My involvement with Manchester Art Gallery's exhibition, We Face Forward, has been an excellent opportunity as for a few years now I have been developing an interest in post-colonial discourse within contemporary art.
It is important for a predominantly white/European art world to begin to come to terms with the concept of post-coloniality in the face of a rapidly globalising society. Many black artists are still denied access into the history of modern art, it is a sphere which operates largely under the dominant ideology of imperialism. So I was interested to see how the exhibitions and events organised for We Face Forward would be approached, considering Manchester's colonial history.
Dak’Art, the Biennial of the Contemporary African Art, from its home in Dakar has been a much needed platform for the work of contemporary African artists and drawing the attention of western art historians and critics since its inception in 1992. Western galleries have been relatively slow to develop connections with the artists championed by events like Dak'Art. African art is still often shown within an anthropological context, which is completely outmoded in the face of an increasingly self-assured contemporary African art movement. There is much more to African art than “exotic” fetishes and tribal artefacts.
The Hayward gallery in their 1989 exhibition, The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain set a precedent for galleries wanting to challenge the stereotypical way that western institutions present black art, and it appears that in the past decade the ball that was set rolling in the late 80s is finally gaining momentum. In 2005, Africa Remix at the Southbank centre was the biggest exhibitions of African art in Europe, 2010 saw Africa, Assume Art Position! at Primo Marella Gallery, Milan and in 2011 ARS 11 at Kiasma in Finland took the baton and continued to explore contemporary African art within western institutions.
Now, Manchester thrusts contemporary African art back into the limelight with an entire festival dedicated to the art, music and culture of West Africa. The pieces on show across Manchester Gallery, the Whitworth gallery and Gallery of Costume are affecting and amusing at the same time. The work of these West African artists is as busy, noisy and exciting as West Africa itself, it feels very much as though you are being invited into the front room of 'Mother Africa' and shown her family album, warts and all. It is at once serious and focused but at the same time cheeky, humorous and at times quite impish, much like the artists (at the private view Barthélémy Toguo sat atop one of his 5 foot chairs staring intently at the other, which was full of immigration stamps whilst downstairs, Emeke Ogboh propped up the free bar and made cheerful conversation with anyone within earshot)
Overall, I think that what shines though is the humanity and honesty of the artists who have produced the multifarious pieces for all of the venues. It is this unpretentious approach to making work that is so refreshing and what makes it so engaging.
I believe that We Face Forward is a refreshing contemporary showcase of art from West Africa and that it will continue the legacy of Rasheed Areen's The Other Story in captivating the public imagination whilst encouraging a less blinkered view of contemporary work from a continent with such a rich cultural and artistic tradition.
Barthélémy Toguo, Redemption, 2012
Barthélémy Toguo, prints from Redemption stamps
Pascale Marthine Tayou Les Sauveteurs Gnang Gnang (Femelle) 2011