Writing about art is notoriously difficult. How does one strike a balance between speaking to the work itself and to broader social issues that it brings into play? Description is not enough, yet it is essential. How does one find the words to say what an object, a performance, a sound says without words? How does one do so without falling flat? Exegesis is key too, yet it has its risks: it can so overdetermine a work of art that it robs it of its soul. Who speaks for, about, around art and those who make it? What responsibilities come with such speech?
To a large extent, these are universal questions. In certain contexts, however, they take on added heft. Contemporary urban Africa is a case in point. Ile-Ife, Djenne, Lamu, Mushenge: African cities have a long and distinguished history as hubs of artistic production. It comes as little surprise then that, from Kinshasa to Abidjan, Cairo, Nairobi and Johannesburg, cities north and south of the Sahara today are brimming with artistic activity. Post “Africa Remix” and its forebears (the Johannesburg biennale and its triennial sister in Luanda, “The Short Century,” “Snap Judgements”…), now that Dak’Art, Bamako’s Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, Fespaco and the Zanzibar Film Festival have become household names, and – perhaps more importantly – now that courageous, new and experimental festivals and events are mushrooming across the continent, it is well established that contemporary art is alive and well in Africa. Less well established – and with good reason contentiously so – is how contemporary art produced in Africa and its diasporas can and should be written about. Entirely too much of what is published on the subject is shallow, repetitive, cliché-ridden. Engaged critique and criticism are rare. Most lacking of all are “takes” that speak to the social, political and economic content of art (or to the absence of such content): writing that addresses the relevance of works of art in a world of global flows and interactions. That so little is published on these and related questions is symptomatic of larger issues. It ties into ways in which Africa continues to be represented in many fora: as a continent somehow outside (or beyond) the realm of global capital and associated forms of cultural exchange. Writing about art from Africa in ways that highlight the links it bears to states of affair and to practices shaped by globalisation emerges, in this context, as a form of political and ethical engagement. Whether in Africa or elsewhere, writing of this sort – texts that focus on art as a lens through which to view broader societal concerns – is rare. Good writing of the kind is even more rare.
On a visit to Nigeria in January 2009, the SPARCK team had occasion to discuss these matters with a group of cultural practitioners headed by Lagos and Paris-based choreographer Qudus Onikeku. This led to a decision to jointly mount a workshop centring on engaged writing about contemporary creation in Africa. This would then be followed, ideally, by two further workshops. The project soon took on a name: WORDintoARTintoAFRICA (WiAiA). The first – WiAiA Lagos – took place in October – November 2009.