‘I Believe Deeply that the Best Kind of Art is Public’: An Interview with Senga Nengudi

As a member of a radical generation of Los Angeles-based artists who emerged during the turbulent Civil Rights Era (1954–68), Senga Nengudi’s practice has expanded the threshold between sculpture and performance art. At a time when traditional media had given way to the dematerialization of the art object, Nengudi set about inventing her own artistic language with little more than a pair of nylon stockings. In her early experiments, skin-like materials filled rooms and spaces, having been stretched and pulled, tied and knotted, twisted and suspended from walls and ceilings. Compelled by the kinaesthesia of the body, she began experimenting with various forms of movement and collaborating with fellow artists, such as David Hammons and Maren Hassinger. In these performances, the artist’s anthropomorphic forms became extensions of live bodies, transforming sculptural materials and found objects into ritualistic environments of political and civic activation. In her best-known series, ‘R.S.V.P.’ (1977/2003), the splayed, limb-like, nylon forms speak not only to the question of women’s delimited roles in contemporary culture, but also to the physical reality of the artist’s changing pregnant body. Drawing on references as seemingly varied and unorthodox as Japan’s Gutai Art Association and traditional West-African masquerade, Nengudi’s expansive practice allows the material, as well as the viewer, to embody another dimension. In social spaces where blackness is so often circumscribed through mental constructs, Nengudi’s works continue to generate spaces of memory and meditation, spaces in which to reflect on the aesthetics of African diaspora and its futures.

Osei Bonsu You began practising as an artist in Los Angeles during an era of cultural nationalism and civil unrest. For many of the artists who migrated west, the city seemed to be a place of utopia and possibility, extending a longer narrative of black migration. What did it mean to be an artist in LA during this period?

Senga Nengudi I moved to Pasadena from Chicago as a child, so it wasn’t as if I had some romantic notion about moving to LA. Growing up, I never looked at LA as the place to be. In fact, there was very much the notion that everything was centred around New York, artistically speaking. We, as artists, were doing what we did under the shadow of New York and this sense of inferiority extended to the music scene as well. Things have changed since but, at the time, we were fighting to be seen. But we did our work and stayed focused on our vision.

OB While a student in the 1960s and ’70s, you began teaching in the dance and art departments at the Pasadena Art Museum and the Watts Towers Arts Center. What role did your experiences there play in your practice?

SN It all seemed to intertwine like a tapestry or a weaving. I had my own sensibilities, of course, but being in those environments allowed me to explore alternative directions. They also allowed me to focus and intensify my interests in a particular way because of what I was exposed to. Watts Towers Arts Center really pivoted around Simon Rodia’s way of thinking, his spirit of going around and collecting found materials and then incorporating them into his cement towers. After the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the tower was one of the ways we were able to look at life and art differently. Up until then, many artists were academically trained and used traditional materials. This concept of art is blown away when the place you live in is being burned to the ground. You have to think of another way. It makes perfect sense that you take what is left and form it into something that gives you strength and personal power, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

OB How did you relate to other members of the Los Angeles art community at the time?

SN Things started shifting. There were some of us, like myself and David Hammons, who began to think about things differently. I had barely met Maren Hassinger at the time. There was the well-established Brockman Gallery, run and owned by Alonzo Davis, and Gallery 32, run by Suzanne Jackson, the city’s first black female gallery owner. Her gallery had a relatively short life but a major impact on our community, especially for women of colour. Then there was Pearl C. Woods Gallery, located above a church building and run by Greg Pitts, an artist and art historian. Greg’s place was a home for those of us going out on a limb. At the time, some of us were really enamoured with Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor. Our ideas were becoming more performative and, from the mid-1970s onwards, we were interested in radical or unusual forms of collaboration.

OB Throughout your career, you have explored the space between dance and the body in movement. When did you begin to cultivate an interest in dance as a practice?

SN I was formally trained insofar as I took classes but I was never really involved with a major dance company. Ever since I was a child, I couldn’t really separate which I liked most between art and dance. I really loved dance but I didn’t like the politics of the dance world; I found it restricting – especially in terms of my body, race and appearance, and how dancers were expected to look at the time. As someone who has always danced to the beat of their own drum, so to speak, it was very freeing to be able to move in a way that wasn’t typical or restricted to someone else’s choreography. I was interested in dancers who struck out on their own, like Eiko Otake and Takashi Koma Otake with their butoh-style choreography, and I was also impressed by Pina Bausch. This way, I was able to incorporate dance into my other visual interests. Today, I am almost obsessed with looking at people and observing the vocabulary of their movements. Just as each person has their own style of handwriting, so they have a particular body language that they’re often not aware of.

OB Some of your earliest ‘Water Compositions’ from the late 1960s involved filling plastic bags with water. This condition of permanent transition seems to have guided much of your work.

SN Personally, I like materials that are transformative, when there is another use for them. I am particularly interested in this notion of shape-shifting. Water became this amazing material for me: it can be frozen solid or liquid; it seeks its own level. Water, more than any other natural element, has so many different forms. It is so powerful, so healing, so nurturing; but, it can also drown you. When I began to put water into vinyl plastic forms, I was exploring that. The ‘Water Compositions’ had to do with the body in the sense that they yielded to your touch. They produced a sensual experience. I stopped making water sculptures when water beds became a commercial fad.

OB This idea of tactility was central to your early practice, so it seems rather ironic that your work is increasingly shown in museums where such interaction is usually forbidden.

SN For me, it’s very hard because I believe deeply that the best kind of art is public art. Art is for everyone and should always be accessible. I believe that public art plays a tremendous role in influencing people. In a museum environment, art isn’t always there for you. Most exhibits have a limited run. One of my thrills is to go to the Museum of Modern Art and look at Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26), to just be with that piece and see its surface before my eyes! You don’t always have that luxury. My own artwork is so delicate that it’s often not even an option.

OB Your work is ephemeral due to its form as well as its materiality. You started working in this way at a time when sculpture was bound to a masculine tradition of permanence. Were you specifically addressing this?

