Katy Deepwell, Art Criticism and Africa: AICA conference at the Courtauld Institute, London, 1996
In 1995, an initiative was launched in the UK, to set up AICA sections in Anglophone African countries. This ambition was prompted by the International Committee of AICA in order to expand AICA’s global reach as a UNESCO NGO and to reassess its effectiveness in and beyond 65 countries around the world. Africa ’95, the largest African art festival in the UK, had been announced and this festival re-examined contemporary art made in Africa, artists working in the UK who were part of the African diaspora and the history of African art, specifically tribal sculptures and their legacies. Major exhibitions were held in many venues, including Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (Whitechapel Art Gallery, curator: Clementine Deliss), Africa: Art of the Continent (Royal Academy, curator: Tom Phillips), Big City: Artists from Africa (Serpentine Gallery, curated from the Jean Pigozzi Collection), with many other solo and group exhibitions across London, including Sokari Douglas Camp, Olu Oguibe, Yinka Shonibare and Ingrid Pollard. This festival provided an opportunity for many art critics in the UK to engage with contemporary African art and reassess and revise their connections to it and their knowledge of the histories of African art. Many of the contributors to the 1996 conference took part in events in London the previous year. This combination of circumstance and critical reassessment, as well as an increasing globalising/internationalising vision both from and about the continent, underpinned why the conference was organised, but these also provided the chief problem the organisers had to navigate: namely, how to avoid what could appear as yet another colonialist/imperialist expansion of interest from Europe to ‘Africa’. We wanted to provide a realistic opportunity instead to engage in a constructive dialogue with our professional peers from Africa and its diasporic communities around the world. The division of interest by International AICA in its work towards different parts of Africa was organised through dominant language groups – English/French – and this both aided and defused this tension, as these languages represented the legacy of their position in relation to their role as former colonies of European powers: English or French was often a second or third language spoken by many Africans. As Bisi Silva put it in her excellent review of Africa ’95, challenging that tension between ‘colonialism or colonisation’ in how Africa is received in Europe was at the heart of how this initiative for a kind of ’cultural diplomacy’ in art criticism.
The organising committee for the AICA conference included Bisi Silva, Sajid Rizvi, James Hyman and myself. Sajid Rizvi published the book that arose from the event through his company, Saffron Books, which I edited. Our freelance, self-employed status proved an aid to this process at the time, as none of us held university or museum positions at that time and we were clearly not ‘establishment figures’. The differences between our work across different sections of newspaper, magazine, exhibition catalogue and academic journal writing and in publishing or freelance curatorship was an aid to our discussions with our peers in Africa about what art criticism is today. AICA’s own definition of art criticism as discourse was important, touching the work of mass media, newspaper journalism, museum publications, curating and teaching. This wide variety of approaches and areas of practice where artists, curators, professors, and critics can come together in a professional association, even where they strongly disagree on issues and many interests are present, and their reliance on freelance income renders their professional status, beyond publishing texts, precarious.
The organising committee for the AICA conference included Bisi Silva, Sajid Rizvi, James Hyman and myself. Sajid Rizvi published the book that arose from the event through his company, Saffron Books, which I edited.
Our freelance, self-employed status proved an aid to this process at the time, as none of us held university or museum positions at that time and we were clearly not ‘establishment figures’. The differences between our work across different sections of newspaper, magazine, exhibition catalogue and academic journal writing and in publishing or freelance curatorship was an aid to our discussions with our peers in Africa about what art criticism is today. AICA’s own definition of art criticism as discourse was important, touching the work of mass media, newspaper journalism, museum publications, curating and teaching. This wide variety of approaches and areas of practice where artists, curators, professors, and critics can come together in a professional association, even where they strongly disagree on issues and many interests are present, and their reliance on freelance income renders their professional status, beyond publishing texts, precarious.
