The Armory Show Sets Focus on Redefining the Hype around African Art

On Thursday, The Armory Show announced that the next iteration of its acclaimed section dedicated to spotlighting the artistic landscape in regions with flourishing art scenes, would set its sights on the African continent. Titled “Focus: African Perspectives,” the invitational section will be curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, the first women to helm Armory Focus. It will bring a number of international galleries, nonprofits, and special projects to Pier 94 for the New York-based fair’s 2016 edition next March, to examine contemporary art produced both in Africa and by the continent’s Diaspora.

  • Photo by Benjamin Renter. Courtesy The Armory Show.

The undertaking is as crucial as it is complex. Beneath the hype that currently surrounds African art, there are “hierarchies between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest,’” Grosse and Mutumba told Artsy. “African perspectives being included in international exhibitions should actually be a normal event,” not rare and remarkable occurrences, the two explained. The curators point to the problematic language that often surrounds such exhibitions, including the casual use of the phrase “African art,” which, they noted, reduces a continent of 54 countries and over one billion people to a single, fixed entity, expected to produce art with certain aesthetic qualities.

It is this reductive perception—an “astigmatism” in the words of the curators—that the duo hope to rupture and nuance with “Focus: African Perspectives.” “Our aim is to contribute to an understanding that art from Africa and the Diaspora can look, sound, and feel many different ways,” said Grosse and Mutumba. “What exactly is an ‘African artist’?” The question puts them in dialogue with a long lineage of prominent theorists, such as Stuart Hall, and curators like Okwui Enwezor.

This is hardly Grosse and Mutumba’s first foray into African contemporary art and the rhetoric surrounding it. The duo founded the online magazine Contemporary And, a publication that fosters a dialogue between artists, curators, and writers from Africa and the Diaspora and exposes it to an international audience. Its title encapsulates a thread that will no doubt be present in “African Perspectives”—that an artist working today is first of all “contemporary and maybe born in Accra, educated in Paris, based in Lagos, and so on,” said the curators. Essentially, given the mobility of artists and the diversity within Africa itself, it is too simple to reduce an artist and their work to where they were born. While place, history, and heritage should not be quickly discarded, Grosse and Mutumba argue that “all these aspects taken together define and at the same differentiate what we call international art from African perspectives.”

For Armory Focus, the duo will also look back to study the practices of artists who worked before “African art” became an art-world focal point. Do not expect a set narrative or an easy, singular takeaway—Grosse and Mutumba aren’t interested in simple understandings of cultural identity. Working against the Western-focused canon of art history, which has often excluded Africa, the 2016 Armory Focus aims to continue to reconfigure the dialogue around “African art” and highlight some of the artists who are continually overlooked.

Isaac Kaplan

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