SN It was a sensitive subject. Because of the materials and compositions, I often found that women were more receptive to my work than men. I’ve often gotten responses from women about how they connect with it, in terms of expressing their internal selves and the tensions of being a woman in the workplace. Or simply of being a woman. One day, some men who were working at a gallery came in and started looking at my work. Initially, they were laughing but, as they observed it more carefully, they became almost sombre.

OB I’m especially interested in the radical performance works you organized in collaboration with Maren Hassinger. How did these come about?

SN Brockman Gallery was the established agent to run and administer the federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programme in the 1970s, which was fashioned like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programme of the 1940s, and hired artists to complete public artworks. Maren and myself were two of maybe ten artists in that programme, and that’s when we became friends and realized our common interests in relation to dance and sculpture. We became part of Studio Z – a loose collective of artists – and would run around town staging art actions wherever there was a location that called to us. Sometimes, we were just responding to the moment.

OB When did you realize the work’s spatial possibility?

SN I think the lightbulb moment came when I decided upon the pantyhose. I had been looking for a material that would give a sense of the body and have the same characteristics of elasticity and flexibility. I played around with so many different materials: I tried using resin to make sculptures hold but they lost that bodily quality. Every time I tried to make the work more permanent in some way, the sculptures just lost their energy. Once I began really playing and exploring with nylons, the process automatically brought about a sense of performance. I am very shy, so some of my works were private performances, which I would have someone photograph. I didn’t have an audience because the idea was terrifying to me. When Maren was willing to work with me, it was very helpful because that expanded performance possibilities.

OB Who were your influences at the time?

SN My influences were the artists I was surrounded by. David Hammons is brilliant, but also some artists who are less well-known, like Franklin Parker and Joe Ray. In the art history books I grew up reading, there was no mention of black artists. That’s why Romare Bearden wrote his A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present (1988): to make visible the African-American contribution to visual culture.

OB In 1978, you organized Ceremony for Freeway Fets, a full-length collaboration with Hassinger, Hammons and a small orchestra of musicians. How did this multi-layered performance develop?

SN I wanted it to be a culmination of what I was interested in at the time, which was performance, dance, ceremony and ritual. It was quite euphoric to harness this collaborative energy. The musicians were actually visual artists who knew how to play instruments and everyone there was part of Studio Z. I thought of the performance as a christening of the public artwork that I had installed under the freeway. Somehow, through ceremony, I wanted the work to be properly ‘blessed’. I dealt with my shyness by performing under a tarp and mask, which felt transcendent. It was an extension of being influenced by and interested in African traditions. An observer remarked how the performance seemed both African and Japanese in its aesthetics, without knowing how much I love both cultures.

OB Could you talk more about your interest in these cultural traditions?

SN Just like every black child, I was made to go to church and I have always been interested in the spirit, but not in relation to religion per se. There is a spiritual belief system in almost every culture and that has always been attractive to me. I remember going to the library in junior high and looking up Greek gods only to realize how connected they were to Yoruba deities. Whether it’s an Indian roadside altar or a magnificent Brazilian cathedral, I am fascinated by how something becomes charged with a spirit.

OB In the late 1960s, you spent time in Japan and began to study the activities of the Gutai Art Association. What did you find appealing about Japanese art?

SN I applied to study in Japan because I thought it would offer a totally different point of view, and I was right. I chanced upon the work of the Gutai group at the back of a book on contemporary Japanese art. I immediately knew Japan was the place for me. Although I arrived there in the late 1960s, I never came across them or their work.

I loved the simple and purposeful way in which things were done – from traditional tea ceremonies to ceramics that are intentionally made to look imperfect. I was also excited by the sense of movement you see in traditional Japanese Noh theatre and the layering of emotional experiences I encountered in Kabuki.

OB That sense of refinement and utility seems to be central to series like ‘R.S.V.P.’, which you have recently revisited in your newer series ‘RSVP Reveries’ (2007–ongoing). Like human bodies, these works are constantly evolving.

SN When I first started the ‘R.S.V.P.’ series, I used a lot of found materials. When I decided to begin re-creating the works, there were certain pieces I could not duplicate because of that. So, I started to think about the newer pieces as ‘reveries’, dream-like reflections on the original works. With these works, I discovered a new means of expression through materials that was compelling and revealing. ‘R.S.V.P.’ has a lot to do with the tension between material elements and the body and, even though I’m more mellow now than I was when I began making them, that tension is still there.

OB Finally, I wanted to ask you about the physical mobility of these sculptures as they’ve taken on lives of their own. How do you reconcile the detachment of the sculptures from your own labour?

SN That is a difficult question. I am thinking more about the early days when no one had any money and the alternative galleries we worked with had no budget. Danny Davis, a friend of mine who was a musician with the Sun Ra Arkestra, had just come back from a tour in Egypt. He had a huge leather travel bag from which he pulled out a number of magical objects. This experience hit a chord and got me thinking: we women conventionally carry our lives around in our handbags! I soon figured out that I could put a whole exhibition in my bag, pull it out and stretch the pieces out enough to fill a gallery. Now I have works that travel all over the world, but I’ve had to give up personally installing them because I know I’m not going to be here forever. I’ve had to let go.

Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘Yield to Touch’.

This interview was originally published by Frieze.com in September, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.

50 Years of Celebrating Black Beauty and Culture: Faith Ringgold Tells Her Story

Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Faith Ringgold began her ‘American People’ series (1963–67), in which she dissected the notion of the American dream to expose the uncomfortable realities of racial and gender inequality. Fusing pop art’s hard edges with the political ideals of social realism, and techniques of Tibetan painting with the graphic symbolism of West African sculpture and design, her practice occupies a unique space within the black arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This aesthetic originality is compounded by the fact that the figures and faces captured in Ringgold’s early painting speak to a distinctly American social world – a world of bloody interracial tension and psychological trauma drawn along the lines of ideology and ethnic difference. Following in the footsteps of pivotal figures of the Harlem renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, her work is imbedded within the cultural tradition of storytelling that has been central to the survival of African American histories.

