Traces and Signs of What?
The emergence of modern art movements in West Africa can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. It is telling that it took over a century before the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire was granted a space at the Venice Biennale. Nevertheless, the exhibition entitled “Traces and Signs” seems to mark the ongoing transformation in western politics of exclusion in which the idea of Africa as different and cut off from avant-garde art has been severely challenged. Or does it not?
This curatorial decision making seems to be driven by the need to counter a salient understanding of contemporary African art as belated, different, or inauthentic. Ironically, the internationally acclaimed artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré who was selected for this exhibition, was “discovered” and turned into a global artist by a French broker who practiced a neo-primitivist discourse centred on the idea of the authentic African artist as a self-taught and spiritual creature. This is not to deny Bouabré’s highly imaginative and idiosyncratic talents, but to show the power of external cultural agents in transforming a prophet and “syllabist” as Bouabré called himself, into an artist. One who, willingly or unwillingly, is pushed forward to represent the best of African art today.
The republic of Ivory Coast knows a long history of political violence, forced assimilation into the French empire, internal division, displacement and corruption, coup d’états and child slavery in the cacao industry. This exhibition produces a counter-image to media pictures from 2011 of refugees and the violent encounters between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara that are etched in our memory. Several websites optimistically state that the pavilion shows that after two civil wars, creativity in the Ivory Coast “is now emphasized.” Two questions come to mind. How is creativity emphasized and by whom? In most West African countries, state agencies show little interest in contemporary artists. Artists organize themselves to improve the local cultural infrastructure without much state support. And secondly, the production of a counter-image might not be the personal concern or focus of the participating artists. What then does this exhibition traces and signals and for whom?Rhoda Woets