AFRICA
AT THE
52nd VENICE BIENNALE
OLU OGUIBE
in conversation with
MARTIN HERBERT
European Editor, Modern Painters
The following interview was conducted by email on April 22,
2007. Martin Herbert's article, 'Africa in The Present Tense' may be found in the June 2007 issue of Modern Painters, pp. 78-87
See also Roger Tatley's
Editor's Letter in the said issue.
Copyrights Reserved (c) Oguibe & Herbert, 2007

MARTIN HERBERT: Your work, “Keep It Real: Memorial to a Youth” (1997-2000) is being shown as part of the exhibition ‘Check List’. My impression of this work is that it’s part of a thread of memorials, or objectifications of a tragedy’s aftermath, that runs through your visual art and that feel broadly like indictments of the cultural tendencies that engendered the loss in question. If that’s a misconception, could you correct it – and, furthermore, share some of the background to this work?

OLU OGUIBE: Martin you are quite right in certain respects. ‘Keep It Real’ belongs to a body of work around loss and commemoration. Some of the pieces in this body of work take their cue from or refer to a specific instance of loss while others do not, and ‘Keep It Real’ is one of those that deal not with a specific or personal event or experience, but with loss as a human condition. It would be safe to say that this continuing or expanding body of work started with the contemplation and commemoration of particular events, for instance the loss of sixteen children in the Oklahoma bombing incident in 1995 which was the subject of my installation piece, ‘Oklahoma’, produced for an exhibition at the offices of The Times of London in 1995, or the loss of my only brother nearly three decades ago, which inspired my installation piece, ‘Buggy’ (1997) as well as a series of works called ‘Brothers’ in which I play surrogate to my late little brother. The latter were in fact stylistically or formally inspired by a mid-20th century West African tradition of commemorative photography in which a living twin would pose in place of his or her deceased twin and the photographer would double and manipulate the image to create a surreal double portrait of the twins. This tradition I wrote about in my essay, “Photography and The Substance of the Image” in 1996.

Soon after, however, the works began to face outwards and away from particular events to look at the broader human experience of loss, trauma, recollection, memorializing and healing. Each work might be triggered by an event or series of events and experiences, and then seek to trace a history of loss and commemoration. ‘Mementos’ (1995), the ‘Requiem’ series which were exhibited at the World Health Organization in Geneva in 1999 and at the United Nations in 2000, ‘Keep It Real’, ‘Many Thousand Gone’ (2000), and ‘Ashes’ (2002) all belong in this phase, and as you would notice, the shift already began in 1995. ‘Mementos’ dealt with healing rituals after the loss of a child. ‘The War Room’ at the Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 dealt with the tragic folly of war. ‘Many Thousand Gone, first exhibited at the Koldo Mitxelena in The Basque in 2000, used 101 fictitious portraits to speak to the plague of AIDS in Africa. And ‘Ashes’ was produced five or six months after the events of 11th September, 2001 in which a studio space at the World Trade Center Tower One, in which I had been a resident artist with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exactly a year before, was destroyed by the first airplane that hit the Towers that tragic morning, killing one artist who was in the studio.

Ashes’, however, dealt not specifically with the incident in Manhattan like most artists who responded to that event did, but with catastrophe as a trope and an experience, perhaps going all the way back to Pompeii. What does it mean to know that we are wholly at the mercy of fate, that an entire city or block or even species could meet annihilation in an instant? Where does that fact place us in the larger scheme of the universe and what does it mean for us as individuals whose lives could be instantly and unexpectedly rearranged by what Bob Dylan would call a sudden twist of fate? What do we learn from the fact that a college campus could convene for work and classes of a Monday morning only to have its world turned upside down by the action of one individual with a gun, or that an entire city could go to sleep at night and be buried alive by a sudden volcanic upheaval, nothing surviving into the next morning? How does an artist communicate the fact that in such instances, despite the collective nature of the experience, the feeling of loss and hurt is nevertheless acutely individual, one person and their pain at a time?