The narrative arc of Ringgold’s own story runs parallel to the artist’s radical activism; before co-founding the activist group Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc. in the early 1970s, she led a series of protests against the lack of diversity in New York’s Whitney Museum of American art, an institution that recently placed her work in an exhibition dedicated to protest. But perhaps the most enduring feature of the artist’s work is her commitment to the art of storytelling. In 1980, Ringgold collaborated with her mother Willie Jones, a fashion designer, to produce her first story quilt. Developing a tradition once practiced by her great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery and produced quilts for plantation owners, Ringgold uses fabric to weave together personal stories and histories of African American experience. The author of several children’s books and a much-read autobiography, she once wrote: ‘I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story.’

Osei Bonsu Throughout your career as an artist, one of the most enduring forms has been the quilts you began producing in the early 1980s, reviving the African and African American tradition of quilts that told stories and preserved memories. Your current exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, includes quilts from the ’80s onwards including Subway Graffiti #2 [1987] and Ancestors Part II [2017]. What are your earliest memories of story quilts and how have they shaped your artistic approach to storytelling?

Faith Ringgold My earliest memory of quilting comes to me through my family history. My great-great grandmother, Susan Shannon, and her daughter, my great-grandmother Betsy Bingham, were both born slaves and were quilters all their lives. Both lived into advanced old age in Florida where they continued, after slavery, to work as quilters and seamstresses. Betsy taught her granddaughter, my mother, Willi Posey, how to quilt and my mother taught me, but not until 1980. Much of this story is retold in Ancestors Part I, which is currently on exhibit at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

My first collaboration with my mother was Echoes of Harlem, made in 1980, one year before she died, and now in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. I continued to gradually make quilts on my own, producing my first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima [1983], over the course of an entire year as part of my mourning of the loss of my mother. Since then, I always work with collaborators, most recently my assistant Grace Matthews. The idea to make story quilts – that is, painting on canvas framed with quilting and bordered with boxes of text – first came out of my desire to tell my own story and to see my writing in print. Every time I exhibited a story quilt, I was also ‘publishing’ a story I had written.

OB The exhibition includes a number of paintings from your first mature body of work ‘American People’ Series [1963–67] including The American Dream [1964] and Woman Looking in a Mirror [1966]. What did it mean to you, at the time, to make art that engaged directly with politics?

FR In 1963, I took my children with me to stay in Oak Bluffs [a black community on Martha’s Vineyard] for the summer where I began the ‘American People’ series. This began with Between Friends [1963], inspired by the somewhat awkward meetings I witnessed of black and white female members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at social events in the house of the family we stayed with. As it happens, this was also the summer of the March on Washington, followed immediately by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy. This was a time of great eventfulness and turmoil in the civil rights movement in the North and the South. I was greatly inspired by the writings of James Baldwin, in particular The Fire Next Time [1963], in which he grapples with the issues raised by Malcolm X, a prominent figure in the North who would soon break with the Nation of Islam as a result of his efforts to articulate racism. It was Malcolm X’s comments concerning the death of JFK about chickens coming home to roost that would lead to his expulsion from the Nation and begin his metamorphosis into a visionary political leader that would inspire the writer Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka], whose work also inspired me.

OB Throughout your career, you have addressed the question of race relations in America, a topic that continues to dominate the socio-political agenda. Between Friends [1963] recalls an uneasy meeting between a black and a white woman, while US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power [1967] represented the demographic status of African Americans as just ten percent of the population. What function do you think art has addressing these issues both historically and in the present moment?

FR In both Between Friends [1963] and U.S. Postage Stamp – as is true generally in the works of the ‘American People’ series, of which there are 20 – I am careful to emphasis that African Americans exist within an overall structure dominated by white racism and power. I have continued to repeatedly address race relations as I have felt it necessary or compelling. But I added to my repertoire, as is visible in my ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] as well as in the range of my ‘story quilts’ [1980-present], the celebration of black beauty and culture. Over the course of my career, I have combined my tributes to African American culture with my ongoing critiques of racism.

OB Although your work is very much in dialogue with issues in American society, you have drawn influences from many regions and cultures, including Tibetan paintings, traditional West African sculpture and the forms of lettering and design drawn from the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How would you describe the influence of Pan-Africanist ideologies and aesthetics on your work and thinking?

FR In the summer of 1975, I sent my mother to West Africa to explore her interest in African fashion and design. She had such a wonderful experience travelling alone in terms of the warmth of the people she met that I decided to go on a trip myself through Nigeria and Ghana to study art-making techniques and traditions. This experience had a huge influence on my artistic practice, particularly on the soft sculpture and masks I produced in the 1970s. I returned to Africa again in 1977 to attend FESTAC, in which people of African descent from all over the world travelled to Lagos in a celebration and display of African cultures. I had already begun to incorporate Kuba design in my paintings as early as the ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] and in my political poster designs. I often used the Kuba elements to organize my paintings. I began to adapt the thangka form as a result of a trip to Amsterdam in 1972 when a guard in the Rijksmuseum directed my attention to an exhibition of them. It occurred to me that making paintings framed by thangkas would allow me to roll my paintings and transport them easily and inexpensively. My mother made the thangkas that framed my ‘Slave Rape’ series [1972–73] and, in retrospect, her use of quilting techniques in their design is obvious. My use of thangkas in the 1970s was consistent with my exploration of the use of sewing techniques in the making of my art, which was strongly prompted by feminism and ideas of making feminist art.

OB Could you discuss the role that audience participation plays in your practice, both in terms of art and activism?

FR Over the course of my career, I have found different ways to incorporate audience participation. I have also always collaborated with other artists, beginning with my mother, Willi Posey. In 1976, for example, I did a performance called The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro in tribute to the Bicentennial Celebration of the founding of America in 1776. I travelled to various campuses around the country, working with students to collaborate on a dance in which the lives of two characters, Bena and Bubba, were explored. Bubba died of a drug overdose and Bena died of a broken heart. This story epitomized the crises we were facing in Harlem over drug addiction and the difficulties of black families in the community in the 1970s. Harlem, which is now being gentrified, was at that time turning into a wasteland. Much of my work, whether it is paintings, posters or sculpture, involves some form of protest and political statement. I have often collaborated with writers such as my daughter Michele Wallace, and others including Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks and even Martin Luther King, using their texts as the basis for illustrations I have created in print formats or paintings used to illustrate children’s books.