Bisi Silva’s involvement in this event was critical and decisive, particularly in determining who should be invited from Nigeria, the country of her birth. Early on we decided that the span of which of 54 countries (2019 figure) across the continent of Africa should be limited to three or four: these were South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, where English was an official language amongst the 1200+ languages spoken across the continent. We remained highly sceptical throughout of the romantic view of the existence across the entire continent of any conceptually valid or singular ‘African’ or ‘pan-African’ identity, wanting instead to explore different and distinct local histories and viewpoints, even though some views of African identity were expressed by contributors as identity-forming in their own worldviews. The last-minute participation of curator and Egyptian AICA’s secretary, Fatma Afifi – proposed by Jacques Leenhardt, then International AICA president – extended the reach of the conference to Egypt. Her contribution, on a collaborative public art project with two artists and herself as art critic in Cairo, raised many interesting questions, which also touched on whether North Africa, the Maghreb, pursued closer cultural ties to the Middle East (and Arabic-speaking countries) than to South, East or West Africa.
At the outset, the reaction of other colleagues in British AICA to this initiative ranged from total dis-engagement to outrage that we even attempt it – with a few openly expressing the view that Africa remained under-developed with regard to ‘modern art’, and thus it made no sense to think about the state of art criticism where ancient tribal artefacts or cave paintings were their only reference point, not skyscrapers, mega-cities, or contemporary artworks. (I include such comments to indicate the general level of ignorance [and racism] amongst British members at that time – and what we were trying to overcome, in establishing a meaningful dialogue with and between one’s peers from another continent, working in different circumstances).
Awareness of African contemporary art in London largely came through the work of the October Gallery and Gasworks, founded in 1994, but including their longer running Triangle Workshops for artists; and reports of (then) emergent biennales, such as Dakar, Johannesburg or Cairo; while knowledge of museums or galleries in Africa and art magazines from Africa, including Gallery (Zimbabwe, 1996-2003) Kurio Africana (Nigeria, 1989, revived in the 1990s) and The Eye (Nigeria, 1992), was very limited. Art criticism from Africa could be found in Nka: Journal of African Art (USA, 1994-present), African Arts (USA, 1967-present) or Revue Noire (1991-2001, France) and later Metronome (started in 1996, London). Glossy art journals, such as Art South Africa, now Art Africa (2002) and AND Contemporary, C&, (2014) did not exist yet, although there were many short-lived museum or university-based publications and intermittent commentary on the arts in newspapers and magazines on the continent. The presence of the Commonwealth Institute building in London (1962-2002), or its support for the arts had not registered amongst many of our colleagues, and, even though, most were aware of Third Text (started in 1987) and the UK’s black arts movement’s exhibitions and publications through the 1980s, this was the primary filter of their knowledge. The presence of artists in the UK of African descent was rarely distinguished from a general multi-culturalism or the dominance of Afro-Caribbean, African-American or Asian viewpoints in the black arts movement, as a whole. While the much-heralded Magiciens de la Terre (Pompidou Centre, 1989) and The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in post-war Britain (Hayward Gallery, 1989) have become primary referents in the field of changes to viewing contemporary art from the continent or its diasporas, conscious awareness was very limited in the UK, then and since, even though there have been many exhibitions reframing international understanding of art from Africa on many continents, and not just those curated by Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), which have had a major impact. The UK’s School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, remained an important point of reference in scholarship on African art and early on, Professor John Picton, agreed to speak. His contribution, metaphorically titled ‘Yesterday’s Cold Mashed Potatoes’, centred on how, from a European academic perspective, was it possible to bridge the gulf between research on Africa in the West and the reality of contemporary art production on and across the continent? This dialogue between British perspectives on Africa and perspectives from those living and working in Africa was important for this event in London, with the latter prioritised in our planning. The conference took place before the dictatorship of Sani Abacha (1993-1999) ended in Nigeria, when Robert Mugabe had been President of Zimbabwe only since 1987, and when Nelson Mandela had become President of South Africa for only 2 years. Several contributors were living in exile or had emigrated to Europe or America.