The subject of ‘Ashes’ therefore was not the rhetorical nostalgia, hurt, or politics of the New York incident, but instead the very individual nature of loss, as well as the universal nature of the mechanics of healing and remembrance. In the piece there is a living space covered in a layer of ashes, what Beckett might call ‘the final dust’, and in a corner on a bedside table there is a note that says “Call Mom”. The unknown, possibly missing occupant of this dwelling space could therefore be anyone anywhere, and for that reason every mother’s son who leaves for work of a weekday morning and never returns at the end of the day because they’re caught in a mysterious catastrophe. In another part of the piece, eleven witnesses try to recall that catastrophe, but they all recall differently, their memories partially inured by the debris of time and the struggle to forget, very much like in Leonard Cohen’s song where he says ‘I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what’. In fact, one of the witnesses recalls nothing, leaving his or her notepaper blank instead. Here the particular is only a synecdoche for the universal. It is stripped of the bitterness of specificity and its politics, leaving only the purity of loss and sorrow. It could be New York, Pompeii, Baghdad or Beirut. It could be Gaza or Dafur, and the eeriness and singular lonesomeness would be the same. Eventually an artist created a piece with ashes and debris from the World Trade Center that won a major international award, and I found that quite objectionable and shallow if not outright incompetent and cheap. Great art, I think, speaks in metaphors, and metaphors are large and they contain multitudes. Metaphors transcend the facile availability of the immediate and the particular.

‘Keep It Real’ takes the same approach. It was at first a curbside, makeshift memorial such as you would find anywhere a sudden tragedy has occurred, be it an unfortunate vehicle accident or the recent school house massacre in Virginia. However, I introduced two elements to give it focus, one being the pair of male sports shoes that tell us that the victim of that tragedy must be a young man and not Diana Spencer. The other element is the farewell note scrawled on a piece of cardboard that says, ‘Keep it Real, H. We love ya’. The choice of language categorizes the incident as urban American, but it could be Manchurian, urban Japanese or Johannesburg. Beyond that nothing else is of consequence to the viewer because we instantly relate. The rest of the story is left open-ended. The work began, in fact, as notes for an essay on the contemporary American monument after I moved to New York in 1995 and observed that the modern American monument no longer took the form of a public sculpture in bronze or an elaborate gravestone but came instead as curbside memorials, large, overnight murals on shop fronts, and of course, now at the turn of the century, a virtual wake visitors’ notebook on MySpace. I set out to write about this, but the essay never came. In its place came a timeless memorial to every mother’s child and the incident in Virginia this week that I referred to earlier, reminds us once again why the piece has remained resonant.

‘Keep It Real’ speaks to several poignant issues that are, in fact, more affirmative than tragic because all memorialization is an affirmation; of fortitude, resilience, and even defiance; the triumph of good memories over the pain and hopelessness of loss. And as I pointed out to Marina Abramovic several years ago when she exhibited the piece in her show on contemporary performance art at the Irish National Museum, the work also speaks to the indispensable place of beauty in the aftermath of horror; how, as we poise to grapple with the crushing weight of tragedy, our first and immediate recourse is to art, to flowers and candlelight, to instant and beautiful memorials, to the poetry of the eulogy, to song and the soothing or even defiant strain of music, long before we succumb to bitterness or contemplate revenge. When we are at a complete loss as to why, we turn to art and faith.

And of course, there are the classical aspects to the work, also; the use of the word “Youth” in the subtitle, for instance, or the pair of shoes that somewhat hack back to Egypt and that ancient belief in a life after. It is as if, in same way that the ancients were surrounded by paintings of their favorite belongings as they were laid to rest in their tombs, someone added the mourned youth’s shoes because he needs them on the other side, so he could go on keeping it “real”.

In other words, although indictment of certain cultural tendencies, as you beautifully put it, does come to mind with regard to ‘Keep It Real’, as indeed it does perhaps even more so with other works such as ‘The War Room’, ‘Oklahoma’ or the ‘Requiem’ series, there is also a leaning toward celebration which is intrinsic to all memorials.

HERBERT: You are included in this Venice Biennale as an artist whose work is part of a collection. Assumedly you would want your work to be on show, but were you consulted about it by the curators? To what extent do you feel you are actively participating?