OB In 1968, you led a group of artists who were protesting the Whitney Museum of American Art’s lack of inclusion of black and Hispanic artists. You also joined the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee and co-founded Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc., a collective of black female artists. Ironically, your work was eventually acquired by the Whitney in 2014 and is currently on display in the exhibition ‘An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection’. How do you think American museums have handled issues of exclusion and inequality over the years?

FR In 1968, I was involved in the first black protest against the racist but routine exclusion of black artists from major museum shows. The occasion was a survey of 1930s art at the Whitney Museum of American Art which included no black artists whatsoever. A group of us met at my gallery, Spectrum, then located on Madison Avenue near the Whitney. I prompted them to make signs and to picket the museum. It was at this protest that I first experienced being called a ‘nigger’ right outside the Whitney on Madison Avenue. This is what I wrote about in my painting Hate is a Sin Flag [2007] which was bought by the Whitney in 2014 and, as you mention, is currently on display there.

In the late 1960s, I protested at the Museum of Modern Art with the Art Workers’ Coalition. Tom Lloyd suggested that I join him in demanding a wing for African American and Latino Art at MoMA, which we never got – perhaps partly because we wanted to name it after Martin Luther King and at the time, Coretta King, his widow, would not support this endeavour. Instead, two black artists, Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt, received retrospectives. It was the exclusion of the work of black women artists generally, despite these attempts, that led me to become a feminist in 1970 and to the formation of WSABAL [Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation], which often participated in protests, most notably with Ad Hoc Women, a feminist offshoot of the Art Worker’s Coalition led by the art writer Lucy Lippard. In 1970, WSABAL participated in ‘The People’s Flag Show’ at the Judson Memorial Church. It was an open show designed to protest the federal laws forbidding the desecration of the American flag, which was causing a lot of arrests around the country. Just as the show was about to close, I was arrested by the District Attorney’s office along with Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche [friends from the Art Workers’ Coalition]. We became known as the Judson Three and were vindicated on the grounds of the First Amendment [freedom of speech] in court via a team of lawyers from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Monies raised on our behalf were used to bail out and defend young people getting arrested all over the country for displaying the flag in ways considered unsuitable by the powers that be.

OB Throughout your career, you have published many children’s books on historical figures such as Harriet Tubman [1992] and Rosa Parks [1999]. Your own work has clearly been marked by artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. What do you hope that oncoming generations of artists and students will take from your artistic and political endeavours?

FR The answer to this question is simple: My hope is to inspire others to tell their stories and to have the courage to do so.

‘Faith Ringgold: Paintings and Story Quilts, 1964–2017’, runs at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, UK, until 28 April.

This interview was originally published by Frieze.com in April, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.

The Examined Life: Osei Bonsu in Conversation with Germano Celant

Set in motion by the shifting political and cultural currents of postwar Europe, the relationship between art and exhibition-making took a radical turn in the late 1960s. From Land Art in North America to Anti-Formal art in Europe, the sheer diversity of emergent artistic forms called for a specific re-evaluation, not only of the meaning and aesthetics of the art object, but of the very methodologies by which art could be produced, displayed and theorized. Against the backdrop of new modernities emerging as alternatives to past traditions in the Italy of the ‘economic miracle’, a group of artists – including Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario and Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini and Michelangelo Pistoletto – formed Arte Povera, a term coined by the curator who bought their work together, Germano Celant. Distinguished by their use of common or ‘poor’ materials such as industrial objects and organic fibres, along with an innate ability to evoke art’s capacity to generate a sensorial experience, the artists involved with Arte Povera privileged crit-icality over passivity and impermanence over permanence as they sought to engage with the broadening terrain of visual culture as a global phenomenon. Celant would go on to curate a plethora of exhibitions that sought to bring attention to a generation of Italian artists, whilst also recognizing the symbiotic developments of the broader conceptual art scene that gave way contemporary art as we know it. As the current director of Fondazione Prada, Celant is cultivating new relationships with a younger generation of architects, curators and writers.

In its questioning of the values of the commercial gallery system, Arte Povera’s 50-year-old ambitions serve as a reminder that art’s potential lies in its ability to invent new forms of resistance and radical thought.

Osei Bonsu In the late 1960s, there was an explosion of activity in contemporary art in Italy. Not since Futurism had Italian art been as visible at a local level as it now was on an international one. Arte Povera, a term you coined in 1967, was a new language of visual art, national affiliations and institutional hierarchies. What made this period such an inventive time?

Germano Celant Between 1966 and 1968 – from the events of May 1968 in France to the Cultural Revolution – culture underwent a period of radical re-evaluation that changed traditional models of thought and behaviour. In every field, forms of expression and identity were subjected to an intense, critical re-appraisal that resulted in the upending of all pre-existing definitions and dissimilarities. This rupture with the past paved the way for action and for an open dialogue, unconstrained by a single dominant agenda – be that political or personal, male or female, professional or academic. An entire generation broke with the old social and economic orders, challenging and destabilizing them from within. A similar transformation occurred in the sphere of contemporary art, where there was a perceptual shift from the notion of the artwork as product, as decorative commodity, towards the artwork as idea and concept, energy and transformation, nature and body – extending beyond the traditional forms of painting and sculpture that had predominated until Pop Art. It was a rejection of the death of the object in favour of the life of things. Artists began working with animals, deserts, wax, rubber, ice, sulphur, glass and snow – unstable but vital elements that materialized thoughts and concepts. By contrast, in our current globalized culture, direct experience is strangled in favour of the dispassionate superficiality of the immaterial, digital realm, with art all too frequently lacking the angst of reality. Today, photographs, videos, films and videogames treat and transmute tragedy into a form of reportage. Horror is suppressed and consumed into image. By exploring materiality and physi-cality, both Arte Povera and Body Art engaged with their audiences directly, allowing them to experience the danger of fire, the impact of a naked human form or the potent physicality of a horse.

OB Thinking back to a milestone exhibition such as ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, curated by Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, there emerges a configuration of international developments that overlapped the Arte Povera movement. In 2013, you restaged this particular exhibition, in collaboration with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas, at the Prada Foundation in Venice. In what ways is restaging an exhibition a useful process and did you learn anything new from the experience?