The small sub-committee proceeded to organise, identify speakers, develop contacts with them, raise money, and establish the format for the day. We encouraged the invited speakers to identify and address the state of art criticism in these three countries. Four loose themes were identified: where and why does art criticism take place outside Africa (in written form)?; the role of the art critic as an advocate (for groups of artists or particular kinds of art); art criticism, for whom? (in terms of building audiences or art education within the population as a whole); and institutional issues in the administration of culture (including professionalism, education and training).
The discussion was wide ranging: from the absence of any written art criticism amongst artists who were successfully earning a living without formal training and selling abroad; to different experiments in fostering
art criticism in universities; the importance of setting up a magazine (Barbara Murray on Gallery); to the institutional infrastructure post-1980s independence in Zimbabwe ((Murray McCartney; to a history of art criticism in Nigerian newspapers and magazines (1920s-1990s) by Ola Oloidi, who also stressed the many Yoruba terms used in aesthetic/art criticism. Many of the contributors reaffirmed not just the need for a more adequate history of art locally, which was more than an import of Western models and could address significant local developments and the import and export of ideas, but how art criticism itself has its own history – one which has developed specific formats in art writing, modes of discussion for art objects and categories for art. Much attention was directed at how terms, ideas and issues within art criticism change as dramatically as the course of art itself and how these are bound in a mutual exchange where theory informs practice and practice informs theory. Everlyn Nicodemus highlighted this in her discussion of Bourdieu’s concept of a field and how the concept of autonomy and ‘free critical theory’, on which modern art criticism relies, is not supported by an institutional infrastructure in Africa, across education, museums and commercial activity or post-colonial struggle. She later extended this critique to the big commentary about the relations between Africa and Europe, arguing: ‘It is easy to point to the overtones of a Eurocentric and imperialistic hegemony in the process’, but it is necessary to consider how the framework determines the terms of this discourse. Chike Okeke argued that we need to conceptualise art criticism as an accommodating discourse, using either Olu Oguibe’s construction of the African Masquerade, as a series of shifting frames, or the principle of Aka Weta, as a means to emphasise an accommodation of oral and written discourses about encounters in life and with theory. Other speakers raised the question of literacy, and whether or not literacy was a pre-condition of art criticism, since it was not a requirement in developing considerable art skills as an artist.
Tony Mhonda (Zimbabwe) and David Koloane (South Africa) spoke about the disparities in educational experiences between black and white populations at school level, the limited number of Universities where art could even be studied, even after independence (1962 in Nigeria, 1980 in Zimbabwe), even after the end of British colonial rule (1962 in Nigeria, 1980 in Zimbabwe, 1910 in South Africa), and even after the end of Apartheid (1994 in South Africa). What was not noted, but underpinned the relative importance of school education in these discussions was the critical fact that in many African countries 60% of the population was under 24, compared to an average of 27% in Europe. In this situation, art criticism appears to be non-existent, or irrelevant to local artists, or part of a system of white privilege for those who do receive tertiary education and control the market. As Koloane pointed out. this broader situation also affected how art by different artists was received and discussed, and when reviews were published, often fuelling limited essentialist expectations of ‘black artists. To overcome this situation, educational reform and greater general public discussion of the role of the arts were needed. Colin Richards’s critique of ‘identity’ politics in the transition towards a post-Apartheid South Africa referred back to Koloane’s curation of the South African section of Seven Stories, to question what a South African expression of identity might be and whether the nation state itself was a frame or a format which should be developed. The need for a critically reflexive and rigorous critical discourse locally, beyond expressions of solidarity or ‘self-representation’, was again affirmed; and this would also enable theorists to overcome an increasingly artificial definition between academics writing about self-taught artists as their subjects, where marking their ‘difference’ was the only dominant criterion. The pressure of an art market geared towards selling abroad (for example, the case of the Shona Sculpture school in Zimbabwe), combined with the pernicious effects of the tourist trade for African artefacts or ‘Township arts’, were other key issues in relation to the lack of infrastructure and ‘habitus’ in local art scenes. One of the speakers we invited was Stephen Williams, who had been head of the Mzilikazi Art and Crafts Centre and was killed in a road accident in 1996 before the conference took place. The dialogue between Olu Oguibe (born in Nigeria, living in the USA) and George Shire (born in Zimbabwe, living in Britain) on art criticism about Africa as predominantly existing outside Africa and why it needed development in Africa, and amongst Africans, while it was struggling to be de-colonised, formed a key part of the day.