OGUIBE: Well, as you rightly point out, the work is part of a collection. In fact I was unaware that it was part of this collection until sometime in March when the curators informed me that my work would be in the show. Throughout the debates and discussions surrounding the selection process, I was unaware that my work is in the collection, and until only a few weeks ago, that it would be part of the exhibition in Venice. As a curator myself, I know to respect curatorial decisions. I do have more recent work that has not been as widely seen in Europe as ‘Keep It Real’ and like any other artist, the inclination always is to want to put one’s newest pair of shoes forward, but I’m sure that the curators have their reason for selecting the piece and it is not my place to question that choice.

Over the years, as you know, I have played the role of promoter and mentor to other artists, and in 2001 I passed up an invitation to be in the representation that we took to Venice for the 49th Biennale because I felt that I could not support and promote the others effectively while also participating as an artist. That is never an easy decision for an artist to make. So, I always feel privileged that in spite of the enormous energy that I have invested all these years in helping to articulate and promote the work of other artists, I am still able to produce work that others consider worthy enough to be presented alongside those of my contemporaries. 

HERBERT: You mounted an admirable defence of Robert Storr’s decision to have an open submission policy for the African Pavilion. Leaving aside if possible the fact that you are in it, what are your thoughts about, and expectations for, the ‘Check List’ exhibition, and your thoughts on the Sindika Dokolo Collection in general?

OGUIBE: Again, as you would imagine, when I publicly stated my opinion on the decision to adopt an open submission policy for the African Pavilion, there was no way to predict what proposals might be submitted or what project might ultimately interest a selection panel. My conviction, simply, was that the process should allow for anyone with a good idea to put it forward and be given a chance, all things considered, to present their project in Venice. I still believe that to be the right position. That the selection from the Dokolo Collection found favor with Venice’s very diverse selection panel all came later and could not have been predicted beforehand.

The much that I know about the Dokolo Collection is that three or four years ago, it acquired what used to be the Hans Bogatske Collection which for many years was, in my thinking, the strongest and most diverse collection of contemporary African art anywhere in the world, thanks to the active involvement of Angolan artist and curator Fernando Alvim. My work ‘Keep It Real’ was acquired by the Bogatske Collection in 2000 or 2001. I have not studied the Dokolo Collection, so, I am not particularly familiar with the rest of the collection. My information is that since it acquired the Bogatske Collection, it has aggressively expanded its holdings of contemporary African art, which I consider a positive thing. I believe that every investment in methodically collecting the work of contemporary African artists and keeping those works in Africa where people have a chance to experience them without having to first travel to the West is a good investment.

You know, the greater and most valuable bulk of Africa’s visual culture heritage is sitting in museums outside the continent, and most of us, especially my generation, have had to travel to Europe or America to gain any access to them. There are far more artifacts from the Benin Kingdom sitting locked up in the basement of the British Museum and the Museum of Mankind in London than any African will ever set eyes on in their lifetime. When I was in art school back in Africa, we studied those artifacts as black and white reproductions in art history books or the occasional slide made from a museum postcard, but had no direct access to them whereas any kid in London could hop on a bus to Central London or the West End and they’d gain access to those artifacts. Europeans had easy access to my cultural heritage, and I didn’t. Colonialism impaired our cultural institutions and worse still, our knowledge of those institutions. In many instances the only way that my generation could repair or reconstruct our links to those institutions or our past, no matter how tenuous such efforts might be, was through the artifacts, but those artifacts had all been taken away also and stashed well beyond our reach in Europe. I cannot begin to describe here what this means, what deep disconnect it has produced, what profound sense of dispossession and rootlessness. 

When I started out as a pioneer scholar of contemporary African art two decades ago, again you had to go to Europe to find any comprehensive collections of contemporary African art: the Iwalewa Haus Collection in Bayreuth, Germany; the Jean Pigozzi Collection, and for several years the Hans Bogatske Collection which was in Brussels, to name a few. South African institutions gradually changed that by assembling regional collections beginning in the 1990s, and artists like Kendell Geers and Fernando Alvim played critical roles in that development. For once you no longer had to go to Europe in order to gain some understanding of threads and trends in contemporary practice. But these collections, quite understandably, still lacked the continental breadth that one might expect or find in any significant public collection of contemporary European or Western art.

