Almost like a coming out party for his collection, ‘IncarNations. African Art as Philosophy’, an exhibition at the BOZAR, Brussels, showcases for the first time, the classic and contemporary African art collection of Congolese art collector, Sindika Dokolo. While the contemporary African artworks in his collection are well known and widely publicised, little did people know that Dokolo had an equally exceptional collection of classic African art.
Three years in the making, the summer exhibition, curated by South-African artist Kendell Geers, is finally open to the public. Running from 28 June to 06 October 2019, the show takes visitors on a journey through Africa’s arts, from past to present, crossing the continent along former slave, trade and migration routes in search of the essence of African art.
An African mask, created to bring about symbolic transformation, allowed its wearer to incarnate a deity. This same spiritual strength is embodied in classical and contemporary works of African art.
By selecting 150 works from the impressive (and immense—numbering almost 5,000 pieces) collection of Sindika Dokolo, Geers asks us to question what we believe African art to be. Their aim is to lead us all towards a change in perspective on classic and contemporary African art, by focusing on the spirituality that binds them. After all, Africa is a continent of 54 countries, thousands of living languages and dialects, traditions, contrasts and multiplicities. The African spirit followed its diasporas and spread worldwide. It influenced Brazilian, Cuban, European and American traditions. And thus paradoxically, African arts defy all geographical definitions because of the importance of diasporas from this continent.
Therefore, to build a collection which claims an African identity raises the core question of ‘what is African art?’
Now, we could wax lyrical about how amazing the exhibition is or we can let you hear directly from Geers, the curator of the show. After all, during the press preview, he spoke about the importance of expressing oneself and about being heard. So below, we hear from Geers by sharing his opening speech to ‘IncarNations. African Art as Philosophy’, delivered on the 27th of June.
The ability to speak and make words by shaping our breath into sounds is what distinguishes us from every other species and makes us human (for better as well as for worse). This ability to speak is also what distinguishes us as adults from children and the command of that same ability is what transforms the poet from a person into a visionary and seer.
I stand before you, of able tongue, a man and an artist, but I am not just any man, or any artist, because I am an African Artist. Like so many white Africans, my ancestors were criminals leaving the Netherlands of Europe in search of a clean slate, a second chance to do good, an opportunity to not repeat the mistakes of history. My ancestors failed miserably as Dutch festered into Afrikaans and the Boers used their voices to take possession of lands that did not belong to them, in order to subjugate and silence their native hosts so that they could rape the rich Earth for its gold, oil, silver, uranium, chrome, copper, coal and platinum and everything else of value, until diamonds turned to blood.
I bow my bloody white head in shame, heavy with the burden of history, laden with the horror that was the anvil upon which white privilege hammered out its deaf dictatorship for centuries. But that does not make me any less of an African and I am not my ancestors.
The right to speak is not the same as the ability to speak.
In the spring of 1968, thousands of black men took to the streets of Memphis with protest posters that declared “I AM A MAN”—they were protesting against the racist habit of being called a “BOY,” demanding the right to speak for themselves and be recognised as men. This right to speak, to decide for YOUR self, declaring YOUR independence by expressing in YOUR own words who YOU are and what YOU believe in for is the most fundamental of all human rights.
The mechanics of slavery, colonialism, Apartheid and even present-day neo-colonialism has been that tyranny of silence through which Africans and people of colour are spoken for, and on behalf of. No matter how well intended, the paternalism of deciding who might speak, and what they might say, is as pejorative as any slur. Reducing men to boys, or women to girls and treating ancient cultures as if they were illiterate, in need of saving are not the foundations of equality, much less respect. Africa does not need saving from anything except prejudice and generalisation!
The darkest era of colonial history and most cynical of political expedience took place in Berlin in 1884/5 when thirteen European nations and the United States of America drew lines across the African continent, drawing up borders between themselves, each staking their claims to resources and economies under the guise of geopolitical paternalism. Not one single African kingdom, nation or state was present to defend their rights or heritage, much less the mineral rights to their ancestral lands. Not one African voice was heard in Berlin as pens marked territory like a surgeon’s blade cuts through fragile skin into the flesh of a living being, not even anaesthetised.
