This issue of OnCurating consists of two parts: the first part researches collaborative work with an emphasis on African collectives, and the second part offers an insight into the development of biennials on the African continent.
Part 1: Collaboration
Is collaboration an inherently ‘better' method, producing ‘better’ results? The curatorial collective claims that the purpose of collaboration lies in producing something that would otherwise not take place; it has to make possible that which would otherwise be impossible.
In recent history, numerous writers have opened the door to the topic of collectivism and offered reflections on its position in contemporary art history, media, cultural, and visual studies—not as a means of “normalizing” it or representing it as one more genus of artistic practice, but in order to theorize it as a form of production that raises fundamental questions about the nature of artistic and curatorial work, and its complexities.
Intricately linked to the idea of the collective is the idea of collaboration, which is generally understood as a mutually dependent term and has been stretched, so much so that the terms can sometimes even be read as interchangeable, and ubiquitous to the point of obscurity. Being myself situated in Cape Town as the gallery curator of Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town, I was interested in exploring artistic and curatorial collaborative practices that emerged on the continent.
This issue of Oncurating.org looks at the works of a few artists and curators whose impulse to work beyond art’s immediately recognizable spheres magnifies the relational aspects that mark distinct and important approaches to the practice within contemporary art. In general, collaboration positions individualistic practice as a problem of cultural form—its use-values—it brings the category of art face to face with it most cherished expectations and ideals—individual authorship and autonomy—and addresses the basis of art’s relationship to democracy, the art world, and capitalist relations of production. Thus, it illustrates that art’s constitutive relationship to non-art practices and art’s post-autonomous status is not a settled question. Because of this, artistic collaboration still raises some interesting and crucial questions about the nature of authorship, authenticity and the artists’ relationships to their works and audiences that inevitably disrupt the persistent and popular image of the artist as a solitary figure, engaged in an internal singular dialogue, at the margins of society.
As editor of this issue, it has been for me a very interesting quest to attempt to explore the drive and strategies of collectivist and collaborative practice in the present given the gaps in the history of collectivism and collaboration in African arts, other than the well-documented practices of the Dakar-based collectives. Okwui Enwezor draws the connection to and influence on their practice by the Nigerian musician, performer, political activist, and social iconoclast Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who was very culturally influential in West Africa from the mid-1960s onward. Since 1989, Le Groupe Amos in Congo have been able to sustain and continue in this mode of shared practice and newer formulations, while short-lived collectives in South Africa like Gugulective and Center for Historical Reenactments reveal the moment of impetus and relevance for this mode of working.
While not dealt with directly in this edition, the inherited histories of the Dakar-based collectives reveal the long backdrop of instituent practices in which Africa-based artists formed interdisciplinary groups of artists, writers, filmmakers, performance artists, and musicians and succeeded in transforming the nature of artistic practice from a “formalist, object-bound sensibility to practices based on experimentation and agitation, process rather than product, ephemerality rather than permanence, political and social ideas rather than aesthetic”. The grounding of practice in the immediate socio-political situation continues in the current positions of the artists interviewed here, present in their strategies when producing shared projects. I look at how collaboration actually occurs in the Southern African context, this part of is evidenced in the collected interviews which examine the manifestos and projects from several artists who have been involved in the production of shared projects, and additionally look at the conditions surrounding the realisation of the shared project or practice.
Every collaboration is unique—composed of a distinctive combination of people in a specific context and is generally understood as raising fundamental questions about the nature of creative labour and the complexities of the authorial voice. Through exploring individual processes in collaborative creative teams and how they enact projects in cross-contextual contexts and other more localised manifestations, this discussion explores the drive to collaborate, and the kinds of authorial voices this produces. Furthermore, it questions what it means to collaborate and asks what is at stake in publicly visible cross-contextual collaboration? What is the context? How is it approached? What does it mean to work with relationships within a context? How are neighbouring communities integrated and where and in what form do works take?
These positions bring forth an understanding of a particular kind of collective identification that is relevant to how the offered examples approach and imagine a “democratic public sphere” that has the potential to debate issues of common concern with a ‘collaborating’ public, partners, and/or audience members.
To varying degrees, collaboration subsumes under its definitions what we understand to be relational, participatory, community, and collective practices and their varied manifestations. Of particular interest as well has been the socio-political dimension of collaborative creativity, the theorization of a shared space, which, among other things involves perceptions of a crisis in community and collective responsibility that many artists and curators have tried to resolve with greater leniency toward participatory practices that are generally believed to produce a more positive and non-hierarchical social model in a ‘unified’ public sphere.
