On Okwui Enwezor and the Politics of Exclusion

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The Ghanaian artist Rikki Wemega-Kwawu has an  essay out on the politics of African Arts representation, titled The Politics of Exclusion: The Undue Fixation of Western Based African Curators on Contemporary African Diaspora Artists. It is an interesting essay, thought-provoking, perhaps merely provoking, but deemed important enough to have been featured in the brochure accompanying the Tala Madani exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that opened from December 10, 2011 through February 5, 2012. Wemega-Kwawu’s essay, confronts what he views as “the undue focus of Western-based African curators on contemporary African Diaspora Artists, as representative of the contemporary art of the African continent.” Wemega-Kwawu is not happy with Diaspora-based artists. He pulls no punches and starts out his complaints, guns blazing:

“There is a new phenomenon emerging in Europe and America as regards the curating of contemporary African art shows and the publication of surveys on the subject. It is without doubt that African artists living in the West are preferred and circulated well above their counterparts living in Africa. If it is an exhibition, the number of foreign based artists always outweighs the continent-based. If it is the latest book survey on contemporary African art, it is all about African Diaspora artists, dotted with one or two well-known names from the African continent. The same representative names are re-circulated from one show to the other, from one book publication to the other, as if contemporary African art were caught in a static granite frieze. This emergent development of contemporary African art curatorship is harmful and detrimental to the growth of contemporary art on the mother continent.”

He trains his guns on the world-renowned Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor (here is a bio that does a good job of showcasing his extensive and intimidating credentials) and deploys harsh words to denounce what he characterizes as Enwezor’s undue influence on what the West perceives as African art. He denounces what he calls:

“… the growing perception of a grand scheme spearheaded by the Nigerian-born international curator and writer Okwui Enwezor and his cohort of disciples, which includes Okeke-Agulu, to shift the polarity of contemporary African art practice and discourse from Africa to the West. This strategy is obnoxious and harmful and must be challenged and condemned in no uncertain terms. The Enwezor School paints a bleak picture of Africa, as if nothing worthwhile is happening on the continent. The School has developed a complex, bizarre philosophy based on the writings of V.Y. Mudimbe and Paul Gilroy.6 It suggests that Africa and African culture are imaginary concepts, a figment of the imagination, that no common African culture exists. It says that the real Africa is the African Diaspora, the Africa that has come in contact with the West. Based on this false and unfounded philosophy, all their curatorial work and writings on contemporary African art are skewed in favour of the few African artists residing in in Europe or America; this work marginalizes the bulk of their counterparts who live and work on the African continent.”

He accuses Enwezor of favoritism  and of deliberately excluding artists in Africa from the Western feeding trough. He is particularly incensed by what he sees as Enwezor’s attempt to render the works of African artists in Africa irrelevant through the definitions he offers in his writings:

“….finally, the doors were perceptibly opened to allow Enwezor and his handpicked artists, mostly African Diaspora artists, access into the world of global critical discourse and the doors quickly shut again. Most of the African diaspora artists Enwezor has endorsed have highly successful careers today, whilst their colleagues in Africa still operate on the fringes. Once Enwezor found himself in the comfort of the curatorial world’s seat of power, he forgot that he had at one time knocked obstreperously on the doors of the Establishment to open up for African art. Now he practises  exclusion…”

“On a number of platforms and in his writings, the latest being his book co-authored with Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980 (2009), Enwezor frames the genesis of contemporary African art within an historical time capsule from the 1980s to 1990s. In his critique of Africa ’95, he writes that African artists, intellectuals, and writers ‘pressurized by totalitarian regimes have either fled into exile or have been silenced by censorship’. Younger artists ‘are no longer indebted to a vision of pan-Africanism’ and ‘have joined the exodus’. The outward flow of talent, he says, means that ‘a great many African artists…are no longer resident on the continent. This is a major shift, reversing much of the pioneering work undertaken in the 50s and 60s’. Enwezor presupposes that the African artists’ migration to the West is what gave birth to contemporary African art, predicating its global entry, reception and recognition. There are serious factual inaccuracies in his assertions. Unlike the Second World War, which drove many twentieth century avant-garde artists to New York from Paris, the exodus which took place from Africa because of the strangulating economic conditions, dictatorial regimes, The World Bank/ IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP), etc, did not shift the production of art from Africa to the West.”

“Many of us continue to live in Africa by choice. African artists living in Africa are enraged and incensed by Enwezor’s African Diaspora bias. They see it as a diabolical strategy against them, calculated to undermine their efforts in Africa and hamstring their growth. So, instead of working in unison for the common good of Africa, African artists in Africa now see themselves pitched in an unholy confrontation against their counterpar ts abroad: the local versus the Diaspora. This development must be nipped in the bud. Since Enwezor has the clout to organize mega-shows, it behoves him to quickly redress this lopsided status quo through new shows and publications focusing on artists on the continent. He would be correcting the negative perception he is creating or has created in the minds of artists in Africa, and be saving his own badly tarnished image and legacy as well. Enwezor and his team must look for the necessary funding and embark on frequent curatorial trips to Africa.”

What do I think? Fascinating. Some of it smacks of a sense of entitlement and it is pretty interesting the power he assigns to Enwezor. The man is a powerhouse in the international arts scene but can one person (and his chosen cohorts) so define the notion of African art? Some would say that this is exactly what is happening also in African literature, that indigenous African literature which is alive and well is being crowded out by African Diaspora writing. There is no competition between the two.

Anyway, here is the rest of the essay beginning on page 10 of the magazine.

Biographical note: Rikki Wemega-Kwawu (Ghana, 1959) lives and works as an artist and writer in Takoradi, Ghana. He is an alumnus of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, U.S.A. In 2008 he was an Adjunct Professor in Art at the New York University – Accra, Ghana Campus, where he taught Post-Colonial Studio Practices. His essay ‘The Politics of Exclusion: the Undue Fixation of Western-based African curators on Contemporary African Diaspora Artists’ has earlier been published in a slightly different form in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement.