Asia and Africa in Global Art

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From December 16th 2014 until the 15th of February 2015, the Seoul Museum of Art showed its first major exhibition on contemporary African art in South Korea: “Africa Now - Political Patterns”. It featured more than 20 artists like Victor Ekpuk, Gonçalo Mabunda or Chris Ofili. The exhibition focused on the semantics and aesthetics of traditional patterns as well as on modern politics. It was also designed to show the struggles of minority identities of African immigrants in Europe or North America and addressed nationalism and religious conflicts in post-colonial Africa itself. Interestingly, the exhibition was not only described as a chance to discover contemporary African artists and their work, but was also perceived as a chance to learn more about the challenges and chances of multicultural societies -  a situation South Korea faces more and more today with the rising numbers of immigrants. Plus, the concept and aim of the exhibition marks an effort to learn from and translate experiences through and with art.

In the past, art from Asian or African countries was mostly shown in ethnographic museums with traditional objects, constructed as the exotic other that was different to the modern and contemporary art coming from the “West” -  a dichotomy often criticized especially through the lens of postcolonial theory. But especially the interventions with postcolonial thought forced many ethnographic museums to re-think their concepts for exhibitions and their traditional ways of display. One example of a revised way of exhibiting is the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, Germany. As the website quotes: “The new exhibition is a departure from the usual presentation of major geographical regions in comparable museums, which gives the misleading impression of encompassing a multitude of cultures in different habitats, regions, countries and even whole continents - often over many centuries. […] Universal aspects of the life styles of different cultures are seen alongside each other or juxtaposed; this comparative cultural approach emphasises the equality and validity of all cultures and provides impulses for thought and stimulating dialogue. Through this approach, the museum gained world-wide recognition and receives awards regularly. Moreover it gave important impulses to a process that just began for ethnographic museums. A development that is also connected to another project in the German museum landscape, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which also touches upon another difficult subject: Objects in ethnographic museums and archives in the West that were collected and imported from African countries with unsettled property rights or which are artifacts demanded back from their country of origin.

Nevertheless, also contemporary art museums and exhibitions tend to construct especially African artists as a homogenous group labeled under the term “African”. Thus, the artists are not only stuck in a “Western”-styled way of exhibiting, the “global white cube, they are also often summarized under the prefix “Afro”. Word creations like “Afro-Surrealism” or “Afro-Futurism” try to incorporate the artists into an existing classification, trying to increase the value. But at the same time it limits and detaches the audience from the artists and the artist’s original intent, which may not be summarized under “African” art (whatever that might be in one’s imagination). Also structural dependency in the cultural market is still a problem, be it money flow or the participation of the “marginalized” regions. Based on this,  the Tate Modern in London, for example, started in 2011 a collaboration with the Nigerian Guaranty Trust Bank for the support of African contemporary art. In 2002, the Documenta 11 in Kassel was curated by the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor, who is also curating the Biennale in Venice this year. Plus the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, one of Africa's most influential artists, will receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year in Venice. These are and were milestones in the participation and recognition of non-Western curators and artists.

But it also works the other way around: some say that the rise of economic power or the increased interest in the respective market of a country is often accompanied by an increased interest in the cultural sphere. On May 4th 2015, the Metropolitan Museum for Art in New York City opened the Costume Institute’s Spring 2015 Exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass, which focusses on Chinese Imagery in Art, Film, and Fashion. The exhibition aims at providing insights to the perceptions and perspectives the West has on China, but at the same time tries to show the influence Chinese culture had on Western fashion. With a focus on three historical periods of China and to the Chinese film industry in general, the exhibition marks another milestone in the growing importance of China in the world and landed right in the highest class of popular culture, with the opening being the center of Hollywood for one night. But not only Chinese influences on Western culture are in the center of attention, also Chinese art collectors and buyers are more and more in the focus of the art world. On the one hand, there is the increasing number of Chinese on the lists of the most important art collectors in the world, buying contemporary as well as traditional Western and Chinese art in a big way. On the other hand, they are also building new museums, set up foundations as well as new platforms for exchange and become a powerful group of players in the market. These tendencies can be seen as a challenge to the traditional hegemony of the Western powerplay and “art grabbing” could become the equivalent to the much debated idea of Chinese land grabbing.




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