context speaks no doubt of the mimetic qualities of Western art education and coloniality of which one has to be on constant guard against. The slippage – of the mask of veneer curatorial practice and artworks of ‘contemporary exhibition standards’ - that occurred left me with the uncomfortable feeling of the inevitable question that arrives when one pushes at the boundaries of standards and definitions: ‘what is art?’ – and who gets to define it?



For Said, the role of the intellectuals wasn’t an easy one, but it certainly wasn’t an impossible one either.


At bottom, the intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier, nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, as sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public. (1994:17)


Intellectuals who make a living out of their interests in Africa and African art, have indeed slowly made a difference to ‘placing’ African art within the circuit of contemporary art. However, with this showcasing, intellectuals are required to go beyond the stereotypical, the predictable, and the ‘safe’, to prod, to probe, to present the mundane and not just the sensational and the catastrophic, and perhaps even ask Africans how they define themselves and each other, what is important to them. They will never of course know any of this if they launch in and out of African cities as if they’re on a four day flight through Africa.



Sharlene Khan

[1] A different version of this text was published in the Australian magazine Artlink, Vol. 27, No 2, 2007 (The South Issue: New Horizons) pp. 51-55.

[2] There is of course some truth to the latter part of the statement, that while many parts of Africa may be very technologically advanced and on par with First World countries, there are still just as many Third World inequalities which results in very complex, often contradictory ways of living.

South Art Initiative (ASAI).

[4] In 2005, a conference was held in Cape Town as a prelude to the TransCape – a large biennale-type exhibition in Cape Town in 2006, which unfortunately due to serious financial constraints, only took place in 2007 on a drastically smaller scale. The Sessions eKapa was meant to be a formal session that discussed various issues around representation.

[5] Okwui Enwezor, to his credit, has never shied away from commenting and addressing differential politics in the art world in South Africa. By doing so, he has actively contributed to art discourse in South Africa as artists and art-players have engaged him.