“[T]he emancipation of the African continent is the emancipation of man.” — Kwame Nkrumah (1964)1
“A master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom. When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we “always-already” wanted without knowing it).” — Slavoj Zizek (2018)
“Fiction interests me in that it is more real than reality; it’s an enhanced reality.”— Simon Njami (2018)
I became interested in this undertaking upon reading an exchange triggered by an article written by Enos Nyamor about KAB18 to which Simon Njami, its curator, responded. I propose to analyze their arguments in relation to the curatorial direction of the biennale summarized in its official mascot which appropriates a section of Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio; A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854-1855). Indeed, the title of the biennale seems to have been derived from Courbet’s painting. That Courbet was able to summarize contemporaneous social, political, and intellectual happenings of his time in his realist tableau while preserving open-ended interpretations through symbolism offers a lot to extrapolate in relation to the biennale. The painting, seminal for its time, combined religious painting, still life, genre painting, landscape and portraiture within its composition in an era when the hierarchy of subject matter was orthodoxy. Courbet’s “real allegory”, what could be read as a contradiction in terms, as the metaphor for KAB18’s curatorial impetus sets the tone for what could have been a conceptually nuanced biennale.
The biennale mascot remixes Courbet’s painting by subjecting it to new operations: zooming and cropping into the right half of the painting, thereby shifting the hitherto centralized quartet of figures — the seated artist finishing a painting, the model standing behind him, the child in tattered clothes whose countenance is upon the painter, and the playful cat — to the left of the new poster, superposed with text bearing the title of the biennale. Behind the artist and the half-naked model, the heads of the seven “Master” artists — Myriam Mihindou, Aida Muluneh, Bili Bidjocka, Godfried Donkor, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Radenko Milak and Abdoulaye Konate — have been digitally manipulated onto existing figures within the painting. What necessitates this superposition? What does it add to or take from Njami’s libretto? How does this montage account for time in its realist, allegorical and virtual senses? What does Courbet and his artistic idiom or tradition have to say to us today? Does the biennale take socio-political events in today’s Uganda into account?
To acquire a better perspective into the latter question we must first study the premise for KAB18 itself. What did the organizers want from the biennale? For this third edition the central question explicitly asked by the organizing team was “[h]ow can we build KAB’s sustainability and interest our [Ugandan] government in the future to support Art through the Biennale?”. On this basis, Simon Njami “proposed the presence of contemporary art masters in Kampala and the transmission of knowledge”. This “naturally made him [Njami] the Librettist of KAB18”. What character or form would this knowledge transmission take? It was intended to “naturally” flow from “one generation of artists to the next”—a unidirectional trajectory of older artists teaching younger ones. The biennale also sought to go against the grain of “the common format of major biennales which historically show and promote the best of their time, as a platform where professionals and the market can come and choose the next big artist”. In this spirit KAB18 chose “a format [which] vehicles our continent’s original values of sharing and transferring knowledge” [emphasis mine] thus, arriving at a “master/apprentice [sic] format to allow for the transmission of artistic skill from international contemporary art masters to young Ugandan, East African and African artists. This is especially crucial as it evokes the traditional African transfer of knowledge from the experienced to the future generation” [emphasis mine]. Why is this event necessary? So that economic support can be bolstered for “Art” (referred to as “cultural capital”) from 1) the state, and 2) from “public and private sponsorship” because “[a]rt is an important contributor to social cohesion and nation-building through the promotion of intercultural dialogue, understanding and collaboration.”
The “cultural essentialism” employed to articulate why the “master/apprentice” approach is necessary masks another significant issue at play: that dependence on state and private capital potentially depoliticizes biennales into functioning as prosthetic limbs in service of the status quo. It cannot, so to speak, bite the hand that feeds it. This is also one of the reasons why international tourism is a big feature of the large scale exhibition format today. In such a case, the aims of the event are contrived to suit nationalist directives stipulated by the respective cultural ministry as well as other “hidden hands”, if not wholly determined by them.
Simon Njami, in the concept statement, expands the introductory thesis of the biennale to trace analogous histories between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. There he makes it clear that the “master/apprentice” system is not exclusive to Africa. In this tradition “[s]ome of these apprentices” Njami writes, “ later became masters and kept the tradition alive”. And this was to involve technical, spiritual and philosophical forms of engagement. The political reason stated is to wrest the African artist from “[m]odern practices, notably in Europe, [which] have turned the artist into a solitarian Genius who creates masterpieces in the silence of his studio.” To boot, Njami writes “Africa was [sic] not a preserve by this trend. It seems to us of the utmost importance for Africa to reinvent new ways of addressing art, in a more endogenous manner” [emphasis mine]. Again, the temptation to use an ethnocentric justification for the insularity that is determined not simply by cultural but economic categories as well. Furthermore, Njami states that “Africa is still [sic] a space where the community plays a critical role. It is, through this third edition of the Kampala biennale, our aim to revitalise ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world. Practices that would bring back notions like transmission and togetherness”. In a word, nostalgia. We know that time and history are both contingent concepts, that something can happen today to change the past, and so on. So if, indeed, such “ancient practices” are relevant today, their intersubjective and political relations would need to be rethought.