Most of the practices represent not collectives in the traditional sense, but practices that follow more self-instituting strategies that incorporate different aspects and levels of collaboration, many of whom rely on one founder (very often a curator) who then works together with smaller or larger groups, which makes the question of what collaboration and collectivity in curating then is, very interesting. Within each interview, there are questions that look at what it means to collaborate in each case and how hierarchies and the dynamics inherent to group structures are dealt with at the moment of occurrence.
Related to this topic are the following articles and interviews:
These would not be possible without the employment and deployment of alternative strategies of organising and practice. One half of this issue looks at collaboration and includes an essay by Gregory Sholette, a recognised scholar in this field. Nancy Dantas speaks with Burning Museum, a collective of artists engaged with historical narratives to produce artworks in the public space that speak against the erasure of certain histories of people who continue to be marginalised in post-apartheid South Africa. Valeria Geselev speaks with N’tone Adjabe of The Chimurenga Chronic, a magazine publication that employs counter-narratives to provide a more nuanced reading of contemporary manifestations, based on what would be otherwise discounted or forgotten stories for collective memory. Ionda Pensa and Elvira Ose contextualise and offer their perspectives on the arts in Cameroon and the Douala Triennial organised by Miriam Douala-Bell.
Biennials in Third Contexts
Biennials as one more economic and cultural genus of the exhibitionary complex raise fundamental questions about the nature of art, curating, the art market, geography, and all their complexities. Here in Africa, as with other similar contexts, biennials mark the sites of productive tensions between the projection and transposing of universalizing aesthetics, the articulation of critique, and the attempt to arrive at self-realization after traditional modes of institutions have been largely accepted as not being able to support, nor meet the demands of localized contemporary practices in many African countries.
This forms the next point of departure for this issue, which looks at a few Africa-based biennials and how they relate to the conception of collaboration as an administrative and management concept, as “that space of interconnection between art and non-art, art and other disciplines, that continually tests the social boundaries of where, how, with what, and with whom art might be made”. This offers the socio-political dimensions of collaborative creativity, which have been explicated by Bishop, Lacy, Kester, Mouffe, and others, to involve perceptions of a crisis in collective responsibility that many artists and curators have tried to resolve with greater leniency toward participatory practices that are generally believed to produce a more positive and non-hierarchical social model in a ‘unified’ public sphere. All these affirm the awareness that collaboration entails contact, confrontation, deliberation, and negotiation to a degree surpassing that of individual work, and that this produces subjectivity differently. The designation of a work as the product of a shared practice “in [an] art world that privileges and worships individuality raises a number of vexing issues concerning the nature and practice of art”.
The biennials featured here are notable responses to the absence of space for alternative modes of cultural production, and my interest in looking at the biennial format through the lens offered by collaborative creative research and the forming of less orthodox models of authorship forms part of a deeper search for understanding shared curatorial interventions and locating where the stakes lie in the collaboration and the making of large events in some African countries. This question perhaps reflects on the failure of the Johannesburg Biennale, against the continued survival of longer running counterparts like the Dakar Biennale, and how these two examples are the possible futures of some of the newer biennial projects.
The great potential of biennials to function as part of the marketing, capitalist specialization for both art and state curtails the already limited impact of creativity in resisting the dominant systems of power.
In presenting this issue on biennials and the drive to collaborate, my hope is to engage both subjects in locating the larger shifts in the understanding of the potential for both radical and conservative strategies that have the potential to produce alternative and quite extreme authorial models that problematize straightforward suppositions about artistic identity, national identities, and their intersection within national cultural hegemonies.
Kester makes the assertion that, “Art is uniquely placed to counter a world in which our sensibilities dulled by spectacle and repetition, we are reduced to an atomized pseudo-community of consumers.” He further presents that by departing from the traditions of object-making in which a single, instantaneous shock of insight, precipitated by an image or object encourages their participants to question fixed identities, stereotypical images, etc.; artists working in the realm of participatory practices do so through a cumulative process of exchange and dialogue. The biennial projects require and seek to offer a paradigm shift in our understanding of the work of art and a reconceptualization of the current standard definitions of aesthetic experience that is conventionally immediate rather than durational. In their process-based, performative approach these artists and their curators function as “context providers” rather than “content providers,” and are all involved in the larger creative orchestration of shared encounters well beyond the conventional institutional boundaries of the gallery or museum.