GC The intention behind re-creating the show was to emphasize the material and semantic liberties of an exhibition that reflected the material and linguistic chaos of the historical moment by disre garding the ‘value’ of the art work (which nowadays is frequently exaggerated and promoted for eco nomic reasons). The distribution of works throughout the space was intentionally chaotic to allow the show to function as a kind of laboratory for ideas and energies, with the uninhibited layering process creating a frenetic yet dynamic whole of countless fragments. The aim was to construct an environment that contrasted starkly to those innumerable installations of dry, dispas-sionate images whose creative impulse is driven by a desire not to offend the superficial tastes of a volatile market: a molecular crucible. By relocating our incarnation of the exhibition from the under-stated galleries of Kunsthalle Bern to the opulent 18th- and 19th-century spaces of the Prada Foundation in Venice, we established a further temporal dislocation, which sought to provoke the audience to reflect on the spatial elision between past and present. Ultimately, this project was an exploration of the fluid exchange between material and temporal space.

OB One of the characteristics of Arte Povera is the swell of political activism and critical thinking that aligned itself with artistic production. For example, the art critic and art historian Eugenio Battisti and the art critic and feminist activist Carla Lonzi pursued careers that were influential in both civic and political spheres. Considering the polit-ical transformation of Italy, as well as the recent upheavals across Europe, what role do you believe the arts play in relation to theoretical debates?

GC In the 1960s, cultural theorists were calling for the abandonment of traditional, established parameters within specific disciplines. Battisti, for instance, proposed an ‘anti-Renaissance’ vision – rooted in non-classical modes of inter-pretation – as a means of re-evaluating forms of creative expression that had traditionally been regarded as inferior, from fairy tales to gold-smithing. Lonzi, on the other hand, interviewed artists – from Cy Twombly to Jannis Kounellis – to allow their unfiltered voices to be heard. This was an important paradigm shift in a field that had hitherto followed an academic model, and exposed the conservative nature of most analyt-ical and philosophical thinking around aesthetic debates. Today, this ‘anti’ interview format has all but disappeared: lively argument has been replaced by consensus, which regrettably only fosters narcissism and propriety.

OB Arte Povera abandoned representation while retaining a strong linguistic inflection but, later, it came to emphasize the importance of energy and matter, which opened it up to ideas of performance and theatre work. How do you think the movement has influenced subsequent generations of artists?

GC Materialism challenged the notion that an artwork was denoted exclusively by the presence of the artist’s hand. It attempted to introduce a performative aspect connected with the colour, temperature and environmental variations that influenced a plant’s growth [Giuseppe Penone], or the mineral development of specific hues, such as the chloride of cobalt blue [Gilberto Zorio], the unpredictable movements of an albino dog [Pier Paolo Calzolari] or a parrot [Jannis Kounellis] or the natural changes that take place in fields, meadows and deserts. Incorporating these unpredictable elements into art practice also served as a means of rejecting romanticized forms of expression: contemplation was replaced with participation, cold with warmth, passivity with action, emptiness with fullness, inanimate materials with life.

OB Since the exhibitions you organized in the late 1960s, it seems that you have remained alert to the role of contingency and the everyday in art as theorized by John Cage. How has your approach to exhibition-making changed over time and how do you reconcile your historical achievements with your future endeavours?

GC From Conceptual Art to Land Art, I have participated in the creative journey of my gener-ation. This led me to understand that the semantics of exhibitions – be they an apprecia-tion or an unpacking of aesthetic material – must look to evoke the intensity of the artworks them-selves to afford an equally intense encounter for the audience. Since then, exhibitions have relied on written documentation to communicate the essence of an event that has already taken place, from which the general public must then extrap-olate a visual, physical, intellectual and expansive experience. In 1976, for ‘Ambiente/Arte’ (Environment/Art) at the 37th Venice Biennale, I began working as part of a team that included an architect, Pierluigi Cerri, and a graphic designer, Gino Valle. The intention was to devise an ‘all-encompassing landscape’ comprising multiple elements that, when combined, created a complex articulated framework in which the past intertwined with the present. Naturally, as a visual historian, I ensure that the artistic events are the key focus, but I seek to locate them within a broader context to trigger multifaceted within a broader context to trigger multifaceted interactions and reverberations.

Throughout my career, I have sought constantly to maintain an expansive approach, keeping the original exhibition format in a state of perpetual motion, regenerating and recontextualizing it within the evolving array of dynamic cultural events, from the past to the present day. Currently, I am working for the Prada Foundation in Milan on ‘Italian Arts 1918 – 1940’, which will open in early 2018. I’m trying to offer a contextualization of the works, so they can be ‘read’ in their original environment, from the studio to the architecture. The purpose is to bring them to life again in their context, in order to avoid the artistic limbo of the white cube.

Translated by Rosalind Furness

This interview was originally published by Frieze.com in October, 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.

Osei Bonsu in Conversation with Cameron Platter

Incited by the tempestuous political histories that engender the repressive conditions of the country’s social reality, South African artists often conspire toward activism. For Cameron Platter, who lives in the urbanized province of KwaZulu-Natal near the former battlefield of Rorkes Drift, mining the country’s past has vitalized his historical imagination. Platter’s “expanded collage” reflects the explanatory narrative of the country’s industrial economy and it’s capitalistic dimensions of desire and consumption, and therefore a deviant contemporaneity: large-scale linocuts, mural paintings, and public installations co-opt the linguistic forms and pictorial metaphors of poster-strewn urban sidewalks. Deriving from the noble visions of John Muafangejo’s politically charged linocuts, Platter’s satirical drawings make textual references to familiar street advertisements bearing straplines and slogans promising services from reincarnation to sexual longevity. These universally resonant signs indexing the unity of cross-cultural depravity open a transcendental void and thus exist as chronicles of apparently self-destructive times in which mass consumption serves to palliate a darker reality.

Osei Bonsu: You are exhibiting your large-scale documentary drawings at the fifty-fifth la Biennale di Venezia for the South Africa Pavilion’s Imaginary Fact: South African Art and the Archive. Are these drawings part of the series that will be presented there?

Cameron Platter: These drawings are part of a larger series of a hundred that I’ll hopefully get to do. Here at the gallery, we have twelve, thirteen and fourteen from the extended series of a hundred drawings. Not these specific works, but some of the series will be shown in Venice.

