I have been asked to reflect on Emancipation, Freedom and Art as it pertains to decolonizing transnational exhibitions that have proliferated particularly in Africa since the last decade of the past century. Without presuming what these terms mean, I shall approach the task by discussing each concept and the connections between them. My first concern is to examine what emancipation as such means. The term has rightfully received significant attention from authors, makers and thinkers1 in the field of contemporary art in this epoch of globalised exhibition making and will remain so for years to come. Emancipation becomes even more urgent when we consider the convergence that exists between the potential of achieving a tangible and more meaningful form of globalisation through exhibition making on the one hand and the  the assiduous threat posed to it on the other hand by financial globalisation which has transformed our political economic horizons into a homogenous market for the benefit of the few with deleterious consequences on the commons of humanity2.

Another specter haunting the prospects of true emancipation with regard to contemporary art is that the identity politics regime popularized by multiculturalism and its cognates since the late XXth century has become incapable of dealing with the complexities of planetary exploitation and oppression. This raises an imperative point to note that true emancipation always deploys strategies of universalism (sans homogenisation). Once it manifests— and although it may enunciate, make demands, mobilize, and act from a particular personal or ethnic position— it more or less legitimizes itself by generalizing its claims (because it is a truth claim and any claim to such is always and everywhere the same). For example, if we should preface what will later become apparent in this text with the proposition that “imperialism is moribund capitalism [and] neocolonialism is moribund colonialism”3, we could think of Africanness as the particularity through which a decolonial emancipatory ethics can be articulated. But this struggle can neither be reserved for nor  isolated to the cultural or geographical correlates of what has come to mean ‘Africa’ alone. Since capitalism (the phantom to which we can trace the emergence of the chattel slave, the proletariat and the precariat alike) is as indifferent to its object of exploitation as it is to its subject of corruption, any anti-capitalist emancipatory politics must regard its subject as void. In this sense, Africanness must be used as a “mute” negotiator— a particular form of ethnic difference deployed as arbitration for egalitarian aspirations which eventually recedes into those for all humanity4 (the same principle holds true for feminism, LGBTQI+ activism, anti-racism, and so forth). And proponents of radical Pan-Africanism have been well aware of this. Is this not precisely what Ghanaian politician and revolutionary theorist Kwame Nkrumah meant when he unequivocally formulated in his seminal text on decolonization fifty some years ago that “[sic] the emancipation of the African continent is the emancipation of man”5?

A corollary thought thus leads us to consider the contingent encounter between emancipation and freedom. This interaction renders freedom conditional. Whether we are referring to intellectual, economic, cultural and personal forms of emancipation or to acquiring a certain political sensitivity to things or experiences, we are alluding to notions of freedom and independence. Langston Hughes describes the responsibility to freedom in this way; “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose [sic]”6. The second statement is necessarily bound to the first. It is the part that preconditions courage when the ethical imperative presents itself for the artist who is politically motivated (the must). Hughes uses it to eclipse what may be simplistically read as an apolitical choice toward personal convenience in the first statement. In this instance the subject is compelled to follow through with their commitment to its necessary end. And so although one’s mood or feelings about something may change, as long as they uphold it as a truth conviction of which to espouse, they must fulfill its obligations. Giorgio Agamben complicates this even more when he intimates that to be free “is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing. To be free is […] to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation. This is why freedom is freedom for both good and evil.”7 This brings another very important point to the fore: the arbitrariness of the will. In this sense, the person who is truly free is one who is also strong enough to self-censor their own desires, pleasures and passions. The one who is, in Hughes’ sense and perhaps counterintuitively, never afraid to suspend their autonomy for a cause that emanates from but ultimately points beyond a cult of the self. We see clearly how these ideas contradict liberal and mainstream notions of ‘happiness’ and freedom.

Kelvin Haizel, Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom II (BASIC II) series. No. 2, 2018, Inkjet print on Dibond, 92.6 x 139.7cm. Image courtesy Kelvin Haizel.