Just over a decade later, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) with the stated intention to loot and steal the Kingdom’s royal treasures, ivory, bronzes and ancient cultural artefacts which now hang, like ideological trophies, in the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum and other public, as well as private collections around the world. The demand to return these objects to their rightful nations are not about the repatriation of objects, but about cultural heritage and the subsequent unity that these powerful and ancient symbols might embody in securing the identity and stability of a nation.
The ivory masks of Queen Iyoba that date from the sixteenth century are the equivalent of the crown jewels, so the equivocation that they are “world heritage” and therefore belong on the British and Metropolitan museums is to deny an African nation the right to decide for themselves what their contribution to world heritage might be. How dare any museum bursting with the trophies of colonial greed take the liberty to speak on behalf of the nations they decimated with extreme violence. At the very least they should pay rent and that money used to build the future museums that can replace the royal palaces that were destroyed by Colonial exigence.
In the words of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’:
“They were conquerors, and for that, you only want brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder of a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.”
"At the very least they should pay rent and that money used to build the future museums that can replace the royal palaces that were destroyed by Colonial exigence."
I am not here however to give history lessons so much as to suggest a change of direction in the ways we address the question of history, whose story and in particular what we might call African Art. The walls of the incarNations exhibition have been left empty, save for wallpaper, mirrors and some video works of art. The wallpaper is composed of the word BELIEVE, broken up into three lines so that the word LIE teases and taunts your peripheral vision and faith.
The walls have been deliberately left empty in order that you might consider how these walls came to be built. The Centre for Fine Arts that hosts the incarNations was designed and built by Victor Horta between 1919 and 1928, at the height of the colonial era. The economic wealth from the colony flowed through the streets of Brussels and, directly or indirectly, found symbolic embodiment in the palace of fine arts. It is impossible to look at the grandeur, elegance, ambition and proportion without considering the context by which Belgium could afford such a building. As you catch yourself looking at the mask, in the mirror, consider how your gaze might be influenced by the habits of your learning and consider looking back at yourself from the other side of the mask.
The undeniable fact remains that Africa was never discovered because it was always there, always present, just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea and much more ancient than the old world. Already in the mid-sixteenth century, the Berber cartographer Leo Africanus presented a relatively accurate map of the continent oriented towards the South. This orientation is significant in guiding our tongues to speak with due respect for the appropriate dialect. The Southern projection was not a mistake so much as a witness to the human condition by which manner the habit took form of placing a significantly enlarged Europe at the top centre of the globe in order to embody an ideological bias. This habit not only embodied a Eurocentric prejudice fully dressed in the masquerade of the naked emperor we call common sense or normal, but more than that it also disavowed the natural attraction of gravity which might suggest magnetic North be logically placed at the bottom of the map. Consider now looking at the world from a different point of view, from an African perspective and turn your habits inside doubt and your perceptions upside down.
"Consider now looking at the world from a different point of view, from an African perspective and turn your habits inside doubt and your perceptions upside down."
I am a contradiction and conundrum and cannot speak for a continent any more than I can accept anybody to speak on my behalf. I speak for myself, from my roots as a Freedom Fighter on the front lines of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, as an artist with an identity that has been seeded in the raw experience of life. My art, like so many of my fellow Africans, has been forged on the struggle to speak and to be heard. That most basic human right might fall upon deaf ears to many Europeans who have forgotten that their freedom to speak with equality, fraternity and liberty was written with quills soaked in the blood stains of revolution.
In 1948, the same year that Apartheid was legislated, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction to Black Orpheus, the collection of poems edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor, that launched the Negritude movement. Sartre asked:
“What would you expect to find, when the muzzle that has silenced the voices of Black men is removed? That they thunder your praise?”