OB: Imaginary Fact: South African Art and the Archive will aim to understand why and how history has continued to impact our world. South African artists will turn to the archive and chronicles of history. How do you feel about this? 

CP: I can understand the issue of the archive, but for me it’s a little strange because I am not really thinking of that consciously. What I want to do with this larger-scale series of a hundred is make documentary pictures that hopefully will be finished in about ten years or so, each being some sort of chronicle of the times. The work shown in Venice will reference, in particular, John Muafangejo, a Namibian artist known primarily for his linocuts. He is a big presence in what I’m doing. His works were documentary narratives in their nature; you can get a sense of his time through his work. In that way, by appropriating his works, I want to create some sort of picture of what I’m living through or the times.

OB: Muafangejo, whose life was cut short by his death in 1987, created linocuts in an open and autobiographical style. To some degree these were about documentation and documenting a contemporary moment.

CP: Yes, that is what it is completely. I don’t think my drawings are dissimilar to the school of documentary photography coming out of South Africa now, like Subotzky, Tillim, Hugo, for example. Obviously, they are completely different, but I don’t look at them as being that divergent.

OB: You have mentioned that you think of these pencil-on- paper works as “Nomadic Murals,” as Le Corbusier came to consider his tapestries. Corbusier was sporadically designing these cartoons after the war. For him, tapestries were a product of what man had become. What significance do murals have for you personally?

CP: I think the works I do in general are drawn from the immediate, like signs or advertisements. Something you can read, rather than engage with in other ways. In that way they take things from outdoors, which are a part of every- day life. Oddly enough, I hadn’t done any mural painting before and this series of works led me to become involved in that. The murals I make are not completely different from other works, but they blend into their environments a lot more.

OB: With public commissions you mean for the work to ulti- mately blend into communal space. Are the experiences of showing on walls, in streets, and inside in galleries related?

CP: Obviously, it’s completely different. I see drawings as performance works, since I am performing in the studio as I am making them. The murals bring the work to a far larger audience, so I was instantly attracted to that dimension of it. I recently did something in downtown Johannesburg (I ART JOBURG, 2013) which involved taking three classified ads from a newspaper and blowing them up three stories high; you literally missed them as artworks, which made them successful.

OB: These messages were already being communicated to the immediate public—advertising penis enlargements and the sex industry. There is a commonplaceness about this, which ultimately related to the street culture of South Africa. Should local artists be engaged by what’s going on in the streets?

CP: I think so, but again it comes down to documenting what is going on around me. I’m always thinking about my art practice as an expanded collage, but there are central themes. After 1994, when South Africa experienced a wave of migration particularly from other African countries, the vernacular on the streets developed on many levels. The penis enlargement and sex ads on the street are now ubiquitous. It may be encouraging someone to get a bigger dick, but that in itself is loaded with so many other things.

OB: The idea that your practice is adaptable may be linked with its expansive and multidisciplinary approach. You recently began presenting film (for example, The Power of Thoughts, 2012). To my eye, they are visually corresponsive, but one imagines the process of making them to be different to your drawings?

CP: I see these works on paper as studies for the videos that I make. I don’t think they are at all dissimilar; to me they are an explanatory narrative to what’s happening in the drawings. My videos are not shown very often but I’ve consistently made them. They are video, new media, and yet they seem to be the most handmade things that I make. Everything I do has a handmade or homemade quality to it. I think of my studio as my kitchen table: I make films from my lounge, drawings from a separate studio, sculptures in another studio, and ceramics in a commercial kiln. When it comes to seeing my practice as “expanded collage” it can sound prosaic, but that’s what it is.

OB: How do you begin creating?

CP: There is no formula for making the work. It might be a shape or design that leads the process. With collage, I am scavenging as I go along, so there are no specific sources that I draw from. I wish I was an abstract painter, but I can’t bring myself to do that—in a sense these things are, perhaps, naïve appreciations on some shapes and how things related to each other.

OB: I think that play is somewhat rooted in collage. Collage that relies more so on ideas than on material.

CP: I would describe anything I make as collage. I am trying to chase that high of a young kid in art class, engaged in something for a couple of hours. I’m searching for that kind of engagement, one level. But things get in the way, society gets in the way; it’s really important for me to try and document what I do—like a diary.

OB: Perhaps this idea, an “expanded collage,” is also the act of relating art to broader world issues, as your work often does. In this sense, the artist is implicated as a kind of evolutionary activist, would you agree?

CP: I feel I have both no responsibility and at the same time all responsibility. Of course, drawing immediately references printmaking, which is a political medium and always has been. I have strangely become an activist artist without even knowing it—but it’s about having things to react to. I’m not trying to establish a moral stance in my work, I just want to take it in and put it back out again.

OB: If the works aim to be chronicles of our time, they can be seen as representing the cultural moment, concerned about our instantaneous exposure to information.

CP: I want people to be able to digest things instantly, but they should also be able to access them on different levels....

OB: Video has made possible the proliferation of information and we seem to have a fixation with filming, particularly the “real life” experience. How do you view video as a platform?

CP: I make videos as explanatory works and I think of them as collages. The videos have changed; in the past they had a much more narrative quality—for example, I made a linocut-style pornographic film. If you relate that to the recent videos, such as Power of Thoughts, they are quite different.

OB: The work isn’t exclusive to an art context in the same way pop art was not. It is constantly lifting ideas from other media and looking to sometimes-sordid elements of mass-culture.

CP: People see bright colours, shapes, and design and they go “pop.” When I think of pop art I think of a specific American movement that is ultimately outdated; to make pop art today may be seen as shallow or not farsighted enough. But, I am constantly “lifting.” These pictures are just lifts from everywhere else, extremely cannibal in nature.

OB: Could you expand on the idea of the cannibal aspect in your work?

CP: I use the term metaphorically, as in a cannibal of society: a society consuming and eating itself. Especially in South Africa, this movement seems to be fluid; society is obsessed by consumption and excess.

OB: I agree. Deborah Root identified culture as cannibalistic, existing well beyond the physical body. But the works also may be linked to the power of images for visual consumption. Perhaps it is a question of consumer power.

