We have grown accustomed to the centre of gravity of African Art, in many of its manifestations, being located outside, or beyond, the continent itself. The shifting of the centre of gravity arguably began with the plundering of African Art, in previous centuries, in incidents of pillage such as Britain’s Punitive Expedition towards the end of the 19th century that saw the hugely important West African centre of art and culture, Benin, plundered and prized objects (which became known as the ‘Benin bronzes’) summarily auctioned, dispersed and making their way into European museums and private collections. Such unvarnished theft and reappropriation has ensured that by as early as the mid 20th century, historical, traditional or religious African Art became something associated with Western academics, collections and auction houses, perhaps even more so than its association with the continent itself.
Forward a number of decades and the emergence of contemporary African Art has a centre of gravity not unlike that of its older antecedents. Rather than looking at cities across the continent as settled destinations for, and homes of, contemporary African Art, pretty much all of the world’s most powerful and financially resourced curators, collectors, museum directors and gallerists are more minded to see African cities as points from which art can be collected and placed in seemingly more deserving or better homes in Europe or the US. Consequently, the real business of buying, selling, exhibiting (and the related practices of teaching) African Art frequently takes place thousands of miles away from the continent itself. These are of course fiendishly complicated matters, not least because so many artists from different countries and cities across Africa are now located in cities across Europe and North America. Successful contemporary African artists are now as likely – or, more likely - to live and work in cities such as London, Brussels, Paris or New York, rather than cities such as Kinshasa, Lagos, Nairobi or Dakar. Furthermore, most of the best spaces in which contemporary African artists get to show are located beyond, rather than within, the continent of Africa itself. We can now perhaps speak of contemporary African art as having a global presence, but this should not diminish our understanding of the ways in which Africa itself is arguably disadvantaged and almost marginalized in these narratives.
… Enter the astonishing work of the Àsìkò programme of international workshops, which sees artists, writers and curators from countries across the continent in dialogue with each other, and in dialogue with a number of their counterparts working in the US and several countries across Europe. By bringing these groups of practitioners and professionals into an intense period of dialogue, debate and exchange with each other, and, equally as importantly, locating the venues for such engagement and interaction within African cities such as Accra and Dakar, Bisi Silva and her colleagues are able to undertake and achieve a number of important and wonderful things. In the first instance, the Àsìkò workshops demonstrate the extent to which inter, or intra continental African travel is, or quite rightly ought to be, as important for the continent’s artists as travel to destinations outside of the continent. What differences or commonalities can individual practitioners tease out when they are exposed to each other’s practices? And for those seeking to contribute to Àsìkò by joining the workshops from cities of Europe or the US, what professional experiences can be shared in ways that are mutually beneficial and encouraging?
Though contemporary African artists have grown accustomed to making cogent, dynamic and fascinating contributions to curatorial landscapes across the world, such platforms are seldom without their complications. What the Àsìkò workshops do is create intellectually and creatively stimulating spaces which seek to be free from the range of problematic pathologies that can so easily come to the fore when an African artist – almost irrespective of the nature of his or her work - is exhibited in Europe or the US or Japan, for example. Not only do the workshops create environments in which contributors can speak freely and candidly, they can do so knowing that they have created for themselves nurturing and mutually respectful environments…
The above extracts are from a text, “Àsìkò Goes Outernational”, written for ÀSÌKÒ: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa, a publication that reflects on 5 years of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos’s Àsìkò art school programme. Published by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, August 2017.