After centuries of slavery, colonialism, post and neo-colonialism, the African continent is now finding back its voice, but it is not what you might like to imagine. It was not very long ago that civil disobedience in the colonies was met with the punishment of severing limbs. In a more cynical manner, but no less violent, African lips were sutured by the enforced practice of European laws, orders, traditions, values, ethics and philosophies channelled through languages that were Eurocentric, but words can be brokered and the histories that were written in blood can be rewritten, just as the habit of prejudice can be unlearned.
incarNations is an exhibition curated by an African Artist in dialogue with an African Collector and patron from an Afro-Centric point of view. It is neither encyclopaedic nor representative of a continent, for we shall not make that mistake too often repeated of claiming to speak for 54 countries, more than 2,000 living languages, countless different identities and intertwined cultural histories, a continent spread out over time from the origin of the species until the present.
The exhibition begins as a friendship between Sindika and myself, an artist and a collector, a spiritual experience of art rooted in community. Many of the artists in the exhibition and in the collection are also friends because we have found our humanity and community through faith in art. The collection is a role model that other African and Afro-Centric collectors might consider to follow because it is rooted, not only in the history of classic African art but because it respects that traditions change, grow, evolve and shift. To quote the Igbo proverb that Chinua Achebe was so fond of:
“The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.”
Identity is not a simple understanding or checklist for an African artist, but a skin that has been peeled and ripped and flayed and scratched off from vital flesh so many times that the wounds might never heal. Our cultural heritage is imprisoned behind glass in museums around the world and our histories told from the points of view of the colonizers who never bothered to listen to the voices they refused to hear.
“The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.”
Why do Europeans insist of dividing classic from contemporary African Art with titles like ‘traditional’, ‘art premier’, ‘tribal’ or, as was the case of the second exhibition at the Bozar in 1930, “Art Negré”? Why do Europeans consider Picasso, Matisse, Malevich, Braque, Leger, Modigliani (etc) to be the heirs and custodians to the language of abstraction that they learned from a Kota, Dan, Pende, Fang and Lega mask or figure?
The contemporary European experience is articulated and expressed through its luxury. The revolutionary foundations that this luxury was built upon have been long forgotten and democracies grew old and rusted to the point that voting has become more of an inconvenience than a consequence. It makes sense from this point of view that the European eye might sing the praises of the lines, shapes, forms, patinas and EUROPEAN provenance of classic African works of art, reducing their spirits to aesthetic form by which the so-called connoisseur then asks what does classic African art have in common with contemporary? From the other side of the mask, from a first-hand experience in which identity is still a struggle and the right to speak has still not translated into the right to be heard.
African artists, both urban and rural, continental and diasporic, digital and masquerade, create their arts from spirit calling to be heard. Those spirits might be as real as the demons and guardians embodied in an nkisi or the political protests of the Black Panther movement. Representation is not an economic privilege for an African artist any more than art can be a hobby because representation is the witness to the struggle of embodying spirits more powerful than experience. Picasso was unique in his Avant Garde circle when he explained to Andre Malraux that African Art was an exorcism and that this gave him the keys to the understanding with which he was able to unlock his perceptions in order to paint ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’.
Please do not ask me to justify how or why we are African, nor ask me what makes African art different and I will repay you the same courtesy and not ask you to justify the prejudice implicit in your question. Let me simply say that what makes African art so powerful is that when you look at an African work of art, it looks right back at you—because it is alive, with spirit.
African Art is a witness to its time and place, regardless of where the artist chooses to live, the colour of their skin or nature of their faith.
In closing, I would like to read a few lines from a poem written in 1919, the same year that Horta began the construction of this building. The poem ‘The Second Coming’, by Irish Poet William Butler Yeats, is appropriate not only because Yeats believed he was in contact with the spirit of the very same Leo Africanus, but because it also inspired the title of the classic post-colonial novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Indeed, “Things fall apart—the centre cannot hold”.
And in the words of Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba (also part of this exhibition)
Aluta Continua (because our struggle is far from over)!!
IncarNations. African Art as Philosophy runs at the BOZAR, Brussels, from 28 June until 06 October 2019.