Bisi Silva: The sentiment of learning through others

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Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom [1]

I. 
In 1999, I travelled from my residence in London to visit my home city of Lagos in preparation for a project I was planning to implement a year later. Not long after arriving, I had a conversation with a mid-career artist about the local and international art scene. I recall that the artist responded to my mention of documenta X with a blank and bewildered expression. He seemed oblivious of documenta and the exhibition’s status as one of the preeminent sites for the display of contemporary art. In my incredulity and naïve persistence about what I considered—presumptuously—to be his ignorance, he replied in a somewhat irritated tone, “I am sorry, Bisi, but I have not heard of it.” In reflecting on this experience, I am now inclined to ask, why should he have heard of documenta? Here the words of the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o are apt. After observing changes to the literary curriculum in Nairobi that privileged 'Third World' literature, Wa Thiong’o affirms that such changes reflected the truth “that knowing oneself and one’s environment was the correct basis of absorbing the world; that there could never be only one centre from which to view the world but that different people in the world hat their culture and environment as the centre. The relevant question was therefore of how one centre related to other centres.” [2]

I highlight this exchange because in the 1990s, the lauded benefits of globalisation and its tenets of openness, fluidity, and notions of interconnectedness implied that it affected or impacted everyone in the same way. Today, however, the fallacy of such thinking is obvious—that what may be considered landmark events in the Western art world register as such to only a small powerful minority of the world’s population. At the inception of Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA) in 2007, not only had my location changed, but also my frame of reference had shifted considerably, and I was more cognisant of the reason why an event such as documenta might have been inconsequential to artists working within a Lagosian milieu. The contemporary art scene in Lagos had not yet witnessed the effervescence that is visible today. It was still at an emergent stage with cultural activities split, on the one hand, between the European institutions with a local presence such as the British Council, French Institute, and Goethe Institute, and on the other hand, a collection of galleries that focussed exclusively on commercial activity and a few artist initiatives. 

In developing CCA our interest lay in prioritising experimental artistic practices including performance art, fine art photography, and video art, focussing especially on the conceptual possibilities of these mediums. These artistic forms were mostly absent within the mainstream of the local art scene. We wanted to provide a discursive platform that embraced critical debate and exchange. One goal was that CCA would become a curatorial laboratory of thoughts, a space animated by a plethora of activities including talks, panel discussions, seminars, workshops, exhibitions, and publications that responded to local needs while remaining connected to the global art ecology. At the core of CCA’s ambition was an attempt to make expansive and self-critical forms of curatorial enquiry a priority in the context in which the history and practice of curating contemporary art was non-existent.

As the organisation grappled with the challenges of its environment, this tabula rasa—despite a rich landscape of local habits, customs and vernacular culture—from which to work provided the freedom to develop and implement new models where needed. The
challenges gave away the questions including of what type of curatorial formats and methodologies might be developed to harness our activities? How could an expansive approach to curating take place within our immediate context as well as across the continent in order to effect radical transformation in artistic thought and presentation? How might unconventional approaches to curating catalyse social, cultural, and structural change? At the time these concerns were somewhat lofty and produced no easy answers. We realised very quickly that there was a fault line in terms of knowledge and practice, whether artistic or curatorial, and there was an urgent need to address gaps in art education. As with other countries across Africa, Nigeria inherited a British colonial educational system. Whilst independence ushered in a new era in which self-determination was the corner stone, the colonial educational system remained intact and its legacies remain discernable today—barely changed and largely unchallenged.[3] This stagnation is in stark contrast to the reforms that took place during the early 1960s in Britain and many other Western countries where art education underwent significant changes. As artist John Aitken notes, “the British art school system was radically overhauled in 1963. A new degree equivalent qualification was established that highlighted the integration of theory and practice, in contrast with vocational emphasis of the National Diploma in Design.”[4] 

The absence of critical theory and the limitations of basic art history in the curricula coupled with the continued prioritisation of skill over process provided the impetus for CCA, Lagos to initiate curatorial project with a pedagogical focus. The programme was designed to provide a space in which art and culture would ignite ideas and discourse—a space in which learning to unlearn became a necessary foundation for the Àsìkò art school.[5] Àsìkò is a Yoruba word that translates as “time” in English. The word is appropriate for the title for such a project, given that many of the themes and questions we seek to explore shift across temporal registers. For example, the first three editions moved from considerations between history, aesthetics, and the materiality of art, and sustained explorations of archival practice. 