CP: I haven’t really explored that concept, but you are right. And it is very loaded. Are we examining power ourselves? What are the means by which we gain power? Are we exploiting power? When it comes to the viewer I should hope my work, in being quite explicit, would be instantly empowering.

OB: To what extent is the work related to your South African heritage?

CP: I am of the opinion that work should reflect a time and place, and a situation. Through circumstance I am South African. That is the lens through which I view the work. Although these works are shown around the world, I would like them to be rooted in a South African context.

OB: Ultimately, the work is about ideas that transcend South Africa—I think there is an insufficient understanding of African art in the Western world; there is a tendency to marginalize the efforts of African art, which can deter the work from being seen in an international context.

CP: But conversely, if I was to work somewhere else in the world I would want to be part of a broader conversation about the themes I am looking at in South Africa; in that way it would always be rooted. I haven’t actually worked anywhere else. I’d say I would probably be engaged with the same issues but on a broader, more global scale. 

Here we have “Add Hope,” which is the strapline of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s charity. They encourage the consumer to add two rand to their meal deal, money that goes to their charity. This is corrupt on so many levels, but having said that, I am in awe of it as a radical statement or a complete, loaded, succinct message of our time. Messages in Add Hope II also include “Our Life is our Life’s Work,” a slogan for a pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, and Dual Magic Probe, which is an anal probe from the California Exotic Sex Company.

OB: An exhibition press release described your work as “reconnoitring” notions and concepts—this can suggest gathering military information; however, it is referring to your observational analysis of mass-culture. Delinquency, also, shares both these formal and informal connotations.

CP: Yes, I agree. I am very much interested in these deviant or subcultural connotations. I think delinquency may be related to activism.

OB: You are living near the original site where Boers and Zulu clashed at the Battle of Blood River in 1838, now Kwa- Zulu-Natal, South Africa. Are you lending from that context specifically?

CP: Where I live there are these big historic sites, I wouldn’t even know where to start, so it happens on a very surface level. I happen, by chance and circumstance, to live near these loaded sites. However, I don’t think that dealing with a given region’s historical events from a contemporary vantage should be seen as taboo. Nor do I believe that dealing with history or the past should be preformulated in advance. Dealing with the past is about exploring, or probing, uncomfortable areas. This is perhaps my aim, to kick up the dust in these marginal, difficult areas.

OB: We have come to understand the legacy of printmaking as a catalyst in the exchange of ideas, a kind of political resistance. Do you think this is the case with your work, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift at Club Dirty Den?

CP: It’s referencing John Muafangejo’s The Battle of Rorke’s Drift. I grew up with his works on the walls of the home I grew up in. I remember these shapes and designs being all around me when I was a child. The art school where he was trained is on the sight of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (1879) at the Rorke’s Drift ELC Arts Centre. I realize how that was a very key work; it reflects a metaphorical battle that is happening now. I don’t think South Africa has a way to escape the disparity between rich and poor, and this kind of economic pressure will make things to explode.

OB: Then it would seem the chronicles of history and archival documentation would be a necessary interest to South African artists concerned about the state of the country, and about the past specifically. If you are an activist, per- haps your protest is one against forgetting.

CP: Perhaps. I am not very eloquent in tapping into what it is I’m doing—this is one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done. I struggle to see what I am actually working with. I like that distance; I wish I had the luxury and the time to analyse it more.

This interview was originally published by Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art in Fall 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.

A Cultural Operator: Osei Bonsu in conversation with Sindika Dokolo

 Portrait of Sindika Dokolo, courtesy of New African Magazine.

Portrait of Sindika Dokolo, courtesy of New African Magazine.

The Congolese entrepreneur began his collection of art in Luanda, Angola in 2004, with the aim of unveiling contemporary art to an African audience. In its inaugural decade, the collector’s personal project has entered the public domain, and can now be thought of as a blueprint for building an African collection of contemporary art. With plans to establish a new museum, his Foundation may be a pragmatic answer to the problem of only seeing the majority of African artists shown abroad and seldom on the continent – addressing the historical deficit of knowledge on African art in Africa.

Dokolo’s initiative has enabled the Foundation to negotiate the conditions of cultural exchange between its vast collection and Western museums by insisting they also bring relevant exhibitions to the African continent. The Sindika Dokolo Foundation is symbolic of the structural growth of the Angolan economy, led by a public investment policy in infrastructure, energy, education, and more recently in the arts. While we may have wondered whether there is a distinct lack of interest in contemporary production on the part of Africa’s leaders, Africa’s cultural operators can lay claim to its strategic importance in the formulation of national policy.

And while the destruction of history may have swept away Africa’s cultural institutions and any knowledge of them, the unified vision of Africa captured in the future plans for a centre for contemporary art along with the triennial of contemporary art in Luanda (which will be held next year) tell a different story. Sindika Dokolo Foundation is countering the dominant narrative that suggests African modernisation is bound to failure, triggering new potentialities for cultural development.

OB: When was your first encounter with art?

SD: My parents introduced me to art at an early age. The art in our home, whether western or African, books about art, going to museums, have educated my eye and developed my sensitivity. I started to collect ancient African weapons when I was ten, thanks to my father and his good friend the Belgian collector Jean Cambier.

They both offered me pieces, and encouraged me to research about the context in which these art works had been produced. I discovered my own culture, through powerful artistic expressions by those such as the Songye, the Chokwe, or the Mangbetu people of the Congo.

I soon realised how important and instrumental these singular art forms had been in triggering the revolution of modern western art.

It is my strong belief that without the exposure to African art, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Giacometti, Modigliani would not have developed their vision. Yet, to this day, African expression is still referred to as primitive, or tribal art at best.

It is clear to me, that unless we Africans celebrate our own creation, cultures and values, this nonsense will perpetuate itself through many more generations. One day, the art of El Anatsui, Bili Bidjocka, Yinka Shonibare or Kendell Geers could be presented as anecdotic – or even worse, not particularly African. I decided when I created the Sindika Dokolo Foundation with my friends, the Angolan artist Fernando Alvim, and the Cameroonian curator Simon Njami, that something needed to be done to break this self-diminishing vicious circle.

OB: The collection has expanded both in terms of its scope and ambition. Was your aim always to branch out in such a way by establishing a collection that would later become a public organisation? What did you learn over this period?

