who becomes the self, who remains the other? the case of an unwilling transvestite
by michelle afrifah
all through history, the west has viewed the rest of the world as a secondary civilization, one shaped by the ideas, philosophies and influence of the west. the african, among others, has each time been examined in relation to her history as a colonized subject; hence her admittance into a ‘still under-construction’ cosmopolitan culture has often been met with the glare of jealously-guarding white-male gate-keepers. in the first place, colonial rule has coded the african as a culturally inferior and primitive signified. consequently, her art objects and normative expressions have been assigned a similar status. ‘magiçiens de la tèrre’, 1989, paris, curated by jean-hubert martin show-cased the western and the non-western artists on the same platform. in many respects the exhibition became arguably the first major challenge to the ideological foundations of a hitherto hardly questioned western cultural hegemony. where hubert-martin may have failed in his bid was his use of a bipolar scheme of choice; while western arts were selected on the basis of their conformity or their challenge to ‘modern’ artistic canons, the arts of their non-western counterparts were selected largely on the basis of their naiveté. this clearly did little to dispel the already bloated western ego of cultural superiority.
nevertheless, some subsequent exhibitions continued to seek to eliminate such dysfunctional ideologies. ‘africa explores the 20th century’, curated by susan vogel, held in 1991, conceptually, a sequel to ‘magiçiens’, made visible previously invisible currents in contemporary african art. its aim was to challenge certain stereotypes in cultural reading and canonizing, especially the notion that africa’s celebrated traditional art belonged to cultures glorious but extinct, dead upon contact with the west, that there is no modern african art of merit and that contemporary african arts were mere surrogates of western culture. the 11th ‘documenta’, curated by the nigerian okwui enwezor, and his team of nine co-curators from three different continents, to a very large extent, kept its promise of a programme for global inclusion; it successfully challenged western complacency and pretensions to commitment to cosmopolitan cultural inclusiveness. the efforts of okwui enwezor and his kind in this direction have made remarkable impact but their inherent pitfalls may be located in the consequent unbridled diasporization of evolving artistic canons of contemporary africa. the privileged ‘self’ may be expanding his domain to include the hitherto invisible ‘other’, an unwilling transvestite. who remains the ‘other’?
*michelle afrifa was a final year bfa student in 2004 when she wrote the article. the article predates sylvester ogbechie’s “the curator as culture broker” (2009) and rikki wemega-kwawu’s “the politics of exclusion” (2011/2012). the article was first published in gbedidi journal of contemporary art and culture, student edition vol 1, no. 1, april 2004, founder and editor: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou. the article is from the archive of blaxtarlines kumasi, project space of contemporary art, department of painting and sculpture, knust.
 for example, a british critic, brian sewell, had stated that non-western artists deserved nothing more ‘than a footnote in the history of modern art in the 20th century’. see hassan salah m. and oguibe olu, ‘authentic/ex-centric: conceptualism in contemporary African art’, new york: forum for African arts, 2001.
 okwui enwezor also curated the 2nd johannesburg biennale. the aim of the setting up of the biennale was to present inclusive and comparative narratives of contemporary art with sufficient evidence of the presence and strength of African artists as part of a global contemporary culture. the exhibition was amazingly well-received internationally but was attacked in south africa partly because of the perception that it failed to serve much of the ‘national community’.