The Only Thing Modernity Teaches Us: There Are No Innocents

OKWUI ENWEZOR is perhaps best known for having curated documenta XI in 2002, when, at the very peak of art-world influence, he encouraged a new, global framework for the world’s prestigious art exhibition. I met Enwezor on a Saturday morning; in front of the Berlin Grand Hyatt Hotel at Potsdamer Platz sat a shiny Jeff Koons sculpture, a balloon dog made of blue chrome twinkling away in the light of the spring sun. Wearing a light grey jumper and dark cotton pants to our breakfast of coffee, juice, and porridge, Enwezor – currently Dean of Academic Affairs at San Francisco Art Institute – showed just how much more is left to be done not only in the re-thinking and re-situating of African art, but also in the globalization of contemporary art at large.

JOACHIM BESSING: Have you heard of Vampire Weekend, a New York band everyone’s getting quite excited about at the moment?

OKWUI ENWEZOR: No, I don’t know them.

They are an all-white, male Ivy League band from the US that uses African musical influences. And they call their style Upper West Side Soweto.

Ah. I can’t imagine what it is.

They even use African language.

Which language?

I can’t tell. Something about “Kwassa Kwassa.”

Oh I see. Maybe it’s just some South African words they picked up while on holiday there. Sort of like the German phrase, “auf Wiedersehen,” endlessly parroted by Heidi Klum on that American program about emerging designers.

Speaking of German clichés: with figures like Ernst Jünger and Leni Riefenstahl, the idea was always that they were drawn to Africa in a sexual way. Jünger wrote about his longing desires to go there at a very young age to meet his nemesis. He was always coming back to that; traveling there. And not only for the African beetles – it was his dreamscape. Riefenstahl fetishized the beauty of the scantily clad Nuba …

It depends – and that might be especially German. Intellectuals are no innocents. And I think Leni Riefenstahl was not an innocent filmmaker and photographer. She knew what she wanted to show. In the bodies of the Nuba there are these resources of erotic power and projection that fit the facile frisson of encounters with the wild and primitive, man in his pure, savage nature. This, to my mind, is a form of debased humanism. While these bodies may serve as vehicles for excessive projections or as a cure for sexual and erotic frustrations, this may be why Riefenstahl had to display those bodies for the intoxicating, hypersexual quality of raw black flesh. For a human to be exotic you have to really produce a strong level of objectification – be this with individuals or with cultures – in order to interject the abstractions that flow from the distancing devices necessary to separate the primitive and the civilized. These modes of civility are often accompanied by a strategy of distanciation: once you are able to distance yourself from the other culture, its power to continue to produce erotic and carnal energy will remain. If people like Jünger really want to go meet their nemesis in the figure of the “African primitive” as a way of achieving spiritual redemption and moral rehabilitation – well good for them!

But isn’t it significant that Vampire Weekend isn’t doing this for the mysterious, erotic energy? They’re drawing inspiration from present-day African culture and society. Hasn’t something changed, to bring about an African modernity?

To paraphrase Bruno Latour: Africa has never been modern. I refuse to use “modern.” And I don’t use epochs either. It is in the very infancy of reality. Not even primitive. So Vampire Weekend is completely on the wrong track. They may go native as often as they wish, but it just strikes me as cultural tourism.

Isn’t it useful to structure society into epochs?

Maybe it is for those who dictate the concept of time and history. But the concept is useless now, as I believe that everything is happening simultaneously. Every work of art brings its own time and sphere, in that sense.

Challenging! But practically speaking, how would you teach children the history of art without the concept of epochs and the concept of the linear structure of history?

It’s a challenge indeed. But that’s a good thing because it gives us the chance to get prompted by the works themselves, and less by categories like “modern” or “primitive.”

Plus it would solve the big problem that is rooted in this system of structure, epochs, and categories – the archive of cultural history. Without all that, there would be no problem incorporating or embedding new, freshly explored artists or art forms. Because it seems difficult to do that when the archive is already finished, as in, when the chapter on “Modern Art” has already been written, or when African art has already been assigned its role. The whole process of transforming the grand rules of critical discourse would become obsolete.

The archive is unfinished forever, like Foucault said.

