Magazine article Artforum International

How German Is It?

Magazine article Artforum International

How German Is It?

Article excerpt

TOM HOLERT ON "THE SHORT CENTURY"

IN 1959, standing before the assembled participants of the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Rome, Frantz Fanon urged those in attendance to reach out to "the people" where it is hardest to do so: "We must join them in the fluctuating movement which they are just giving a shape.... It is to the zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come." The question raised by "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994," which opened in February at Munich's Museum Villa Stuck, is exactly how to comprehend and represent this "zone of occult instability." The goal demands a new cartography for a knotty complex of intellectual, political, and popular discourses, to demonstrate, for example, how cultural and political concerns converged to effectively rupture colonial hegemony. A rupture, furthermore, that could mean a (provisional) rejection of the democratic principles of European modernity, even if these principles provided the background legitimation for colonization itself.

Consciousness of the "dialectics of liberation" is at the heart of this impressive undertaking, presented by Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of next summer's Documenta 11. In the book-length catalogue accompanying this traveling exhibition of painting, photography, pop-culture items, textiles, and more, Enwezor and his team of curators have produced a 496-page, large-format navigational tool to guide the viewer through the cultural developments and theoretical debates of the "short century." The collaborative and in many respects collective intentions of the participating authors consisted of "reinvent[ing] another kind of historical perspective," as Enwezor, in conversation, defines one of the project's goals.

Enwezor, who has taken a lot of heat recently for his guestcurated Lagos section of "Century City," the Tate Modern exhibition that examined a handful of "world cities" whose relationship to modernism is overdetermined at certain points throught the past 100 years, makes his most convincing point at the level of the project's ambitious design. This may be a function of the questions that immediately arise: How is it possible to represent the epoch of the "short century" (itself a paraphrase of "The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991," the subtitle of British historian Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes)? How can this geographic-epochal entity be exhibited; how, indeed, can the accumulated knowledge represented by the catalogue be translated into an exhibition space without being stranded on the shores of metonymy?

One precondition was to limit the historical time span. Enwezor prefaces his introductory essay by quoting Ghanian prime minister and leading theorist of decolonization Kwame Nkrumah's keynote address to the All-African People's Conference in 1958: "This mid-twentieth century is Africa's. This decade is the decade of African independence." But Enwezor doubts whether the theories of negritude, pan-Africanism, and pan-Arabism precipitated by concepts of liberation and independence can be considered finished, historical documents concerned solely with the "decade of African independence." Thus he extends the "short century" to the present day. Artists such as Moshekwa Langa, Antonio 0le, Kay Hassan, Oladele Ajiboye Bamgboye, Zarina Bhimji, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Yinka Shonibare, Bodys Isek Kingelez, William Kentridge, and Ghada Amer are called in as star witnesses to the ongoing effects (in many cases, to the survival) of the critical project associated with names like Nkrumah, Toure, Senghor, Cesaire, Fanon, Lumumba, and Mandela. "One would have imagined that this period has passed by," Enwezor told me in an interview. "But to my own surprise it has returned in such a strong way, and in ways that are much more conceptually layered than in the work of the previous generation." But he also points out that the return to the "founding moments of decolonization" is problematic and painful. …

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