WHITECHAPEL ART GALLERY
Exhibitions based on ethnic interpretations of multiculturalism that arise from the current fashion for curatorial globe-trotting have mostly failed to advance an understanding of contemporary visual art from beyond the Western metropolis. In Britain, a glance at recent exhibition reviews touching on such themes as "New Art from China (or India, Cuba, etc.)," is enough to confirm the suspicion that the esthetic concerns of individual artists continue to be neglected in favor of redundant assumptions about ethnicity or poorly informed comparisons with Western Modernism. Why this continues to occur may seem puzzling, but one factor that must be taken into account is the impulse of some poorer nations to "exoticize" themselves in order to gain a stronger footing in the Western art market. While many exhibitions are quick to contextualize non-Western work with anthropological anecdotes, historical context is usually missing from the equation. Without it, we cannot help but fail to understand the trajectory of global Modernism as it has evolved outside the West.
"Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa," part of a multimedia jamboree called "africa95," was the first exhibition to attempt to provide a historical context for African Modernism. This was largely due to the writings of artist Everlyn Nicodemus, originally from Tanzania, who has long criticized the way that certain Western collectors present folkloric African cultural products as the "African" art, thus reinforcing the West's perception of that continent's culture as exotic and intellectually backward. Nicodemus points out that by the early 20th century, cultural exchange between Africa and Europe was a two-way process; that as European artists were exploring the formal potential opened up by African art, African artists were experimenting with European-style easel painting and figurative representation. Also, as the colonizers gradually introduced their own style of art education, many African artists traveled to study in European art schools.
A paradox ensues: what was avant-garde from a European perspective was traditional from an African one, and vice versa. It is this multifaceted history of Modernism that remains to be written - and, with respect to Africa, the task is onerous and heartbreaking. On one hand, a lack of funding and will on the part of officialdom, combined with social and political distress, has over the years produced a lack of scholarship and conservation in many countries; on the other - it must be said - the relative isolation of African artists from avant-garde debates sometimes gives the work a rather conservative air to European eyes. …