Furthermore, on whose terms would this “transmission and togetherness” be achieved? Ultimately, this determination will be on the curator’s terms because it is he who nominates the “master” artists. The ubermaster, who is the curator, is now the expert whom, in symbolic terms, becomes the luminary. The librettist — that is to say, the owner of the master book— is the “author and finisher” of the book that is the biennale. The unidirectional logic of the “experienced” artists transferring what they know to the “future generation” is preserved. On such stipulations, the condition upon which an “apprentice” can become a “master” is conformity— to learn what the “master” already knows, not what they may be independently interested in. Harmony, nay, uniformity, is the supreme ethos of Njami’s community of togetherness and determines how one can be part of it. By implication, nothing that would jeopardize the internal stability of this exchange will be tolerated, not even one’s own individual freedom. Also, there is nothing that the “master” can learn from the “apprentice”, for the former is considered the apogee of artistic development. Hence, there is good reason to suspect a hidden authority in Njami’s project, and it is precisely because of this that I think it is completely empty of any emancipatory potential for us today. This specific project, KAB18, is therefore conceptually sterile of any innovative approaches to “reinvent[ing] new ways of addressing art” in the 21st century, as Njami himself puts it. For this reason we must transcend its conclusions, urgently. There seems to have been a missed opportunity to problematize the traditional “master/apprentice” stultification with KAB18 given all the possibilities it had opened up initially by its own paradoxical starting point, apropos Courbet, to really probe and initiate something new even if it takes traditional form.
When I read Enos Nyamor’s polemical essay on KAB18 it seemed the writer came into the exercise already knowing what Simon Njami ought to have done— that is, what the curator should have said (or otherwise), where to have sited the studios, etc. He begins by claiming that the “the idea of “The Studio”, the title of the biennale” is “itself a Eurocentric concept”. Nyamor does not tell us why, or even how, he arrived at this conclusion. We must simply take his word for it. In any case Njami had anticipated such responses when he drew analogous relationships between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. Nyamor then proceeds to conflate the potency of a curatorial direction, strategy or concept with one’s ethnic or national background. This is where the danger is for me. Nascent generations of “Afrocentric” ideologues are wont to commit the same atrocities they identify as problematic of the so-called Big Other in the name of identity politics. Njami’s national identity or where he is based does not necessarily make him “an outsider” (Nyamor uses those exact words) or bar him from making profound work in Africa or anywhere else for that matter. Did Okwui Enwezor need to be Italian or German in any way to have curated the 56th Venice Biennale and Documenta11 respectively? Can the “outsider” not offer a legitimate perspective? Must every identitarian particularity close itself out to those which exist beyond its peripheries? Njami responds aptly: “Being an outsider –which I really enjoy – provides me with the necessary distance we need in order to understand processes. That necessary critical distance enables us to grasp a bigger picture and to escape the easy game of ethnocentrism.” The biennale format, historically speaking,—since the second edition of bienal de la Habana, in 1986— thrives on expansion of geographic, conceptual and cultural cognates of participation. Nyamor’s uncritical position banally leads to populism. He accuses Njami of being a reactionary but is no less one himself.
But he raises a vital concern in his critique of the biennale which should be considered: that “[i]n the context of the volatile political, economic, and social conditions in Kampala today, the show seems detached from such realities, from the dilemmas faced by young Ugandans, which include not only the need for education and mentorship but also the need for economic opportunities. Incredibly, over 700 students graduate annually from fine arts schools across Uganda”. Implying that most are left unemployed. Since the 1980s economies of African countries have been opened up to the ‘free market’ system and have since been strong-armed by Structural Adjustment Policies under neoliberal capitalism— the postmodernist era of economic globalization where privatization of state/national assets, deregulation, devaluation of currencies, financialization, etc, thrive— which accelerates the creation of ‘poverty industries’ such as the one Nyamor has identified in Kampala. Biennales, as large-scale transnational exhibitions, have already internalized such market-oriented modalities of capital accumulation (for many are already in debt). So Nyamor is right to infer that the biennale becomes complicit in the ongoing class struggle in Uganda by taking a reactionary position on the fiction Uganda currently calls its democracy. The fact of the matter is that capital needs increasing numbers of employable people to be unemployed so as to effectively exploit labor to ensure more profit.
