The Tricky Task of Defining African Art

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“Africa and its artists don’t need love. They don’t need recognition. They don’t need to be discovered by some new Christopher Columbus. They just want to be left to perform their craft,” writes Cameroonian curator Simon Njami in November’s Juxtapoz (articles not available online).

So begins the “African Art Issue.” Clearly, the U.S.-based arts magazine is uncomfortable assuming authority on the subject.

And they avoid doing so at all costs, by recruiting African curators and thinkers to weigh in on the state of African art and allowing the artists to speak for themselves whenever possible.

Many critique the whole premise of the issue, questioning the label “African art.” Multimedia artist Ghada Amer, for instance, resolutely shuns such narrow geographic classifications, arguing that they unfairly limit the reception of an artist’s message. Critics routinely interpret her art as commentary on the role of women in Muslim nations, and she resents the mischaracterization of her work, which she describes as “between cultures and about all the women of the world.” Meanwhile, self-described Afro-futurist Wangechi Mutu worries that the moniker implies an untrained, outsider status, leaving no room in contemporary art circles for artists of African descent. She wants her art, which includes conceptual installation work and mixed-media collages, to be taken seriously so that she and others can be recognized as “players in the making of art history.”

The issue’s end result? No orderly definitions of African art, but that’s probably the point.

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