East African Focus at the 2016 FNB Joburg Art Fair

East African artists from diverse backgrounds, form the special focus at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair. Matthew Krouse explores the context of perceptions of this complex continent’s art.

‘The Focus spans the greater horn of Africa and great lakes regions all presented together in one location. From Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan,’ reads 2016’s FNB Joburg Art Fair official breakdown. The showcase comes in a breakthrough year when contemporary African art has made an unprecedented impact on the international art fair and biennale circuit.

For the FNB Joburg Art Fair, the treat takes the event beyond its position as an aspirant Northern Hemisphere art fair to one truly comfortable in its African skin. Art fair director Mandla Sibeko’s statement rings the changes: ‘As the premium art event on the African continent, the FNB Joburg Art Fair aims to lead not only South African audiences but the world’s appreciation of cutting edge African art.’

It’s taken almost two decades from the 20th-century objection to the idea of a one-stop Africa, to the current portrayal of a complex continent gifting its methods to the world while rightfully appropriating that of others. The point of a geographical compartmentalisation of contemporary African art is, at a guess, to allow visitors to make a summary of an art scene thousands of kilometres away – as well as to compare artists and local practices. And, of course, to make purchases.

“East Africa is a vast geographical area with varied and often disparate social and creative perspectives and sensibilities. ‘This year’s curatorial intervention will give audiences a first step towards engaging in artistic developments and narratives arising from the region. Presenting both emerging and world-acclaimed artists, galleries and non-profit organisations our intention is to provide a catalyst for on-going research, transnational dialogue and future projects of significance.” – Lucy MacGarry, FNB Joburg Art Fair Curator

FNB Joburg Art Fair
Maurice Mbikayi. Mulami Mushidimuka (Modern Shepherd). Print on epson paper, 2000x900mm. Image courtesy of the Artist and Gallery MOMO.

A Kenyan Perspective at the FNB Joburg Art Fair

In a typically South African way, the East Africa focus is more about development and dialogue than a sales strategy. But even these homely notions are dramatically changed when it comes to a headliner like Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu exhibited two works. The first is a sculptural environment titled Sleeping Serpent II (2016) from her London exhibition Nguvga na Nyoka (Serpents and Sirens) that combines her fascination with contemporary versions of mythological and imaginary beings with the ocean as ‘a metaphor for human fears and the subconscious.’

The part grounded in reality draws on the experience of coastal women in Kenya ‘whose power is extracted from their ability to move fluidly between the land and the ocean.’ Mutu’s second work, The End of Eating Everything (2013) is an allegorical animated short film in which an insatiable being flies over a post-apocalyptic landscape consuming everything in its path, leading to a kind of implosive rebirth. In both works, we find an artist preoccupied with popular science fiction notions of future ecosystems based on a sentimental, present-day view of ancient principals.

From Ethiopia to Burundi

Similarly, the work of Ethiopian Aida Muluneh portrays the artist as a mythical being in real life settings betraying, through the use of African adornment and vivid colour, a tension between contemporary, urban banality and an elevated trance-state. About her series of portraits titled The World is 9, the artist says, ‘I am not seeking answers but asking provocative questions about the life that we live – as people, as nations, as beings.’ The title comes from an expression that Muluneh’s grandmother had repeated, in which she stated, ‘the world is nine, it is never complete and never perfect.’

FNB Joburg Art Fair
Aida Muluneh. All in One, 2016. Photograph. Image courtesy of the Artist and David Krut Projects.

An artist on the focus who locals may be more familiar with is Serge Alain Nitegeka, born in Burundi, residing in South Africa. The forced migration story manifests itself in an unexpected manner in his work inspired by his early experience as a refugee. Nitegeka produces abstract canvases and sculptures that address issues of identity and cultural and political borders. For the FNB Joburg Art Fair, he says, ‘I will present a site-specific installation that is inspired by make-do mechanics that displaced persons employ to erect makeshift shelters. The installation will be an abstract rendition of the physical transformation that a given space is subjected to. Its form to be is unknown. In the dark, in the black.’

Troubled times lead to troubled identities. And although the smart confines of the Sandton Convention Centre, where the Joburg Art Fair happens, may not feel like the ideal place to discuss the tough world out there, it’s what Johannesburg has as its forum. Aiding in the discussion, the Goethe-Institut has partnered with the Nest Collective of Kenya, who define themselves as, ‘a small army of thinkers, makers and believers.’ The collective’s intention is to, ‘explore our troubling modern identities, re-imagine our pasts and remix our futures.’ This they do through film, visual art, music and fashion.

The Nest Collective’s concern is with ‘dissecting and subverting the layers of how Africans are seen and unseen, what Africans can and cannot do, where Africans can and cannot go, and what Africans can and cannot say.’ At the Joburg Art Fair 2016 they will present a multidisciplinary project titled Black Fantasia collecting ‘several future, past and imaginary narratives about blackness: a blackness that carries the weight of colonial and post-colonial tyrannies, a blackness that celebrates, worships, dreams and questions—far beyond the limits of struggle and oppression.’

FNB Joburg Art Fair
Mario Macilau. The Smoke, 2013-2016. Photograph, 87×56.2cm. Image courtesy of the Artist and Black Collectors Forum.

Besides Black Fantasia, the Nairobi collective will present the comic anthology They Sent You, of short photo-comic vignettes set in an imaginary future Nairobi, as well as launching their latest fashion book, Not African Enough. Having his say will be Nest Collective founder, Jimi Chuchu who will speak at the art fair’s first-ever series of TEDxJohannesburg Talks themed on the contemporary visual arts of Africa.

Other works on the East Africa Focus included a showcase of the Addis Foto Fest, an event established and directed by Aida Muluneh; video installation by Kenyans Ato Malinda and Jackie Karuti; Tanzanian Rehema Chachage; as well as a selection of leading art spaces from Kampala, Addis Ababa, Bujumbura, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

For more information on the FNB Joburg Art Fair, please visit their website on www.fnbjoburgartfair.co.za

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