Àsìkò does not exist in a historical vacuum but is part of the lineage of non-formal art and art education initiatives created across the continent since the beginning of the 20th century. The first wave was made possible through the consolidation of European colonisation and the implantation of Christian missionary organisations. Workshops figured prominently during this period, and they were less about producing artists and more about the necessity to train artisans who could create religious sculptures, painting, and murals for the growing number of converts ant the time. Nonetheless some of the talented students would eventually become great modern artists such as Ben Enwonwu and Ankinola Lasekan from Nigeria, and Gerald Sekoto and Ernest Mancoba from South Africa. By mid-century, the format and vocabulary had changed. Still controlled by Westerners, several independent art `schools´ sprang up in the 1950s and 1960s including Pierre Lods’ Poto Poto School in Congo Brazzaville, Frank McEwen’s `Shona´ art workshops in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the Mbari Mbayo Oshogbo club spearheaded by Ulli Beier and Duro Ladipo in Nigeria. 

By the 1980s, the first triangle artists’ workshop (which was developed in New York by artists Anthony Caro and art patron Robert Loder) took place in South Africa. Organised by artists David Koloane and Bill Ainslie, they incorporate triangle’s more egalitarian and democratic model, inviting formally and informally trained African and international artists to work together intensively, sharing meals, and jointly participating in discussions and presentations over a two-week period that culminated in an exhibition. This was a new model in Africa, and as Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu observes, “whereas other African workshops sought to re-invent an imaginary pre-contact African artistic unconscious,“ this new format of flattened hierarchy was already visible in Oshogbo where “Beier had the task of encouraging the immergence of post-colonial artists who are able to negotiate the terms of their relationships and engagement with post imperial modernity and indigenous traditions.”[6] 


II. 

In developing Àsìkò, it was clear that while pre-existing pedagogical models could be mined for inspiration, the programme had to be developed through a hybrid, experimental, and fluid structure in order to account for the varied levels of experience on the part of the participants. Relative to other art pedagogical programmes, we sought to distinguish Àsìkò as the outset through a strict criterion of selecting only participants who live in Africa, so as to redress the limited opportunities for emerging artists and curators to travel across the continent or globally. Àsìkò is not a workshop in the conventional sense of bringing together artists to make work; it is not a residency for individual research because artists are required to turn up early every day and work with the group well into the evening including Saturdays. It is not an art school because it has no consistent facilities, and it is not an academy because we have no fixed curriculum. Yet, Àsìkò borrows aspects of all these models. The programme embraces the language three-parted structure that combines elements from laboratory, residency, and workshop models whilst the open call for participants emphasises a focus on the “critical methodologies and histories that underpin artistic and curatorial practice.” Àsìkò eschews a 'master' teacher hierarchy in favour of a changing and diverse roaster of facilitators and guest speakers who are invited less to 'teach' and more to share, exchange, and, in turn, to learn.

This approach allows us to respond to the failure of postcolonial education systems on the continent, by equipping artists with skills and knowledge that counter the market-orientated gallery environment of most African cities, the moribund art institutions of the state and the outdated curricula of tertiary education institutions. As organisers we had our own challenges. Àsìkò was positioned as an advanced course and the first edition in 2010 in Lagos sought to align artistic practice and cultural production with a 50-year celebration of Independence across 17 African countries by considering the idea of postcolonial history and its impact today. On Independence and the ambivalence of promise, the curatorial premise for this inaugural edition explored mechanisms through which to anchor and share perspectives on a common subject. We also chose to explore questions related to history of Independence in Africa by focussing on photography given the medium’s role in visualizing postcolonial transformation throughout the continent. 

For the first edition, our aims were twofold: to include research as a starting point for artistic exploration and to introduce new forms of photographic practice that were more conceptual in nature, going beyond the more familiar documentary reportage and street photography. The response from the participants through positive and engaged, also revealed shortcomings because few of the artists had experience in research-based practice or critical theory. Although we anticipated this being a challenge, we had not realised the extent to which this would impact the initial curriculum. Important adaptations were therefore included in the second edition, which also took place in Lagos, in 2012. As a result, the second edition of Àsìkò, titled History/Matter, sought to respond to the experiences and limitations of the first edition in which there was a disconnect between the claims artists were making about their work, and the final material form of the art work itself. In presenting History as a wide open subject it could be taken from personal recollections to landmark historical events that impact the collective, whilst matter focussed on the significance of the medium, the process and the materials used and various options that could be employed. Although the programme was initially geared towards visual artists, we quickly saw that this was inadequate. We realised that, in most countries, artists had not developed the habit of producing work in dialogue with curators and this presented an opportunity to address the paucity of curators as well as the lack of curatorial education (at least outside of South Africa).

