“AT LAST, AFRICA HAS A PROPER VOICE.”
The 'invisible' artists of Africa
MACAAL is a new museum that aims to shed light on emerging photographers and sculptors. Alastair Sooke talks to artists in its launch show, Africa Is No Island.
Beneath a crescent moon hanging like a disembodied smile in the dark sky, a petite woman dressed in white, with long silvery dreadlocks and ballet pumps on delicate feet, is dancing in Jemaa el-Fnaa, a vast square inside the pink-walled medina of Marrakesh. One moment she pirouettes slowly, seemingly lost in her own thoughts; the next, she moves vigorously, even provocatively, in the manner of a sexy dancer in a hip-hop video. For a few seconds, she even lies down with her arms across her chest, appearing briefly like a corpse about to be wrapped in a shroud.
In a sense, this beguiling performer – accompanied by four black-clad male backing dancers – fits in among the spectacle that is Marrakesh’s principal market place by night. Elsewhere, crowds of onlookers in pointy-hooded djellabas gather to listen to storytellers and traditional Berber musicians, watch snake-charmers, magicians, acrobats and jugglers, and cheer on impromptu boxing matches. The generally festive atmosphere – a kind of perpetual, almost dumbfounding delirium – is thrilling. Our dancer, though, isn’t a Moroccan street-entertainer, but Ghanaian performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, who fuses traditional Ghanaian dance with contemporary choreography.
Sutherland’s exhilarating performance has been mounted in collaboration with Gallery 1957 (Ghana) and 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which has been going since 2013, first in London and then New York, but is now setting up shop for the first time in Marrakesh. Her dance also marks the official opening of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), a new independent, not-for-profit contemporary art museum, situated four miles southeast of the old city.
“Africa is the future,” MACAAL’s president Othman Lazraq tells me, when I visit the museum. The son of a Moroccan property magnate, Lazraq, 29, who was born in Marrakesh, is a charismatic presence with a passion for contemporary African art. “Artists here are building a new way of art,” he continues. “At last, Africa has a proper voice.”
The energy of the continent’s principal art-producing centres – Accra and Lagos, Cape Town and Johannesburg – persuaded him that the time was right to open a museum devoted to contemporary African art: “I want to give all these incredible artists a voice,” he explains, “not in Europe or America, but here in Africa, their home.”
To celebrate MACAAL’s international launch, Lazraq has curated an exhibition showcasing highlights of his family’s collection by established African masters such as the 74-year-old Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui and the Malian textile-based artist Abdoulaye Konaté, 65, who is represented by the international commercial gallery Blain Southern.
In the spotlight
Lazraq is also keen, though, to promote “emerging” and “invisible” artists. So, for the opening, he invited Afrique in Visu, a “participative platform” for photography created in Mali in 2006, to curate Africa Is No Island, an exhibition of more than 40 photographers, demonstrating the scope and quality of African photography today.
“If anything links these photographers,” Lazraq explains, “it is their diversity. A lot of people still think of Africa as a kind of block, with no boundaries. But, of course, Africa is made up of 54 countries, with all their differences, traditions, and customs. This is something we reflect.”
Certainly, the show is full of breathtakingly varied work, including Swiss-Guinean Namsa Leuba’s arresting pictures of solitary figures in natural settings, wrapped in odd, outlandish costumes, which fuse the visual language of fashion photography with the iconography of sacred Guinean statuettes. Elsewhere, there are photographs documenting the effects of migration and environmental catastrophe, as well as everyday life. Italian-born Nicola Lo Calzo presents an unforgettable image of a voodoo priestess in Benin. Sitting before a mural of a lion, like a visual manifestation of her strength, she fixes the camera with a hard-as-nails stare while exhaling a dense ball of white smoke, as a slender cigarette dangles nonchalantly from her lips.
Several artists, such as 22-year-old, Paris-born Walid Layadi-Marfouk, who grew up between the French capital and Marrakesh, but now lives in New York, explicitly challenge negative stereotypes about life in Africa. Shot in Marrakesh, his series Riad, featuring intimate yet theatrical tableaux set inside a traditional family riad, was inspired by memories of his own childhood – as well as frustration about the representation of Muslim culture in Western media, which, he says, seldom reflected his own memories and sense of identity.
“I was only seeing black-and-white images representing pain, submission, extremism,” he tells me. “Usually, they were set in the desert. You would never see a woman’s face. I wanted to attack all that.”
The 43-year-old Ivorian artist Joana Choumali, who, at MACAAL, is showing two beautiful portraits from her series Hââbré, focusing on migrants from Nigeria and Burkina Faso with scarified faces in her hometown of Abidjan, is also conscious of lingering prejudices concerning Africa.
“You still hear the same old narrative: that Africa is poor, its people are starving and unhappy, everyone wants to go abroad to live in Europe,” she says, while sipping sweet mint tea. “This is part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story.” She smiles. “Me, for example: I am happy to live in Africa. I want to stay in Abidjan.”
Choumali, who studied art in Casablanca, regrets the fact that indigenous African culture was rarely celebrated when she was young: “We were fed by other cultures, and the local culture was not promoted enough,” she says. “But the world is opening to other cultures, and Africa is so rich: there are so many unexplored stories.” She pauses. “Now is the time for African artists to tell them.”
How does she feel, though, about being labelled an “African” artist? Given the size of the continent, isn’t the notion inherently absurd? “That’s a tricky question,” she replies, “because I am proud to be African. I’ve lived all my life in Ivory Coast, so my identity is Ivorian. But if you ask me, ‘Are you an African artist?’, I would say, I am an artist who lives in Africa, who happens to be African.”
“Of course, being categorised as ‘African’ isn’t very interesting for artists,” says Touria El Glaoui, founding director of the 1-54 art fair. “But I think they also recognise the usefulness of the label in getting the visibility they deserve.”
El Glaoui says that her primary motive for initiating 1-54 was “to give visibility to African artists and artists from the diaspora”. While a lot has changed since she founded the fair almost a decade ago – when, El Glaoui says, “African artists were simply not present in the international art scene” – there is still a long way to go.
Even today, when she mounts the fair in London and New York, she encounters surprise: “People discovering the fair for the first time often go, ‘Oh, my God, I had no idea there was contemporary art in Africa.’ Perhaps they still have preconceived ideas of civil war. But it’s a booming economy now, with so much development.” She smiles. “If people with a negative view of Africa could experience what I experience when travelling on the continent, they would be amazed.”