African art on show at the Cape Town Art Fair
Curator Tumelo Mosaka discusses the challenges and opportunities in curating African art on the tip of the continent
“Maybe this is Africa’s moment,” says Tumelo Mosaka, chief art curator for the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF), “there is definitely a growing interest [in African art internationally].”
SA-born Mosaka has lived and worked in the US for close on two decades, gaining international recognition as an independent curator with positions as associate curator of exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and contemporary art curator at the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Illinois. He is overseeing the CTAF in its entirety, and is also responsible for the Tomorrows/Today project, which is described as a “curated cross-section of the most exciting emerging artists from Africa” and “a bold prediction of the future of African artistic talent”.
Modern technology coexists with the more untechnological world ... You still live in a hut, but you have a cellphone; you live in a shack and you haveTumelo Mosaka
a satellite dish. There are those sorts
Returning to SA for the CTAF, Mosaka has found himself grappling — a word that comes up frequently in his conversation — with questions surrounding the presentation of African art in Africa, and what he believes is at stake in the way he approaches it.
“We can rewrite the way we are seen,” he says. “We can begin to shape the way the continent is perceived outside. We have control of what is happening here, whereas outside it’s very hard to have control,” he says.
The CTAF opportunity also comes at a particular place and time. With the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opening in September this year, Cape Town finds itself, despite being on the very tip of Africa, at the centre of the African art world.
The Zeitz museum is poised to bring considerable interest to African art. “It’s something that everybody is looking forward to seeing,” says Mosaka.
It’s particularly interesting, he says, that the museum, in focusing on art from across Africa, has cast Cape Town as “a centre point or a meeting point for the continent”. This has led him to consider how the Mother City is placed to act as a doorway to the continent and take some responsibility for representing its art. Given its historical position on international trade routes, it “continues to be this point that connects us internationally, but also connects us internally,” he says. “Those trade routes continue to exist.”
A question of modernity
Mosaka is particularly interested in the way that African modernity is dealt with, and has engaged with the question most explicitly in the Tomorrows/Today section of the CTAF.
The history of 20th-century Western art has modernism’s preoccupation with African art at its heart. Pablo Picasso’s abstractions, for example, were directly ascribable to the influence of “tribal” art. Western modernism thus retains the image of African art as “traditional”.
Mosaka, however, has found himself preoccupied with the ways in which artists grapple with what it means to be African in the contemporary world.
“African modernity is not monolithic,” he says, and he has been careful not to fall into the trap of homogenising the continent. But he has found himself interested in some of the unique conditions of African modernity that often seem like contradictions to outsiders: the ways in which “modern technology coexists with the more untechnological world”. By way of example, he says: “You still live in a hut, but you have a cellphone; you live in a shack and you have a satellite dish. There are those sorts of tensions.”
Mosaka refers to Congolese artist Maurice Mbikayi, whose work will be on show as part of Tomorrows/Today. Mbikayi’s work deals with the violence of the wars that technology brings to his home country, particularly as a result of mining for the precious minerals used in the manufacture of computers.
“How does someone coming from that environment use technology in such a way that he can create commentary based on what he has seen and knows of his homeland?” asks Mosaka. “It has to do with how he’s psychologically trying to unpack some of the more nuanced elements of his experience. You work with it on a daily basis. How do you then make something that tries to resist, but also accepts [technology]?”
Zimbabwe’s Helen Teede, also part of Tomorrows/Today, displays “objects collected from different places [that] have historical, or are embedded with, historical meaning”.
“She creates these tables [displaying] historical things like artefacts, but also more contemporary objects, so there is also this play between past and present,” he explains. “When you see them together, you can’t differentiate what is old and what is new. There is this interesting play on historical memory, but also [on] recent memory.”
Dimensions of experience
Mosaka says the other main driver of his approach is a concern not so much with the art on show being framed as African art, but rather with the question of “what can an artist from this region tell us about [his or her] contemporary experience?”
This finds expression in another theme Mosaka has engaged with in Tomorrows/Today: mass urbanisation and the vast migrations of people, political turmoil, unemployment and the “realities that are part of everyday life”.
“I was interested in reflecting on what it means to live in a modern city in Africa today,” he says. “Then the work takes on a different meaning, where it is not trying to identify or define what African modernity or African art is, but it really tries to grapple with the human issue of existing in these different realities — of poverty, of vulnerability and violence. That’s where I feel the work becomes challenging. How do you then try to change the conversation with the human condition of living in this moment, in the city ...”
Tomorrows/Today’s Marcia Kure, from Nigeria, works in collage. “In this specific body of work, she deals a lot with how to take the representation of the body,” says Mosaka. He describes how she combines drawing and collage, sometimes with cut-outs of body parts from magazines so that the “body is so fragmented ... that it becomes a grotesque idea of a representation of a body, but also plays on notions of beauty”.
“There is this play [on] commodity, but there’s also the representation of what might be considered an acceptable notion of beauty and [contrasting] that with something that is very jarring,” he says. “And the way it sits on the page is quite uncomfortable.”
In his broader approach, Mosaka has been careful to recognise the need for visitors and collectors to understand that what is on display is African art. “People need to understand what they’re coming to see,” he says. Despite the risks of reinscribing some of the rhetoric of Africa as an undifferentiated mass, calling it “African art” gives visitors a foot in the door. “But that doesn’t preclude the possibility of challenging their preconceptions,” says Mosaka.
* The Cape Town Art Fair is on at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from February 17 to 19.