In 2012, Jabulani Pereira from South Africa joined the programme to become Àsìkò’s first curator-participant. The inclusion of emerging curators in Àsìkò offers a unique opportunity to think about the programme in terms of 'living exhibition', where both artists and curators acquire skills and strategies relevant to their respective interests, while also devising ways for these interests to coalesce in the form of a collective final project at the end of the programme. The equilibrium between process and discourse—difficult to harness in the first edition of Àsìkò—proved satisfactory in History/Matter as highlighted in the final project. Curated by Pereira, Living Construction: Time. Form. Daily demonstrated a deeper understanding of how different materials and medium interact—especially through the incorporation of technology and the performative. In addition, the exhibition imbued participants with the confidence to move beyond medium specificity once the initial tensions between curator and artists were overcome. Consequently, in a condensed space of time and as the programme evolved through later editions, artistic practice began to respond to and inform curatorial practice.

As we prepared for the third edition, curiosity and interest grew across the continent. We, in turn, felt a need to widen the parameters of the discursive space, to engage directly with different localities and their histories. From 2013 onwards, Àsìkò assumed an itinerant structure, roving from country to country each year with a goal of engaging other Anglophone countries, as well as those part of the Francophone and Lusophone world. Subsequent editions of Àsìkò thus took place in Accra, Ghana, Dakar, Senegal, Maputo, Mozambique, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The third edition, titled The Archive: Static, Embodied, Practiced, took place in Accra in collaboration with The Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana, an artist run organisation. The foundation’s base at the W.E.B. Du Bois Centre provided a fitting opportunity to begin an exploration of the contemporary uses of archives and the history of their formation, while also encouraging participants to explore the artistic and curatorial possibilities of archival research as a method of inquiry. In 2014, Àsìkò moved to Dakar, elaborating ideas and concerns established in the previous edition by beginning with an analysis of the final project presented in Accra. Titled A History of Contemporary Art in Dakar in 5 Weeks, this edition highlighted, on the one hand, the temporal limitations of our engagement with any one city, and on the other hand, opened up the possibilities for individual responses to be taken into deeper consideration as we moved southwards to Mozambique in 2015. In Maputo, a 'utopian' colonial city, we engaged with the pervasive architectural legacy of Portugal, visited home/studio/library of one of its most celebrated artists Valente Malangatana as well as the recently inaugurated monument by South Africa ANC government in recognition of the vital contributions in the struggle against Apartheid by the nine Frontline states.[7]

For the sixth edition of Àsìkò in 2016, Addis Ababa was a fitting place to conclude the first phase as well as consolidate the experiences, interactions and discourses of the preceding years. We continued to focus on ad explore the themes and issues that had been addressed over the previous five years: colonial history and postcolonial reality, decolonial theory, identity, 'Africanness' and pan-Africanism, materiality, the archival, locality vs globalism, the body and sexuality, among others. Within the curatorial segment African exhibition histories and art history continued to be an urgent point of focus, as well as a potential area for the writing of new art histories that emanate from the local. 

All in all, during Àsìkò’s yearly five-week programme, participants and faculty created an interactive social space. The intense and intimate nature of the initiative naturally enables it to function as a community. But the faculty and participants also make conscious efforts to extend their work and dialogue into the broader local communities through collaborations, visits to archives, museums, studios, and cultural sites, as well as during excursions to different cities. This dynamic echoes a long-standing dimension of cultural production on the continent. In the introduction to African Art and Agency in the Workshop (2013), a seminal publication on the history of the workshops across Africa, editors Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Forster highlight the social ethos of workshops that occur on the continent, noting:

“A workshop is not a place where individuals accidently meet, and either exchange ideas or not. It is a social institution that fosters particular modes of reciprocal interpretations and, in general, social interaction. These modes are seldom as obvious as they would be in a class, where a privileged and more powerful person teaches others right and wrong. The interactions taking place in a workshop are often much more subtle. Artists in workshops learn much more through others, not from them.”[8]

Indeed, the sentiment of learning through others has become a staple of the Àsìkò experience. Throughout the six editions, artists and curators formed social and intellectual bonds with each other, as well as with the various facilitators, often resulting in long-term collaborative thought and practice. As the programme moved from one city to another, different sites played important roles stimulation networking opportunities, research inquiries, or mental and physical discovery be it through the library at CCA, Lagos, the Olympic swimming pool in Dakar, or the excursions in Ethiopia to the ancient cities of Lalibela and Axum. Among the unique characteristics of Àsìkò are its pan-African identity, its roving nature, and its openness to collaborating with other pedagogical programmes such as the standalone Global Crit Clinic (GCC). This two-week programme devised by artist/academic Kianga Ford and Shane Asian Selzer was an intensive fine arts pedagogy and studio critique initiative. GCC participated in three editions of Àsìkò from 2012 2014, and significantly contributed to Àsìkò’s curriculum module through a focus on artistic professional development. 


III. 