It is against this context, ultimately, that one must begin to understand how significant it is that someone was able to bring the Hans Bogatske Collection home to Africa.

I understand that there have been questions regarding the source of the Dokolo wealth. I refrained from any conversations around such questions because I am not privy to any firm information on the matter and I am not one who likes to speculate. More importantly, as an art historian I look to history sometimes in order to comprehend the present. When we think of the fact that the very foundation of modern Western civilization, the so-called Enlightenment was built on the wealth and patronage of the Medicis of Florence, I am prompted to go gentle into the slippery night of debates over patronage especially when they seem targeted. For hundreds of years the great artists of the Renaissance relied on the Medici family for commissions, stipends, and promotion, just as in our time many artists and cultural institutions have relied on Guggenheim fellowships and Rockefeller grants. The Medicis may have bought themselves the Papacy, the very leadership of the Catholic Church which they traded like futures on the market, but they most certainly were not saints. The Medicis were robber barons that engaged in political corruption, illicit banking deals, and even assassinations.

The Tate Galleries in Britain were built on the bequest of the Tate and Lyle inheritance, which came from the slave trade and slavery on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Edward Said detailed the inheritance in his classic study, Imperialism. Without robber barons we would not have many of the foundations and individual patrons that support the arts today, and without colonialism and its plundering of distant colonies, we would not have the British Museum or the Louvre or the glittering European cities that we call home. It is the case that throughout history art and artists have relied on the wealthy, including monarchies and religious institutions, for patronage and sustenance. Recent scholarship has shown that the ascendance of American modernism at mid-century was actively engineered by the US State Department and its agencies, while the same department engaged in political assassinations, destabilizing democratic nations, and installing ruthless military dictatorships around the world. Should we have a radical, healthy, international discussion on patronage and draw up an ethics code that is in line with our concerns and sensibilities at the turn of the century? Perhaps so, but for such discussion to have meaning, it must occur across the board and involve full disclosure from everyone, not just focus on the Africans.

For now though, my thinking is that it is eminently preferable that any fortune that comes from African nations is reinvested in providing patronage and support for contemporary African culture, promoting African artists at home and on the international stage, and building African cultural institutions, rather than stashed away in obscure Swiss bank accounts or spent on private fortresses and other such debauchery that in no way benefit the continent.

HERBERT: According to Storr, the Forum for African Arts did not submit a proposal for the Pavilion. Could you say, or speculate on, why not?

OGUIBE: Not at all, no, I have no information on that and would rather not speculate.

HERBERT: In the wake of this show—and, more broadly, the larger group shows on African art which seem to have enabled its presence—do you now anticipate further, more regionally focused shows of African art at future biennales?

OGUIBE: It is difficult to form any expectations when you have little control over the institutions and establishments in charge of these events. One can only wish, and I would wish on two things.

One is that more African artists are brought into the broad, integrated, international exhibitions at these venues rather than special or regional or continental showcases, in order words, that more African artists are seen and related to in same way that their colleagues from elsewhere are seen and related to; as individual artists worthy of the company of their global contemporaries. Frankly I think that we’ve gone past the age of African group highlights, whether continental or regional. People must begin to show confidence in the ability of individual African artists to stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers on the global stage.

My other wish would be that in forums such as Venice where national pavilions still feature, more African countries find it worthwhile to secure places alongside other nations whereby to promote the very best of their contemporary visual culture. Contemporary African artists deserve it from their countries as a duty, as a debt of honor and support. When contemporary African artists appear in international forums as special charity cases—and this has nothing to do with the generous intentions of institutions such as the Venice Biennale which I applaud—one is often reminded of the words of that old African American spiritual: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long ways from home.

HERBERT: As an extension of that question: you say that ‘ultimately, special African pavilions in Venice will not be sufficient to address the more critical issues of Africa's poor representation in the biennial's main exhibition or the continued inability of African nations to establish pavilions that promote the work of their citizens on the world stage’. What, if the question is not too broad, would be sufficient?

OGUIBE: I believe that the statement you quote as well as my answer to the previous question, speak adequately to this. Thanks Martin.