If you consider European art through the centuries, there are central motifs, recurring imagery – certain kinds of portraiture, certain iconographies. But what kinds of motifs, what kinds of dialogue do you find in African arts?

All art is used in rituals of signification. Art inscribes rituals of religious communication. Take the Passion of Christ in multiple European arts: painting, sculpture, altar pieces. Religious art has become embedded in the secular tradition of the museum. All of that is constantly negotiated depending on the context. In my own country, Nigeria, there are dozens of dialects and languages, but within those, cultural contiguities exist, so you have very subtle differences in the ways images are used and the ways in which objects are deployed and ideas are modulated. So where are the constants? Of course, when you look at any given art, whether it’s representational or not, it is driven by visualizing strategies. Motherhood, for example, will be a constant.

So that’s the obvious.

Yes, quite obvious! Every generation explores the same stock of subjects that most artists take on. I really don’t see a difference between African artists and most of the cultural production of other societies.

But still, Europeans are only just warming up to African arts. The same happened with Chinese and Indian art here, not long ago – the market has changed so drastically. And all of a sudden everybody seems enthusiastic about “exotic art,” so to speak. Is this mainly happening as part of the search for the last white spaces on the map? To find a new theme for one’s collection, that no other collects?

Unfortunately, there are no white spaces anymore.

Maybe in Papua New Guinea? What about Australian arts?

Maybe in Poland. But how to answer this question? To visit any Western museum is to encounter spaces that are full of objects and images from other cultures, going back thousands of years. And I’m always astonished – it’s either true malevolence or ignorance that these domains of critical praxis are constantly kept behind a veil, or as if they were hovering behind a shield that would need to be removed in order to reveal what was lying on the other side. I don’t consider work from Africa or India, or from different countries in Africa, “exotic” at all. The only thing modernity teaches us is that modernity is in itself a project with very deep social, cultural, economic, and political entanglements. And there are no innocents. Artists function within transactions – whether in the relationships between objects, or the relationships between discourses. There was indeed a time when it seemed as if the world was encountering for the very first time the idea that there were artists working behind that shield. And this in itself seemed to be astonishing: “Oh my goodness – there are artists in Africa!” But then: “Wait a minute – how do we know that they are good? And how do we know that what they make is art?” So we are thrown back by the force of that confusion, which breeds insecurity and resentment, and obviously destabilizes the ability of sovereign curatorial and aesthetic judgments.

So perhaps you would need special criteria for African arts?

Suddenly our tools of analysis were completely in a wobble. Levels of doubt emerged and therefore the process of sorting and transforming would begin: the transforming of the ground rules of critical discourse. Nevertheless, what is important when we look at contemporary art is deep critical entanglement, of many art worlds and many contexts of production. And this is a good thing. Art is necessarily global. It is not located in only one place. Contemporary art is a scene of translation and transmutation; it is an agglomeration of cultural spaces, artistic systems. Not all of them are centered in New York, London, Paris, Beijing. Contemporary art happens everywhere, even in the “whitest” of spaces (to borrow your metaphor for blankness), simultaneously. This is where the unique energy of the global artistic context comes from, in the dissolved juncture between near and far. At the moment, the anthropology of the exotic has been superseded by the kitsch of contemporary art. This is the new primitive art as a talisman for the moneyed class.

But where, exactly?

It’s everywhere.

At Philipps de Pury?

Well, Philipps de Pury, no – these are all just participants. Artists make careers everywhere. Even in some of the most unstable places. In Iraq, in China, in Nigeria.

It seems impossible these days to produce art about Africa without being somehow political – looking at the very contemporary images by Guy Tillim, for instance, which portray a harsh, unjust social landscape. This doesn’t seem to be the case in all non-Western or developing countries, however. Do you see a possibility for, say, an African Jeff Koons or Sylvie Fleury? Or is African art to remain politicized, always seen and maybe even made through a lens of history or socio-economics?

