The Bare Necessities: Raw Material Company

It is safe to say that the geographies of the artworld are expanding, as are the various activities and movements of its multiple constituencies. At once distanced from the traditional centres of monolithic power, the penetration of the Internet accompanied by the proliferation of global biennial culture have brought the art of elsewhere into focus. Now places like Cairo and Kampala find themselves on the international radar, feeding into the frenzied exchange that is today’s interconnected world. This has been evidenced by countless exhibitions testifying to the globalisation of artistic Modernisms, and more recently by the unprecedented rise of cultural centres in places like Douala, Lagos and Dakar. However, we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to assume that the artistic communities in these regions were without fields of cultural production before centres for contemporary art were instituted. While the first decade of the twenty-first century may have brought about a de-territorialisation of African art, prompted mostly by postcolonial discourses conceived in the West, there has been a clear reclamation of ownership on the part of Africa’s cultural narratives. The aim of these meeting points is not merely one of proclaiming the fact that contemporary art exists. The development, to my understanding, has more to do with the engineering of new spaces for the production, reception and discourse of art within complex societal frameworks.

Raw Material Company, a centre for art, knowledge and society based in Dakar, is perhaps the most resolute example of institution building in Africa. The space is situated within the suburbs of Dakar in a multipurpose building; it runs an average of four exhibitions per year, artist residencies, as well as a restaurant and a reference library of books on contemporary art with an alternative educational and publication programme. Since its inception in 2008, the centre has addressed the antinomies of artistic production and structural development in Africa, while resisting institutionalised cultural schemes that often dampen the political convictions of artistic practice.

Senegal is marked by a discrepancy between an official national culture and one that is determined by artistic communities and local audiences. It is also a place where art and nationalism are intrinsically linked – after gaining independence from France in 1960, the country was transformed by its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. An accomplished poet and cultural theorist, Senghor is one of few African leaders to have conceived of art as a medium of social and political change. His administration established a cultural system complete with art schools, a national museum and festivals, which fostered a rich visual language under his theories of Negritude. But the government’s ambition to reflect the country’s postcolonial identity through art was met with resistance from a number of artists who resented the government’s use of art for political gain. During the height of Senghor’s patronage system, artists contested the president’s vision and broke away from traditional artistic forms. Among them was Issa Samb, a founding member of the Laboratoire AgitArt, probably the first artist collective in Africa. The collective – composed of writers, actors, artists and thinkers – transformed the nature of artistic practice from a formalist, objectbound sensibility to forms of agitation that resulted in ephemeral experiments.

Today, little remains of Senghor’s utopic vision – the national museum of art is no longer in use, and the pedagogy of the École Nationale des Arts is thought to be outdated – however there continues to be a cultural festival (in the form of the Dak’Art biennial, established in 1992). Samb (one of the last remaining members of the movement) still operates from the courtyard of his atelier in the Rue Jules Ferry in Dakar, a place of monumental importance to artists and thinkers that exists somewhere between a national heritage site and a permanent seminar – Samb’s open-air studio. The radical dimension of Samb’s indecipherable practice and its aesthetic innovation defined by sharing and collaboration seems to be the impetus that drives Raw Material Company. Which is why his first ever solo exhibition focused not on the ground-breaking capacity of his artistic oeuvre, but rather on the political ambition of his dialogical approach to artmaking, a process based project enlivened by his relationships to various actors and agencies within the political space of his surroundings.

Perhaps one of the key distinctions that separates cultural spaces in Africa from those seeking to represent African narratives within Western contexts is a willingness to subvert and question commonly held assumptions around art’s agency. In this respect, it seems that Raw Material Company has been committed to a shifting tension between art and its public. Such was the case with its recent archival exhibitions looking at the legacy of a group of printmakers who practised at the Gorée Institute Printmaking Workshop set up in the late 1990s, and another that chronicled the revolt of spring 2011, when activists took to the street to protest changes to the country’s constitution. These exhibitions are not related to art per se, but an investigation into the space of civic intervention as a means of cultural production and a tool for visual literacy.

One of the other aspects of these expanded forms of exhibition making as practices of history making or knowledge building is the potential for hybridity. Using art as a raw material in itself, the exhibition constructs – typically meant to reinforce the authority of an institution – are abandoned to allow artists the space to question authoritative discourses. The open-endedness of this hybridisation gives way to a kind of artistic antagonism, which locates art at the centre rather than the periphery of a wider conversation on subjects as broad as homophobia and religion. Take the Algerian artist Kader Attia, whose work is rooted in his engagement with the legacy of French colonialism. In his dense and multi-layered practice, Attia deconstructs traditional discourses on authority as grounds for subversive interventions. This destabilisation of accepted understandings of collective identity (as evidenced by his works in the exhibition Precarious Imaging, 2014) engages a conscious process of de-territorialisation. His interpretation of complex issues such as the place of Islam and the impact of marginalisation within Muslim communities bears a certain congruity with Senegalese culture, which is predominantly Sufi and deeply marked by its French colonial past.

We may use Raw Material Company as an example of how questions of locality and culture shouldn’t be estranged from systemic questions of education and infrastructure. The very idea of raw materials is extracted from the language of industrial ecology. Otobong Nkanga (whose work was presented in the exhibition Faites Comme Chez Vous, 2011) has offered a boundless meditation on mental and physical identities, and their implication within varied environments and geographic contexts. Born in Nigeria, a country understood via its densely populated urban areas as well as its exploitation of natural resources, Nkanga’s work articulates a uniquely African paradox. Her work speaks to a rising awareness among artists of the processes of de-sublimation that force art into a state of contingency. This exhaustively curious practice activates a very specific tension between the use of cultural value connected to resources and the environment. Issues of personal displacement align with transformations of commodities to take a central role, as Nkanga’s work unpacks resource driven conflicts that underline our global world. One can think of few places on the continent aside from the Raw Material Company to present such a palpable critique of the African condition, cementing its primacy as a meeting point for art, knowledge and society, civilisation’s bare necessities.

This article was originally published by ArtReview in November, 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.