Olu Oguibe, 'Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art'
In: Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Market Place. Edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor. London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999, pp. 17-29.
McEvilley's interview with Ouattara in many respects defines the limitations of appreciation and expectation, or what we might call the confines of perception, within which African artists are either constructed or called upon to construct themselves. It speaks to a discourse of power and confinement in current Western appreciation of modern African art; to a discourse of speech and regulation of utterance, which, by denying African artists the right to language and self-articulation, incarcerates them in the policed colonies of Western desire.
In his Inaugural Lecture at the College de France, Barthes identifies speech as a code of legislation, and notes that utterance, language, that which we speak or write, and one may add, paint or sculpt, all that we produce as a body of text, as a composite of signifiers, enters the service of power upon coming into being. Though this power may aspire to Barthes' definition as the desire to dominate, libido domini, its most fundamental nature, nevertheless, is as a condition for the articulation and definition of the self, as author-ity. When the artist creates of the musician composes, the most fundamental intent is to replicate and reiterate herself as a being, to impact herself upon reality, to assert her author-ness, her authority. When Ouattara paints or sculpts, the primordial intent of the act is to establish on the specific sites of his appointment the contours of his being, his history, his experiences, his existence as a participatory element in the constitution and cartography of reality. His intent is to imprint on time his being: his loves, his philosophies, his originary or existential circumferences. And if we should agree with Barthes that enunciation is the code of legislation, it becomes clear that its essence is to define the rules of interaction and interrelation between people, to set the limits of intervention and dominatory incursion, of encroachment upon the sites of our individuality and subjectivity, to present ourselves and establish our authority over not only our creativity, but most importantly, over ourselves too. It is enunciation that subjectivises us, the ability to reiterate our power over our selves. It is this ability and freedom to enunciate, too, that takes us beyond the dominance of others, takes us, as it were, beyond the bounds of power.
To place enunciation, whether it be utterance, writing or art, under surveillance, therefore, is to impair this code. And once the code of legislation and self-cartography is damaged or vetoed, the stage is set for others to infringe those sites of reality in which we define ourselves. To check the creative act, whether through institutional or critical sanction, is to transgress the borders of our autonomy, to return us within the boundaries of subjugation, within the bounds of power.
Even more specifically, the imposition of anonymity on the native, of course, deletes her claims to subjectivity and works to displace her from normativity.
For some time, in order to emphasise the Otherness of non-Occidental cultures, ethnography applied a different rule of attribution to art from such cultures, effectively denying the identities of artists even where these were known. The figure of the individual genius, that element which more than any other defines enlightenment and modernity, was reserved for Europe while the rest of humanity was identified with the collective, anonymous production pattern that inscribes primitivism. Until recently, works of classical African art were dutifully attributed to the 'tribe', rather than to the individual artist, thus effectively erasing the latter from the narrative spaces of art history. In contemporary discourses, critics like McEvilley represent the continuation of this practice whereby novel strategies are employed to anonymise African art by either disconnecting the work from the artist, thus deleting the author-ity of the latter, or by constructing the artist away from the normativities of contemporary practice.
Angela Dworkin has described the pornographic object as a colony, the terminal site of the colonised body. In Occidental discourse, African artists and African art in turn continue to occupy this site. Decoupled and anonymised, each is turned into a silent colony, a vassal enclave of pleasure and power. Each is fragmented and projected in close-up sequences and pastiches that magnify pleasure for the all-knowing critic or collector; hence the concept of the intimate outsider who is narrated into a positive relationship with these objects. Each is parcelled and packaged to suit the West's machinations and tastes, to satisfy its desires and to fit within its frames of reference.
This observation becomes particularly relevant when we consider how little collectors are willing to pay for popular art from Africa, despite the fact that it has remained the focus of Western fascination and attention over the past four decades, and has been vigorously promoted as quintessential contemporary African expression. It is to be noted that collectors spend much more money plugging the pieces in their collections and struggling to generate a discourse around them than they have expanded on the artworks themselves. Across Africa, popular artists who are much touted in the West continue to pursue their careers in conditions that bear no comparison with the affluence of their Western contemporaries.