Further, we often think of emancipation as a thing possessed by an individual or group of people of which others are deprived: as some kind of commodified service for which an able agent or qualified ‘expert’ can administer to needful patients (as is the case with venture philanthropy doled out by ‘corporate-endowed’8 Foundations and NGOs on a humanitarian basis and similarly in many socially-, community-, or politically-engaged art practices). But what if we separate emancipation from this causal conjunction to regard it as an independent thing? As something extrinsic to any domain of ownership which is, at the same time, available to whomever desires its tempestuous conditions. In this case as a thing that must itself be indefinitely nourished and sustained by its subject (an urgent consciousness of not becoming self-righteous) of whose ultimate ethic is to share. This is to draw attention to the central matter at the core of any such claims to emancipation— equality (and to posit equality is to inevitably summon the supreme ethic of love). Any genuine emancipatory politics must have equality permanently pulsating at its core. To posit equality here is not to infer uniformity of identities. For instance, to say that a farmer is equal to a bank teller, or a politician to a blacksmith, or a man to a woman, is not to say that the teller needs to become a farmer, nor the blacksmith a politician, nor the woman a man for the statement to be accurate (this is, by the way, one of the problematic ideas at play in nascent political movements which are dogmatic about inclusion and representation. To insist on inclusion and representation into an inegalitarian system is to inadvertently strive for a framework that excludes any politics at all). To make the earlier claim to equality is to simply affirm that the subjects in question are marked by difference, but that this difference does not in-itself have to be secured on the center-periphery dynamics of imperious subjection. Their equality is in essential and intrinsic value, in the right to exist, which has nothing to do with uniformity.

To reiterate, even though equality is an opinion that one holds (a truth opinion for that matter), it can be argued to be the basis for any emancipatory politics at all. It is the thing none of us controls, a universal given whose essence is propagation. Many times artists and curators elect themselves as bearers of political truth, possessing the means by which to emancipate others. It may well be the case that an artist or curator becomes a vital instigator in causing some kind of awakening to the responsibility of freedom at stake in a given situation, simply because freedom as such is not something we are spontaneously attuned to. But it is only from the recognition that one is potentially complicit in enduring systems of disempowerment that one can realistically begin to address these problems— for “all have sinned…”, with no exception, and participate in exploitation (some directly, others obliquely) as we perpetuate exhibition cultures both affirmed and sustained by the capitalist art market. In this sense we can talk about emancipation as a singularity— an event whose subject(s) cannot be determined before-hand and as a system that abolishes any vertical separations between emancipator and emancipated. As such, equality could be thought of as a series of infinite gestures consequent of which the emancipator-emancipated polarity is absolutely pulverized in the immanent dynamics of articulated mutualities.

And now we come to the matter of art. Contemporary art, since it emerged in the age of financial globalization9, has always contained the promise of altering the coordinates of our world reality as we know it. If financial globalization gives us the “abstract universality” of money and power10 on the one hand, contemporary art possibly offers us a meaningful consecration of this newfound internationalisation on the other hand. Never before has a paradigm for artistic production always already targeted the ‘generic multiplicity’, i.e. the global, from every outset of its determination such that today it is plausible to begin conversations on art from the axiom that “if anything can be said to be art it must necessarily be invented”11. This contingent and indeterminate void is what has legitimized localized practices from various regions of the world by permitting them to meaningfully participate in the end-to-end réseau that constitutes globality.

We can trace the genealogy of biennials, triennials, quadriennials, and quinquennials that have proliferated around the world since the end of WWII back to the epoch of ‘universal expositions’12— that is, colonialist World Fairs that staged agricultural, industrial, ethnographic and fine art exhibitions with the omnipotent worldview of Europe as the center of the world— in XIXth century modernist Europe. ‘Universal’ or ‘international’ in this imperialist context parochially meant competition among nation states vying for world domination while “satisfying the imperialist appetite for consuming the world’s resources.”13 Remnants of this classical model can be found in the Venice Biennial (which is the first of its kind established in 1895) founded on the “axial logic of presenting the world’s most vital and magisterial artistic production through a system of national pavilions.”14  In this sense, exhibitions of this scale can be said to have historically been instrumentalized by imperial governments for the purpose of forging political alliances towards inegalitarian ends.

