South African born, Belgian artist Kendell Geers, uses art to challenge notions of identity. Through his work, and ‘AfroPunk’ exhibition at Didier Claes Gallery and Rodolphe Janssen Gallery, 07 September – 28 October, Kendell asks what ‘African art’ truly is. Is it work that embodies a ‘spirit’ or is it an aesthetic form? Kendell sees the need for today’s art to have meaning, to reanimate the spiritual function of art.
We hear from Kendell, in his own words, how classic African art has inspired his work and helped him question and define his identity. Through his work, Geers asks the question, “is there a difference between contemporary African art and the work that is called traditional African art“.
"AfroPunk is a meditation on reading, an exorcism of subject, form and tradition—images trapped at the border between our expectations and the boundaries of our experience."
Africa was never ‘discovered’ and its history and relationship with Europe can be traced all the way back to the origin of the species. It is an inconvenient truth for many Europeans to acknowledge that Egypt is part of Africa and predates Greek civilisation. In his Naturalis Historia, written between 77 and 79 AD, Pliny the Elder declared “ex africa semper aliquid novi; [there is] always something new out of Africa“, in praise of the complexity and diversity of the continent that spreads out from the South and to the West of Ancient Egypt. Africa was never a lost continent and has always been an active participant in exchange of ideas and goods, to and fro, across the Mediterranean basin. As ideas spread through the trade networks, so too did cultural traditions adapt to embrace new ideas based on different religious practices.
Given the contradictions, complexity, ancient histories, slave routes, diasporas, cross cultural influences and trade routes dating back centuries, every attempt to define or speak for Africa will fall into cliche. The greatest struggle for African art or identity is the right to speak for itself, the right to self-representation, in place of being spoken for. The basic human right to decide on one’s own national identity based on community and tradition had been denied by the borders of the Berlin Conference in which the colonialists treated a continent of African people as naive, illiterate children in need of being spoken for and taken care of.
In the century since, far too many missionaries, priests, doctors, aid workers, politicians, and curators have perpetuated the notion of Africans as ‘Noble Savages’. More than one of the largest and most reputed collections of African art have been curated with the declared philosophy that African people should not study in Europe for risk of losing their ‘natural’ talent. There have been far too many exhibitions looking at Africa through the years of European fear and colonial fantasy. Even exhibitions like ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ at the Centre Pompidou and MOMA’s ‘Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art’, grounded in good will and noble aspirations, failed to give African art a worthy voice of its own.
African art is a philosophy that thrives in the smallest village, in the most remote part of Africa, where living traditions of art remain deeply rooted in the community, the environment and the embodiment of sacred beliefs. Art is not disconnected from its context and remains a vital force of spirit. African art as philosophy cannot separate the mask from the masked, cannot take the dancer out from the dance which cannot be stopped until the rite has been written. The masquerade cannot be read outside of the community upon whose faith it emanates from.
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe fondly quoted the Igbo proverb “Anaghi a no n’otu ebe e kili mmonwuî; You cannot stand in only one place to watch a masquerade“, as a metaphor for understanding African Art. He explains, “I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there is no way you can tell that story in one way and say, ‘this is it’. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told, from many different perspectives“.
"You cannot understand the dance unless you are the dancer and you have no right to wear the mask unless you understand its power."
But the familiarity and habit of the Western European convention is often overlooked and misread as universal. The Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich calls this ‘The Beholder’s Share’, that unspoken understanding in which the viewer contributes to the reading of the work using their own library of knowledge and of course, ideology. Once an object or work of art, any work of art, is isolated from its context, the viewer will add their own layers of reading and fill in the gaps of understanding with their own fears and desires. It was for this reason that the power objects known as ‘Nkisi‘, or ‘Spirit’, was referred to by Europeans by the pejorative term ‘fetish’.
It was Picasso, more than any other European artist, who first understood the power of African art after a visit to the Trocadéro Museum in Paris in 1907. Contrary to the widely held assumption, he was not looking at historical masterpieces, but at masks and power objects made by his African contemporaries a few years prior.
Upon entering the museum, Picasso found himself taken by the power of African art. He spoke of the experience as a ‘revelation’ no less. “When I went to the Trocadéro it was disgusting. The flea market. The smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood something very important: something was happening to me, wasn’t it? The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things”
He understood the power of African art, describing them as “…weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits, to become independent. Tools. If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them… Les Demoiselles d ’Avignon must have come to me that day, but not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism“.
It is through this sense of magic, of ‘exorcism’, that Picasso understood the sculptures to be intercessors, and weapons against everything; against unknown, threatening spirits. Picasso clearly understood that African art is not a style, nor an image. African art is not an aesthetic nor even representational. African art is the embodiment of a spirit, the inner world of the artist made visible in physical form. Conceiving of art in this way, form was liberated from function, and aesthetics from beauty.
Picasso was not the only artist to understand the non-representational power of African art, the uncanny sense of embodiment and evocation, matter as spirit and spirit as matter. Matisse, Breton, Derain, Leger, Modigliani, Malevich, Gauguin, Janco, Tzara, Ball, Hoch, Roussel and Apollinaire to name but a few, fell under the influence of African art and liberated their spirits from the European tradition to give birth to the Avant Garde tradition that would dominate the Twentieth Century.
To this day, African art continues to fascinate artists who collect, curate and are inspired by the liberating forms of a tradition that continues to hold spirit as the force that binds aesthetics to form. The private collections and curated exhibitions of artists like Arman, Tom Phillips and Willy Mestach have all changed the understanding of the subject, adding historical detail and curatorial context.
"What is the language of African Art? What is Africa? A continent, a skin colour, an identity, a heritage, a spirit, an energy, a rhythm, fantasy or an archetype? Perhaps Africa is the struggle to be seen and a protest to be heard?"
What is it about African art, that century after century and generation after generation, it continues to terrify, mesmerise, seduce and enthral artists, poets, collectors and aficionados? What is the difference between African art and non-African art? Is there a difference between contemporary African art and the work that is called traditional African art?
My latest exhibition, AfroPunk, is one of two parts, a dialogue with history and tradition. New paintings, drawings and bronze sculptures will be exhibited alongside traditional works of African art. I used cutting edge technology to scan and 3D print rare African masks that had been collected by artist and collector Willy Mestach. The result is neither African art, not European art, but a dialogue between cultures, a dialogue that is as much about Picasso as it is about traditional African art. Through this I ask the question, can spirit be transferred from one form into another. Can a 3D scan and print of an evocative Songye mask hold the memory of the spirit of the original.