I can’t agree with your analysis of contemporary African art as being heavily political. More so, because such a generalized opinion about vast contexts of artistic production such as Africa, as a place where it is “impossible” to produce without being heavily political, is simply wrong. If you are speaking about the broader landscape of “afro-pessimism” of Africa in the throes of all kinds of disasters that is very much favored by the global news industry, then we need a separate analytical lens through which we can pursue the reasons why certain heavily politicized images have been the dominant images of Africa we get to see. But when it comes to the question of contemporary art, I am always curious about the kinds of judgments of art that seek to strip the work of any political agency or content. That being said, the art of African artists is as diverse and varied as those of artists producing in other cultural contexts. So it seems to me rather difficult to use a few examples of such images – including those of Guy Tillim, who is clearly working at an intimate layer of journalism and ethnographic study – to make generalizations about the critical conditions in which to situate works from and about Africa. Not every work by African artists or those who use Africa as subject matter is mired in politics. In fact, the opposite is the case: they are not actually political in the negative sense implied in your question. When I look at the work of Yto Barrada and compare it to the formal devices in El Anatsui’s sculptures, or if one looks at Chris Ofili’s paintings and reflects on it against the films of William Kentridge, or Abdoulaye Konate in relation to Viye Diba, Wangechi Mutu and Candice Breitz, Tracey Rose and Lynette Boakye Yiadom, what we encounter are multiple spaces of critical practice that are different from each other and are informed by a diversity of critical agendas. We run the risk of over-determined judgments about the work of these artists when the complexity of their aesthetic positions becomes grounded in a priori limitations that are already placed around the reception of its artistic and cultural images. This is no less true in terms of the broader landscape of the media, which tends to place Africa at the zero degree of a sub-human environment. I do not mean to protest your characterization, but I do think the reflection it seeks comes from an incorrect assumption. On the issue of whether there can be an African Sylvie Fleury or Jeff Koons, suppose we reverse the order of the question and ask instead about the possibility of a European Cheri Samba. Or we may consider more seriously how the sculptures of Kane Kwei or Joseph Netchopa deviate from the understanding of the status of the commodity sign that is deeply reflected in Koons’ and Fleury’s work. I just don’t think it is productive to transpose unworkable scenarios from the conceptual framework in which artists like Koons work, into Africa. That would be completely superficial, because the environment is fundamentally different.

From what perspective do you operate, when curating an exhibition?

I don’t make presumptions. I am not an explorer. I am not parting the waters. I do not operate from the point of view that there is something out there to be discovered. I work in the field and fill the blank spots of my knowledge through conversations with colleagues, agents, double agents, artists, native informants. Making an exhibition, for me, is manifested through an active engagement with research. Research is the manifestation of an exhibitions praxis. That is, to bring ideas to the public. There are three audiences I am thinking about immediately. First, the general, non-professional audience – you want to present ideas to this audience that are worth considering on their own terms, and in spite of everything else that they know. The second is the audience of colleagues, of professionals in the field. And finally, I am speaking very specifically to the broader historical field. Which means: you’re looking back. You are not going to reinvent the wheel. But what you do with what you find – this is what curating, what exhibition-making is all about for me. It is, fundamentally, an intellectual practice.

You went to a British boarding school in Nigeria. Can you remember how teachers tried to put African art on the map?

It was not necessary to do that, for me. I was in my cultural sphere there. I was surrounded by my culture. Art was everywhere, so there was no need to put African art on the map. It was on the map.

And this art was discussed within the British boarding school?

Why not?

It’s just that I cannot believe that.

Why?

Because it was a British school and you also once said that lessons in English gardening were given there, in which you clipped tropical plants into funny shapes. And I cannot believe that the teachers and the curriculum were up to talking about, say, the first “modern” African painting.

But what does gardening have to do with African art? We played Cricket as well, but that does not mean we ate crumpets and scones for breakfast. Again, we are caught in a simplifying and objectifying cul-de-sac. Which was the first modern painting by a European painter, would you say?

Hm – the apples by Cezanne maybe?

And why is that?

Well, because they have these stark outlines, which can be interpreted as a kind of a conceptual approach that goes beyond imitating nature?

Whatever. What makes you so sure that we had to discuss the apples of Cezanne but not the works of African artists that maybe did similar paintings? Maybe we had the apples of Cezanne and we had some Nigerian painters, too? Maybe we had everything?