If we see no way out of this historicist straitjacket, Ranjit Hoskote offers another strand to the genealogy with what he terms “biennials of resistance”15. Hoskote defines such biennials as those that mark “its host site’s claim to the world-historical importance of its own dramas of consciousness and of its own regional modernity, which emerges from the local and yet is imbricated with global circumstances.” (Already we see here that these biennials attempt to break away from the center-periphery logic of colonialist and/or imperialist paternalism to assert the validity of the host site’s claim to an independent right of existence that carries consequences for the global. It goes without saying that the global derives meaning from this intimacy with the local and vice versa). Hoskote continues by listing among such events “the São Paulo Biennial (established 1951), the India Triennial (inaugurated in 1968 and pursued somewhat erratically since), the Havana Biennial (founded in 1984), the Asia-Pacific Triennial (launched in 1993), the Gwangju Biennial (founded in 1995), the Johannesburg Biennial (founded in 1995 but dissolved after its second edition due to financial difficulties), and the Delhi Biennial (discussed in successive annual conferences organized by a group of critics, curators, artists, and academics between 2005 and 2007 but never realized).”16

Of course Hoskote’s list is inexhaustive but the “counter-Venetian” examples he gives— especially the third Havana Biennial in 1989 which remains a watershed moment in the history of post- and anti-colonial mega exhibitions17 — proposed compelling models of galvanizing solidarity in processes which could be considered as the political subjectivation of peoples from the global south on the basis of a de-centered world cultural or symbolic playground by restituting the exhibition format from myopic universality to its radically inclusive potential which has always already been present. Bisi Silva, understanding the complexities of such exhibitionary initiatives, has also expressed that “[w]hilst there are many questions around the necessity for biennials in Africa given the urgent priorities these countries face, the biennial is rapidly becoming – in spite of many shortcomings – one of the main vehicles that provide the opportunity for African artists to network, dialogue and collaborate amongst themselves on the continent.”18 And so even though the transnational exhibition format— speaking both historically and presently— could be perceived as a tool for or means of stultification (a direct antonym of emancipation), and as a potent broker of symbolic power with ever-increasing encroachment from private finance and contrivance for international tourism (as more and more of such institutionalised exhibitions are trapped in debt, not to mention the vampiric exploitation of intellectual and surplus labor in its system, and so on), the obverse is also true that it simultaneously possesses the weapons against this reactionary tendency in itself, so to speak.

This therefore leads me to consider emancipation as potential19 to the mega exhibition and not as an automatic effect of it. Without exception, the potentiality for emancipation both to manifest and to not-manifest20 is always immanent to all instances of this exhibition format and its actualization relies on the radical will to do (bearing in mind the arbitrariness of this same will), regardless of how impossible the circumstances pertaining may render things. At any moment in time the particular conditions must be negotiated in line with the necessary correlates of true egalitarianism discussed above, or else it fails and this renders the action into something antithetical to what it set out to achieve in the first place.

To illustrate this aporia I will use the example of my participation as guest curator in the inaugural Lagos Biennial which took place in Nigeria in 2017. The Biennial’s intentions were foreshadowed by rejecting an approach to displaying artistic interventions which dealt with the simplistic notion of beauty by preferring a more community-oriented position “to investigate the realities of the losers in societies around the world – the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence”21 with Lagos as its beginning point. The objective laid out in the curatorial statement is to put art to the ultimate test, i.e. “can it [art] save the world or at least make an attempt?”

Youngjoo Yoo, I asked (2017), Lagos Biennial 2017, photo by author.

Youngjoo Yoo, I asked (2017), Lagos Biennial 2017, photo by author.

When Bisi Silva asked Folakunle Oshun, the artistic director, what his expectations are of this first edition in an interview22, Oshun responds by saying “[w]e intend to go beyond the “white cube” and into the community letting the city dictate the pace.” To corroborate this point Oshun responds to another of Silva’s questions requesting insight into the curatorial position of the biennial by intimating that “[t]he first edition of the Lagos Biennial hopes to highlight the stories of individuals, groups, and communities in the society who are marginalized from the center. This type of engaged intervention – critiquing the socio-political climate from outside in, is essential in a city like Lagos where the dichotomy of rich and poor prevails. Themed “Living on the Edge” the biennial seeks to explore the experiences of artists living in and around crisis situations across the world”23.

It is easy to see that the emancipatory promise of art, of the biennial format and of the artists and curators involved are simply taken for granted without consideration for its potentiality to not-manifest, especially when encumbered in state bureaucracy. To the extent that the Biennial succeeded in engaging local communities by fulfilling its desire to speak from the ‘periphery’— by siting its main venue in a derelict railway compound where precarious workers (identified as squatters from the point of view of the state) temporarily live— an unforeseen problem was also triggered which accelerated the eviction of some of these squatters considered to be living without permission in the premises of the old locomotive shed owned by the Nigerian Railway Corporation. In this case the biennial, by exposing its site to international attraction (and perhaps by pointing the way for both private capital and state interests) succeeded in realizing the opposite of its intentions24. In the end the Biennial organisers could only “sympathise”25 with the evictees, some of whom had also labored as paid workers in the production of the event. If we return to the question of art saving the world, it is also the case that art can, and indeed does, exacerbate misery in the world. And if we return to the question of emancipation as potential, we learn that no matter how crystal clear one’s political intentions may be, we must without question verify the effectiveness of our actions vis-à-vis these intentions in the direction of emancipation, or else we undermine our own claims.