From the start, we had the ambition that focusing on Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe would kick-start the setting up of national sections of AICA in those countries. The conference was only the enabler for this process, as we invited to London people who would (we hoped) see the possibility and take the initiative further. The limited funds and support available meant that we tried to make the most of this opportunity as a starting point, while using all the resources at our disposal in London to make it meaningful as an event that would trigger other activities. AICA’s expansive definition for art criticism enabled many discussions about how and who might be included in the formation of a professional association for art critics within national sections and what might be gained from being part of an international NGO. We also discussed quite frankly the need to create an association which could move beyond one’s immediate circle of friends or colleagues, avoid nepotism or the promotion of particular lines of enquiry for contemporary art, and instead foster a collegial approach to interpreting contemporary art in many forums. It was necessary to stress these possibilities for AICA to become an enabling association for events, for dialogue, for networking in a national context, and how this could or would be realised in the relation of national sections to international AICA. This was the focus of much discussion with the participants informally around the conference, as many people offered them hospitality during their stay.
In this effort we were partially, if only temporarily, successful, as a national AICA section were formed in Nigeria and a Zimbabwe Association of Art Critics (ZAAC) in 1997, with Tony Mhonda as President and Barbara Murray, editor of Gallery (a Delta Gallery publication, 1996-2003), as Secretary. Barbara Murray and Ola Oloidi took part in a further AICA event on ‘Art Criticism and Africa’ in Dakar, in 2003. A Southern Africa section was due to be founded later, though efforts to organise this eventually ran into the sand.
 The French and ‘Open’ sections’ attempts also resulted in three further seminars in Africa in the 2000s, to encourage links with African countries which resulted in the publication, H. Meyric Hughes, Ramon Tió Bellido (ed) African Contemporary Art–Critical Concerns / Art contemporain africain-regards critiques (aica press 2011).
 This should be seen in the context of what we did later: James Hyman became an art dealer and founded James Hyman Gallery (1999-present). Sajid Rizvi was working as a newsdesk editor in London, while running his quarterly, Eastern Art Report (1989-present) and publishing house, Saffron Books, both of which have continued to develop. I founded n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal (1996-2017), was AICA President of the British Section, 1997-2000, and became a Professor at Middlesex University in 2013. Bisi Silva (1962-2019) was a freelance curator in the UK and on the editorial board of Nka at the time. She returned to Nigeria in the 2000s where she founded CCA, Lagos in 2008, running it for 10 years, while developing her other major educational project for African artists, Asiko. She is widely recognised as a ‘grandmother’ for contemporary art in Nigeria, i.e. a leading figure in this field, until her untimely death in 2019. Katy Deepwell and Bisi Silva collaborated on a special issue of n.paradoxa on Africa and its Diasporas (vol 31), Jan 2013.
 A full list of 25 journals is published in Katy Deepwell Art Criticism and Africa (Saffron Books, 1997) p.118
 Exemplary is his major exhibition, The Short Century, Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994, (Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, in co-operation with House of World Cultures, Berlin, 2001-2002)
 Everlyn Nicodemus & Kristian Romare ‘Africa, art criticism and the big commentary’ Third Text (1997) vol 11, issue 41. Pp. 53-66
 Aka Weta is an Igbo proverb, that the mouth fills faster when more hands feed it, but also an Igbo poetry anthology (1982), edited by Chinua Achebe and Obiora Udechukwu. See Art Criticism and Africa, p. 92.
Katy Deepwell is founder and editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal (1998-2017) and KT press (1998-present, www.ktpress.co.uk) and Professor of Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism, Middlesex University, London (2013-present). Recent books include: Feminist Artivisms and Activisms (Valiz, 2020) and (co-edited with Agata Jakubowska) All Women Art Spaces in Europe in the Long 1970s (Liverpool University Press, 2018).