Attempting to introduce a continent's artistic production from 1945-1999 is difficult enough, but to show photography, graphics, art and architecture alongside music, theatre, books, periodicals and the story of various political developments is almost downright impossible. A similar overview for the continent of Europe in such a relatively small museum space would be unthinkable. But perhaps 'The Short Century', curated by Okwui Enwezor (the director of next year's Kassel 'Documenta') was a brutal attempt to make it clear, once and for all, that African art after World War II is multifaceted, and cannot be reduced to a handful of people and centres.
Aiming to highlight the influence of liberation and freedom movements on African culture, Enwezor juxtaposed art with pictures of political events. Whether this led to new insights, however, depended largely on the previous knowledge and political inclination of the visitor. There is no doubt, however, that the show presented a multitude of works that, until now, have not been well known. Take, for example, the vividly realistic paintings of Gerard Sekoto. Song of the Pick (1946-47) depicts black workers in rich colours, rhythmically working the land, overseen by a pipe-smoking white man. Yet into this picture of apparently clear-cut power relations slides the feeling that this battery of men could at any moment turn their strength against those in power.
A worthwhile discovery was the rough abstract work of Ernest Mancoba, who, after being held captive in German internment camps during World War II, became one of the founding members of Cobra. Important representatives of contemporary art were also included in the show. Works by William Kentridge, Sue Williamson, Jane Alexander and David Goldblatt are more often seen in Europe and the USA than Africa. Georges Adéagbo's installation From Colonialization to Independence (1999) was notable. At first glance the piece recalls the work of Jonathan Meese, despite the fact that the dangling photocopies, record sleeves and small found objects were arranged in skewed, rather than straight, rows. The floor was almost completely covered, leaving only a narrow passage to traverse the room. But above all it is the subject matter of Adéagbo's piece that differs from that of the German artist. In his exploration of how the collision between different cultures creates hybrid structures, Adéagbo blurs the boundaries between kitsch and art, politics and pop. The record sleeve of Manu Dibango's Electric Africa (1997), for example, rubs shoulders with Beethoven's piano sonatas, while the model of a ship from the fleet of Columbus was positioned next to the portrait of a man from the African upper class.
Ultimately, the explicitly political works didn't play the central role that the exhibition's premise might have lead you to assume. Just how closely artistic production is actually connected with the progressive politics of Africa is hard to grasp. To really know you would need more information about the artistic traditions, the social status of art or about the opportunities for artistic training in the respective countries, as well as more specific biographical information about the artists. Because of this lack, and despite a wealth of interesting work, the overall effect of the show was somewhat diffuse.
Yet what this exhibition did provide was a starting point for future analyses. It made clear that the relationship between the 'West' and the 'South' has not been one-sided for quite a long time. Until recently, however, it has been almost impossible for specific forms of African expression to develop beyond a colonially saturated semiotic. There are now myriad interconnections, from African artists who studied in Europe (Kristos Desta, Gavin Jantjes, Kay Hassan) and those who live in the States (Skunder Boghossian, Amir Nour, Quattara) to European artists who live in African countries, such as Susanne Wenger (Austrian) and Georgina Beier (British). 'The Short Century' successfully conveyed an almost subliminal message about this relationship between art and migration.
First published in Issue 60