Canon Fodder

By Harney, Elizabeth | Art Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Canon Fodder


Harney, Elizabeth, Art Journal


Canon Fodder

André Magnin, Alison de Lima Greene, Alvia J.Wardlaw, and Thomas McEvilley. African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection. London and New York: Merrell and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 20°C. 224 pp., ico color ills., 30 b/w. $49.95 paper.

Simon Njami and Jean-Hubert Martin, eds. Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag and Hayward Gallery, London, 200c. 224 pp., 2J3 color ills., 37 b/w. $45 paper.

Shannon Fitzgerald, Tumelo Mosaka, and Orlando Britto Jinorio, eds. A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad. St. Louis: Contemporary Museum of St. Louis/DAP, 2003. 184 pp., 60 color ills. S ZS paper.

In the fall of 200c, as the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian reathed itself for a major, yet controversial touring collection of contemporary African arts, the director released the following seemingly innocuous statement: "By presenting this collection, we do not so much weigh in on how to present contemporary African art as we carry out our mandate to educate the public about the visual arts of Africa, in this case, some of the most significant art being produced in Africa today."1

African Art Now: Masterpieces of the Jean Pigozzi Collection presented one hundred works from the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) , a private venture based in Geneva and owned by the Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi. With the French curator André Magnin at the helm, the CAAC has amassed, over the last fifteen years, more than six thousand pieces of contemporary African art from artists who are primarily described as "self-taught" and who work within local communities on the African continent.2 The scale and scope of this collection is unrivalled in both public and private institutions.3

Soon after its opening Holland Cotter included a short review of the show in the New York Times. Not one to mince words, an exasperated Cotter asked why the museum had not "used the presence of the Pigozzi material to dig critically into the issues the collection raises, about how African art is defined, and who has the power to control definitions." Admitting that concerns about the polemics and poetics of exhibiting African arts are part of "an old conversation," Cotter rightly argued that "It's also a conversation that has barely begun. Instead, a wan collection showcase has been dutifully installed and left to sit there. Somebody should give this maddeningly sleepy institution a shake."4

The now-lengthy history of troubles at the nation's African art museum deserves greater critical attention, especially given the size and significance of its existing contemporary holdings, but that narrative is beyond the scope of this review. Cotter's frustrations do, however, point us to some obvious questions: Why showcase this collection in the national museum now? How meaningful is its unmediated presentation (and accompanying catalogue texts) within the broader arena of debate and scholarship on contemporary African arts? How do these concerns dovetail with reexaminations of modernism and contemporary theories of identity, subjectivity, and artistry? For despite its disinterested stance, the museum's decision to host the exhibition in this fashion demands serious reflection.

Cotter would no doubt know that much of the Pigozzi collection had been seen before, frequently in Europe and on occasion, and in parts, in North America.5 Quite apart from the always ethically complicated position of presenting private collections in public institutions, his concerns highlight the degree to which the intellectual frameworks underlying itinerant exhibitions of modern and contemporary arts from Africa and its diasporas over the last fifteen years have shaped an emerging market and accompanying canon.

Because I see the exhibition matrix as, in Rustom Bharucha's words, a "particularly embattled site to study the tensions between global and local, the intercultural and the multicultural," I am most concerned with how this series of exhibitions and accompanying texts form a discursive space.

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