Nyamor makes another interesting observation that “[a]ll the works [in the biennale] are credited to the master” artists. The irreversible stultification embedded in the relational dynamics of the two (which is left unproblematized in the biennale) will always privilege the “master”. And so an outworking, in the first instance, would be that the works (objects/experiences) produced will be attributed to the “master” artists, and secondly the organizational ensemble will be credited to the “master” curator. There is no way around this even if there had been a team of co-curators unless this position is itself challenged. In his defense Njami claims that “the masters acted as mentors, big brothers, uncles”. But, for me, the real question is, could they have acted as sons or perhaps, daughters? Given the paradoxical backdrop of Courbet’s “real fable” upon which KAB18 conceptually feeds, it could have been possible. My point becomes even more clearer with a compelling example from Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a.k.a H. E. Bobi Wine— the dissident musician, critical of the Museveni regime, who was elected as representative of Kyadondo East Constituency in central Uganda in a 2017 by-election — who lyricizes a response in Uganda Zukuka where he sings: “Can we [the youth] ourselves find solutions since our leaders don’t seem to care for the next generation but instead care for the next general election?”. He goes on to make an inspired assertion proclaiming “[w]e are the leaders of the future, and the future is today”. This statement absolutely undermines the entirety of Njami’s libretto. Wine has effectively destabilized Njami’s teleological framework, rooted in nostalgia, by sublating the future, past and present into a singular moment; the “today”. He is saying that “if we are the leaders of the future, then our time is now. And since you have stopped caring about us, we are the ones who will have to teach you what you may already know but have probably forgotten.” Bobi Wine represents the generation in Uganda who have only known one president.
Njami’s curatorial horizon for KAB18 does not take the “stopped caring about us” into account. He takes it for granted that all older generations still care for the younger. Even more, he proceeds, necessarily, from the assumption that the “future generation”, generally speaking, needs this kind of mentorship (that is why he is attempting to “revitalise [such] ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world”). But what if either one, master or apprentice, wills against it? Here, Bobi wine teaches Njami that there can be an exception. In a swift moment of political subjectivation, Wine unravels and inverts the roles: this time dispelling the illusion of consensus by coming to terms with inherent antagonisms. The lines are drawn, one must make a choice either to act for what they believe in or not. This is when true politics begins: the subject elects her/himself and legitimates it by basing their actions on a truth that is addressed to all of humanity. Wine’s politics is consistent with the axiom of universal equality: not just of ability but also of intelligences, for the young too can teach the old. Wine corroborates the universal ethic in Nkrumah’s imperative quoted in the epigraph. Hence if we desire the emancipation of the African, as the example, it is truly for all of humanity that this is necessary. The moment the particular-universal negotiation is severed to focus exclusively on the particular difference-in-and-of-itself, it becomes impotent for any progressive cause and will perpetuate the status quo if/when it acquires power.
In conclusion, I propose to take Njami on; to take him at his word when he made the radical pronouncement in his response to Nyamor that “[b]eing an outsider, I don’t look at where the tools I am using come from as long as they serve my purposes.” This form of indifference is a necessary disposition for the African subject today, given the trauma of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. It is as explicit to Nkrumah’s theory of the African Personality as it is vital to Bobi Wine’s activism. Nostalgia is luxury we cannot afford. It would therefore seem that, in this instance, Njami is not radical enough to follow through the conclusions of his own proposition.
One common legacy of colonialism is the proliferation of the myth that opposes reason to emotion ironically summed up in the formula posited by Léopold Sédar Senghor — prominent Senegalese poet and politician of the Négritude movement— as “L’émotion est nègre et la raison hellène.” (Emotion is Negro and reason Greek)”2. Kwame Nkrumah, leading Pan-Africanist theorist and politician (who passionately contested this dictum), helps us in this direction with the dialectical materialist ideology he termed philosophical consciencism. It is “the map [sic] in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality. The African personality is itself defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. Philosophical consciencism is that philosophical standpoint which, taking its start from the present content of the African conscience, indicates the way in which progress is forged out of the conflict in that conscience”3 [emphasis mine]. The African Personality, according to Nkrumah, is neither given, nor rooted in nostalgia. It must immanently emerge through “conflict” and tension in such a way that if the past is to be returned to or invoked, it would have to participate in the conditions of the contemporary moment. It cannot remain the same.
Hence, in an unlikely stroke of affairs, Njami and Nyamor both find themselves tangentially allied with each other on opposing sides of a one-ended stick: Njami preserves a depoliticized status quo founded on nostalgia while Nyamor is yet to come to terms with the emancipatory potential of the African identity as a “vanishing mediator” for egalitarian politics. They both have, as Njami put it, “one or two useful things” to un-learn.
-Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, writer and curator based in Kumasi, Ghana.
- Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology of Decolonization, pp. 78, https://libyadiary.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/consciencism-philosophy-and-the-ideology-for-decolonization.pdf
- As quoted by Cheikh Anta Diop in The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, 1974, trans. Mercer Cook, Lawrence Hill & Company, New York, Westport, pp. 25.
- Op. Cit. Kwame Nkrumah. pp. 79.