Finally, true emancipation will be impossible to achieve if we confine art to the status of commodity (that is, to circulatory processes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption). To speak of emancipation in relation to art is to raise a concern about the political potency of art. And so a more interesting question than the one of art saving the world is this: “is artistic creation the realisation of a possibility or is artistic creation the creation of a new possibility?”26 [my emphasis] If the political function of art is to create new possibilities of life and of the world27 that transcend what is given (bearing in mind that the moment we assign the task of emancipation to art we are tacitly affirming this principle), then that is precisely what is necessary for the future of the large scale exhibition format. And the utility of this exhibition format must be considered in terms of its relevance to the aforementioned principle. Artist-pedagogue kąrî’kạchä seid’ou28 offers us a compelling framework through which to actualise a response to this great divorce between ‘realisation’ and ‘creation’ while always addressing the universality of art: to transform art from an overemphasis on its determination as commodity by transcending the homogenising and totalising logic of the international market system and its obsession with “formal novelty” (i.e realisation of possibilities)29 through indifference, to a conception of art premised on resolute conviction, commitment, responsibility, independence and solidarity signified by what he terms the ‘gift’30 (which rides on the revolutionary potential of love and the creation of new possibilities).

The biennial and its cognates emerged to transition exhibition making from its early provincial predispositions into new dimensions for “staging of arguments, speculations, and investigations concerning the nature of our shared, diversely veined, and demanding contemporary condition”31 on a global scale. Through ‘biennials of resistance’ (and I am more concerned with the ethic of dissent at play here that is striving to affirm the truth principle of equality) new opportunities for emancipatory politics have opened up (no matter how problematic). The mega exhibition could yet be thought of as a structure through (or perhaps, against) which new political determinations of art can be created while still targeting egalitarian universalism.


Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, curator and critic based in Kumasi, Ghana. He was guest curator for the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) in Nigeria and is co-curator for the 12th Edition of Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial (2019) in Mali.

*Author’s note: A version of this text is to be published in the forthcoming publication ‘What Do We Tell Freedom, Now? Emancipation and Art’ from Obsidian, vol. 45. 2 which thinks through “the history and legacy of biennales, triennales, and quadriannales in Africa as emancipatory practices”.



1 Here, I am thinking separately of the curatorial oeuvre of Okwui Enwezor, Renzo Martens’s ongoing “reverse-gentrification” project, Institute for Human Activities (IHA), in Democratic Republic of Congo and Jacques Rancière’s book The Emancipated Spectator, 2009, trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York.

2 Slavoj Žižek determines this as “the shared substance of our social being” classified under domains such as: “the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of ‘cognitive’ capital, primarily language – our means of communication and education – but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, mail, etc. […];

– the commons of external nature, threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and the natural habitat itself);

– the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity): with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realistic prospect.”

See Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours.”, 2016, Penguin Random House, Uk.

3 See Kwame Nkrumah, Class Struggle in Africa, 1970, Panaf Books, London, pp. 70-71.

4 I owe this thought to the artist, poet and mathematician kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou of blaxTARLINES KUMASI, Ghana.

5 See Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology of De-Colonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1970 pp. 78.

6 Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, 1926.

7 See Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, 1999, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, ed.& trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, pp. 183.

8 I owe this formulation to Arundhati Roy in Capitalism: a Ghost Story, 2014, Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois.

9 Here I refer to the paradigm of art that succeeded postmodernism and which coincided with the neoliberal epoch (typified by ‘free market’ orthodoxy and policies of Structural Adjustment, deregulation of labour and product markets, financialisation, economic globalisation, and so on) spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, et al from the late twentieth century onwards.

10 See Alain Badiou, ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art’ by Alain Badiou, 2019, http://theoryleaks.org/text/articles/alain-badiou/fifteen-theses-on-contemporary-art/?fbclid=IwAR2E4EKEFtov6Gr2cQN2I1bkeicmHnR0RYu4lV4hExY2V2oU5NC4UV9m2cA. Accesed on 27th April, 2019.

