Friday, 25 January 2013
On African Video Art
Why is it that - in the wake of prolific work by twentieth century scholars, curators, artists, writers and critics - we need to draw attention to the category African video art as if it is something unusual, idiosyncratic and unexpected? Why are we still fighting ignorance and who is committing intellectual perfidy? Or is this something we imagine we or ‘they’ are doing? And who is the ‘we’ or ‘they’? The questions remain impenetrable, but I only have to listen to the conversations around me to realise that voices both from within the African continent itself, and those speaking out of the so-called western world, continue to naturalise irrelevant ideas about Africa and ‘the west’. All aesthetic production emerges out of conditions of specificity; but specificity is not the monolith of Africa or the West. We inhabit a world that has already witnessed accelerated forms of globalisation, migration and travel (and the ubiquitous phenomenon of the travelling artist, curator, critic and scholar). We know we cannot feel secure in categories that suggest a natural order of things, but we continue to mobilise them. When we’re speaking about identity or any discursive category, it’s no longer enough to draw from the arsenal of strategic essentialism. Any form of essentialism functions merely to evade and inadvertently reinscribe freighted ways of seeing and being and runs the risk of being co-opted in ways that are, at the very least, precarious. The idea of Africa as it encounters an idea of ‘the west’, is haunted by histories and lived experiences of race, gendered looking and a restless discourse of the other: it remains unclear whether these experiences, either mobilised or veiled, are ever really fully grasped. In a present where much is at stake in human relations; and so much is contingent upon who looks, writes or speaks, what does it mean to produce art, curate exhibitions, and occupy spaces brought into being by art worlds that move and migrate?
We need to pay attention to how this exhibition is staged and reflect on the conditions that shape its circulation. Who will see the work, and how will this seeing take place? Who will perform the discussions it generates and what will these look like? Who will do the speaking and whose voices will be heard and why? It would be productive to pay close attention not to the category African video art, but to video art that exists in relation to particular conditions and modes of production. Moving images inhabit spaces shaped by the sensate co-ordinates of movement, duration, pacing, colour, sound, or time. One of the most distinctive capacities of video art is its ability to occupy multiple temporalities simultaneously offering us more than one perspective at the same time. It continues to be arresting to re-visit these elements afresh, to consider the particular capacities of art objects that embody the idea of movement, and to reflect on the meanings produced by each individual work.
The works on the exhibition operate in a number of different ways: they play with the buried surfaces and sounds of digital technology; they deploy animation, performance, music, spoken word and visual layering. They explore the relations between image and text, and open up the possibilities of established genres such as portraiture. My looking recognises the affects and sensations of remembering and forgetting, and it registers the poetics we attach to urban environments, peripheral spaces and the places we inhabit in memory. The works exhibited here are inflected by the experience of migration, and they ask questions about what it means to inhabit multiple languages, geographies and states of being in the present. These are all the familiar territories of contemporary art practice and critical debate - no matter where you are situated in the world. But it is for us – viewer, artist, critic, curator, art historian - to figure out whether these works and the ways in which they are curated do something significant and specific, and whether we might begin to disintegrate the historical monoliths that obscure our vision.
Arts Writer and PhD candidate, History of Art, University College London