In contrast to many of the workshops and residencies across the continent initiated and overseen by artists, Àsìkò positions itself as a pedagogical project framed within an expanded field of curatorial practice. The publication Ásìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa, also developed within this curatorial field as a kind of group exhibition on the printed page. The book is an appropriate format given the durational and spatial limitations of physical exhibitions, especially in a context where audiences can be small and opportunities for exhibitions to travel are often limited. By contrast, the capacity of a publication to reach a wide audience across space and time is expensive. Curated by myself in close collaboration with editor Stephanie Baptist and designers Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch, the ambitions of this book stem from a desire to historicise recent art and curatorial practice in Africa by laying bare key issues and ideas pertinent to pedagogy on the continent. It is our hope that this publication will inspire further discourse and the development of new spaces in which culture and learning can continue to bloom. 

There is great reason to be optimistic about the possibilities for art on the continent. As we attempt to answer one of our key questions—what futures for artistic and curatorial practice and pedagogies? —it is pertinent to conclude with a vivid example of the art academy as a catalyst for change and transformation. One of the more radical 'futures' taking place in Africa today can be found at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, particularly the Department of Painting and Sculpture. During Àsìkò 2013, which took place in Accra, the participants’ excursion to Ghana’s second city Kumasi included a visit to the MFA final degree exhibition. There we met the lecturers Karî’kachã Seid’ou, Kwaku Kissiedu, and George Ampratwum and some of the graduates who spoke eloquently and critically about their work. It was obvious that the graduate students had thoroughly absorbed a range of critical theory—both Western and African in its orientation—as well as different methodological and conceptual approaches to art making. The quality of work and thought in Kumasi today, by many accounts, started with a “small revolution” in 1996 (on which Seid’ou was part) where students staged “unannounced performances, silent happenings, textual paintings, poetic bricolage, exhibitions on trees, publicly posted political cartoons, etc.,” and which has now grown into a full blown cultural revolution. [9] Since 2013, the Painting and Sculpture Department has implemented a two-year MFA programme in Curating. But more boldly, the department has created a project space called BlaxTARLINES, which is positioned as a site of artistic and curatorial exploration. Their impressive end-of-year projects include notable exhibitions such as Gown Must Go To Town (2015), Cornfields in Accra (2016) and the recent exhibition Orderly Disorderly (2017). The large-scale and ambitious projects—some with as many as 80 participants—include present and past students and lecturers, as well as invited artists all presenting work at the National Museum of Technology in Accra.

BlaxTARLINES’ exhibitions and smaller projects are transforming the art scene through collaborations that are both local and international in their scope and audiences. The department’s activities provide a good example of the way in which artistic and curatorial pedagogy can be developed by engaging from within the institution but also reaching out to the wider population, ever challenging traditional educational orthodoxies that have stifled cultural production in Ghana and across Africa. Whilst artists may be aware of and even participate in global contemporary forums like documenta today, we must not lose sight of the possibilities inherent in projects like xx and BlaxTARLINES, their capacity to express, following Wa Thiong’o, “the particularities of our different languages and cultures very much like a universal garden of many-coloured flowers.” For as the Kenyan author elaborates: “The 'flowerness' of the different flowers is expressed in their very diversity. But there is a cross-fertilisation between them. And what is more, they all contain in themselves the seeds of the new tomorrow.” [10]


[1]  Bisi Silva, “Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom” was first published in ÀSÌKÓ: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos 2017, xii–xxiii. Reproduced with the permission of Iheanji Onwuegbucha, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. Taken from the title of a chapter “Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom” in: Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms by Kenyan writer and academic Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, New Hampshire: 

[2] See “Moving the Centre: Towards a pluralism of Cultures,” ibid., 9.

[3] The Rhodes Must Fall movement started in 2015 in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. The activists demanded the removal of statue of Cecil Rhodes, an end of institutional racism and decolonising education.

[4] John Aitken, “Understanding Orthodoxies,” in: Mara Ambrozic and Angela Vettese (eds), Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, Berlin: Sternberg Press and Universita luav di Venezia, 2013, 21.

[5] The programme would only officially become called Àsìkò in 2013 for the third edition.

[6] Chika Okeke-Agulu, „Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Oshogbo Workshops in the 1960s, Nigeria,“ in: Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Forster (eds), African Art and Agency in the Workshop, Indiana: Indiana University Press 2013, 172.

[7] The Frontline states were active from the 1960s against the Apartheid re- gime of South Africa. The nine countries were Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

[8] Sidney Littlefield Kasfir and Till Forster (eds), African Art and Agency in the Workshop, op. cit., 17.

[9] Contemporary And (C&), Platform for International Art from African Perspectives, “Department of Now,“ Print Edition No. 7, 47.

[10] Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, “Creating Space for a Hundred Flowers to Bloom” in: Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, op. cit., 24.