While this collaborative, consultative approach has deep and complex roots in the history of art and cultural activism, what unites this disparate network of artists, arts collectives, and biennialers is a series of provocative assumptions about the relationship between art and the broader social and political world, and about the kinds of knowledge that aesthetic experience is capable of producing.
The normalization of major art events in countries and states with problematic governments and policies is a double-edged sword that could be productive and perform criticism of social institutions and politics while functioning within them. This emancipatory aspect allows specific politics of creativity to not be geographically restricted, but instead to have the possibility of projecting its aspects to other contexts and other geographical points with similar “troubles” and traditions that reveal artists’ self-organisation that problematizes straightforward suppositions about both artistic identity and the state of contemporary art.
A selection of the new spaces and initiatives that have been founded across the continent, and their relationship to their actual publics, are explored in Condition Report: Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa, edited by Koyo Kouoh. This collection of interiews extends this conversation to these large-scale events that face similar if not the same limitationss and potentialities as explored by Kouoh with regards to the localised audiences that engage with their activities, programmes, and projects. While these events as spaces claim their intellectual and moral autonomy but are far from commanding the financial autonomy that would envisage programming over the long term, the level of authorship when grouped together with that of other artists is elevated by association and made stronger by the collective voice. The interviews in this section therefore should provide you with an entry point and a honest reflection and insight into understanding the effects these biennials and projects have on their participants and audiences, as well as the impact on social debates that these initiatives have had in their respective contexts.
The interviews in this part of OnCurating include interviews on the Dakar Biennale, with some biennials and large-scale engagement taking place in central and west Africa seen through the lens offered by Ionda Pensa on the Douala Triennial in Cameroon and the essay by Elvira Ose of the Doual’art centre in Cameroon run by Marilyn Douala Bell. Ogochukwu-Smooth Nzewi provides some reflections on the previous iteration of the Dakar Biennale, which while still struggling with many of the issues that have affected it in the past was a better success than past iterations. We look forward to seeing in what ways and how Simon Njami takes the Dakar Biennale forward with his curation this year. Olga Speaks interviews Mischek Masamvu about his participation in the Yango Biennale of 2014. The Yango Biennale is the brainchild of Sithabile Mlotshwa and occurred for the first time in Kinshasa in 2014. While running into logistical problems, the event was nonetheless a well-managed project that harkens as a bright sign for the future of this Biennale, certainly there is a lot of interest in its function. We also hear from Daudi Karungi the founder of the Afriart Centre in Kampala and director of the Kampala Biennale that takes place under his organisation in this main city in Uganda. These responses from both the curators and artists, and audiences who have participated in these events, give a well-rounded analysis of the experience from both sides of the projects emerging from the heart of the continent.
While at first glance these two sections are both geographically and theoretically dispersed, they are held together by the fact that they are projects happening right now, and their immediacy requires engagement. As John Roberts points out, “Collaboration in art is fundamentally a question of cultural form” This conveys that, “The decision to teamwork with other artists and/or with non-artists directly involves shaping the ways in which art finds its sensuous and intellectual place in the world.”
Nkule Mabaso, b. 1988, graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town and received a Masters in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts. She has worked as Assistant Editor of the journal OnCurating.org and founded the Newcastle Creative Network in Kwazulu Natal. As an artist, she has shown work in Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa, Germany, and Zimbabwe. She has curated shows and organized public talks in Switzerland, Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa. Currently a PHD Candidate at the Rhodes University as part of the research team SARChI Chair 'Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa', and curator of the Michaelis Galleries at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.
1 [Cit. 1] Maria Lind, “The Collaborative Turn” in Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson, eds.,Taking the Matter lnto Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices., Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007, p. 204.
5 Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, Philomena Mariani, ed., Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999. Exhibition catalogue. Okwui Enwezor. “Where, What, Who, When: A Few Notes on ‘African’ Conceptualism,” artafrica. 2016. Accessed 14.04.2016. http://www.artafrica.info/html/artigotrimestre/3/artigo3_i.php
6 Miwon Kwon, “Public Art as Publicity” in Simon Sheikh, ed., In the Place of the Public Sphere? On the Establishment of Publics and Counter-Publics, B Books, Berlin, 2005. Available: http://www.republicart.net
8 Okwui Enwezor, “The Production Of Social Space As Artwork: Protocols Of Community In The Work Of Le Groupe Amos And Huit Facettes,” in Stimson and Sholette, eds., Collectivism After Modernism: Art and Social Imagination after 1945, University of Minnesota Press, 3, 2007, pp. 244.
9 Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum, February 2006, pp. 179-185, quoting Grant H. Kester, in another key text, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004.