11 See Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh et al (June 2017), “Orderly Disorderly” Curatorial Statement, large scale end of year exhibition organized by blaxTARLINES KUMASI in Accra, Ghana. Retrieved on 16th April 2018, from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/orderly-disorderly-curatorial- statement/.

12 For a political history of these early modernist international exhibition formats in Europe see Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, 1988, Dover, NH: Manchester University Press.

13 See Ranjit Hoskote: “Biennials of resistance: Reflections on the seventh Gwangju Biennial”. In: Filipovic, Elena, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (eds.): The Biennial Reader. Ostefildern 2010, pp. 308.

14 ibid. Ranjit Hoskote is co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennial (2008) with Okwui Enwezor and Hyunjin Kim.

15 See ibid. pp. 310.

16 ibid.

17 The third Havana Biennial (1989) in Cuba maintained the practice of a central exhibition but also splintered into a constellation of smaller exhibitions all over the city. It distinguished itself from the Venice Biennial by rejecting national representations in favor of an overall theme; it also discontinued the practice of awarding prizes; and, though unprecedented at the time, inaugurated the practice of having a team of curators work on the biennial as opposed to one “orchestrator”. These strategies greatly influenced Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 in 2002.  See Terry Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, 2012, New York, Independent Curators International (ICI).

18 See Bisi Silva, Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture, in Living on the Edge: Parallel Histories and Counter Narratives, Lagos Biennial 2017, first edition (catalog), Akete Art Foundation, forthcoming, ISBN: 978-978-968-260-0.

19 For Giorgio Agamben “to be potential means: to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity. Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential. They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being. In potentiality, sensation is in relation to anesthesia, knowledge to ignorance, vision to darkness.” See op. cit. Agamben, “Potentialities”, 1999, pp. 182.

20 Agamben refers to this paradox as the “presence of an absence”. See ibid. pp. 179.

21 See Lagos Biennial 1 (2017) curatorial statement. https://www.lagos-biennial.org/lagos-biennial-2017/, accessed on 23rd May, 2019.

22 This interview may not appear in the forthcoming publication of the first edition of the Lagos Biennial in 2017. There is however a copy of this interaction in the author’s personal archives.

23 See Lagos Biennial 1 (2017) catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Silva.

24 See Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, How Can Art Save the World?: Reading the Lagos Biennial in Terms of Contradictions, 2017, https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/lagosbiennial/, accessed on 23rd May, 2019.

25 The biennial organisers responded to criticism from a journalist about how they had caused gentrification here https://web.facebook.com/596729820468381/posts/we-were-shocked-to-read-this-article-published-by-guardian-uk-and-written-by-rut/915341811940512/?_rdc=1&_rdr. Ruth MacLean’s article published on The Guardian can also be found here https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/lagos-biennial-holds-mirror-to-gentrification-as-squatters-evicted [both links accessed on 20th May, 2019].

26 See op. cit. Alain Badiou, ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art’, 2019.

27 I owe this point to Badiou’s explication of the tenth and eleventh theses in ibid.

28 kąrî’kạchä seid’ou is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Art at the Department of Painting and Sculpture in Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana. His Emancipatory Art Teaching project has revolutionised the art curriculum at KNUST and inspired the institution of blaxTARLINES KUMASI— the contemporary art incubator based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST. seid’ou’s ideas have influenced artists in Ghana since 2003. See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou et al, Department of Now: The teaching methods at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology has cultivated a new generation of innovative artists, 2017, interview by Aïcha Diallo, Curriculum of Connections, Focus: Education, Contemporary And (C&) online art magazine, print edition no. 7, pp. 44 – 48.  Also see seid’ou et al, Silent Ruptures: Emergent Art of the Kumasi College of Art, 2015, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 5, no. 10: October 2015, pp. 131 – 137. http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_5_No_10_October_2015/14.pdf (Accessed on 26th May, 2019). Also see Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, On Universality and Curating in the Void, 2019, https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/on-universality-and-curating-in-the-void/ (accessed on 8th June, 2019).

29 For Badiou “globalization carries the conviction that it is utterly impossible to create a new possibility.” See op. cit. Badiou (2019).

30 See Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens (eds.), Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO? kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in Conversation (interview held in 2016). Also see Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, On Universality and Curating in the Void, 2019, https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/curating-in-the-void/, accessed on 24th May, 2019.

31 Op. cit. Hoskote, pp. 308.