SD: I don’t see myself as a collector, but more as a cultural operator. A collection is just a juxtaposition of objects. In a sense, it is sterile. Its only relevance is how it impacts on people. French businessman François Pinault acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice for that reason. Bernard Arnault is doing the same thing in Paris with the Louis Vuitton Foundation. As an African, it is even more important for me.

Exposing the African public to its own contemporary creation, is the added value of what I do in African art; its relevance. Being established as a foundation helps me reach more people. It also made me understand the highly political issues around cultural activity, especially on our continent.

OB: Clearly one of the most important things about the collection is its mission to be an “African collection of contemporary art” and not a “collection of contemporary African Art”. Why is this distinction so important? How do you feel the collection has impacted the African art scene?

SD: The collection is African, because it is based in Africa, owned by an African, and has the objective of creating as many dynamics on the African art scene as possible. As an art enthusiast, I refuse to limit my interest to a geographical area, or to the colour of the skin of the artists that I collect. I celebrate “Africanity”, which I define as the African influence in the history of art and our global aesthetics in general.

Our continent, its cultures and people, have influenced the global way of life in more ways than we care to admit. It goes from music, sports, the aesthetics of politics, to the way people talk, walk or eat. That is the reason why I’ve decided to incorporate artists like Warhol, Barceló or Basquiat in the first African pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Though they’re not African they produce vibrant images of “Africanity”.

OB: How do you feel the collection has impacted the African art scene, specifically in Luanda?

SD: I strongly believe that one can never be stronger outside than inside. For my art foundation, I’ve established a plan of activities that prioritises the Angolan market. We’ve created the triennial of contemporary art in Luanda, and the third edition will be held next year. We also work with a number of Angolan artists, to help them perfect their work, and to sell locally. We commission important pieces that can be exhibited and recognised internationally. It is the case for artists like Binelde Hyrcan, Yonamine, Kiluanje Kia Henda or more recently Edson Chagas.

We also believe strongly in the principle of reciprocity in art, to reposition our continent in the art world’s circuits. We accept invitations to participate in exhibitions around the world, but demand as a sine qua none, the condition that the same museum brings the exhibition onto African soil, to the country of their choice. These principles should in time, have a structural impact on the way the art world relates to Africa, and vice-versa.

OB: Your collection began as a personal passion; subsequently, it has become one of the foremost collections of contemporary art based on the continent. How do you manage the expectations of having both a museum, and maintaining your own subjective approach to collecting?

SD: The principle common denominator of the collection is my subjectivity and my personal evolution. Not being a museum, means that the corpus of the collection is less coherent at times. As my taste and interests evolve, the collection becomes more lively and interesting. It is the witness of a decade of research, encounters, and curiosity in different fields. Even though, our objectives oblige us to have a strategy for the collection, I try to stay as intuitive and responsive as possible. The way I see it, my foundation should create dynamics in the African art scene and my collection should try to grasp the effects of these dynamics. My objective is that the collection manages to reflect as much as possible, the best of what’s happening on the continent.

Recently Angola was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial, in a year that saw considerable focus on the African continent as a whole. After 30 years of war and turmoil in Angola, there seems to be a newfound optimism led by fledgling economic prospects. What do you feel would help sustain the growth and confidence, looking towards other African nations facing difficult realities?

The past decade has been clearly marked by a structural growth in the Angolan economy. This positive evolution has created new perspectives as well as expectations, that have reshaped the Angolan society and the way Angolans look upon themselves, Africa and the world.

A new page of Angolan history is being written. A sustained public investment policy in infrastructure, energy, and education is generating a general sense of self-confidence in the Angolan economic and social future.

The particularity of the Angolan mindset, also comes from the war years. Having experienced deception and false promises, Angola has integrated the fact that it should only count on itself to reach its objectives, in terms of development. I think the other African countries should integrate that factor as well, and stop hoping that help is coming.

OB: Could you talk about how you see the collection expanding in the future? How will you ensure its preservation for future generations and that its reputation and legacy remain intact?

SD: My foundation has designed a project for a revolutionary museum that would be more accessible, more interactive and have a real impact beyond its own walls. The Angolan government supports that project and the new master plan of the city of Luanda will integrate this project as a priority. This museum will be a laboratory for new ideas and will host my collection.

Osei Bonsu is an independent writer and curator. He currently coordinates 1:54 Forum, a public programme of screenings, talk and discussions taking place between the 15th and 19th of October at Somerset House in London.

Sindika Dokolo Foundation is the main sponsor of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Sindika Dokolo will give a keynote speech on the 19th of October at 1:54 Forum.

This interview was originally published by New African in October, 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.

Roundtable discussion with Beyond Entropy Undecided territory

Founded in 2011, the international organisation Beyond Entropy does not recognise a distinction between art, architecture and politics. Since the civil war ended in 2002, the oil-rich economy of Angola has become the fastest growing in Africa. The Lusophone nation’s influx of wealth has given way to serious urban redevelopment and infrastructural transformation, centred on its capital, Luanda. Acknowledging this, Beyond Entropy put forward a rigorous argument to encourage economic support to invest in creating a cultural point of view, impacting the reconstruction of Angola’s national identity. The product of this was “BE Angola”, a grassroots initiative that would take up the challenge of developing the inaugural participations of Angolan art and architectural pavilions at the Venice Biennale

The journey saw it win the prestigious Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. In advance of their installation at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Osei Bonsu discusses with Paula Nascimento (PN, director of Beyond Entropy Africa) and Stefano Pansera Rabolli (SPR, director of Beyond Entropy Ltd) the inner nature of Africa’s urban paradigm and the vibrancy of the continent’s contemporary art scene at a time of economic growth and political uncertainty.

OB: Stefano and Paula, what drew you to Africa, and particularly to Angola?

SRP: Beyond Entropy Africa is a collaboration between Paula Nascimento and myself. Paula and I met in 2004 while studying at the Architectural Association. In every context we operate in, we define a specific territorial condition from the point of view of Beyond Entropy. Any territory is interesting as long as there is something that doesn’t work; when there is a problem my curiosity is triggered. I am interested in the African cities like Luanda, where there are incredible paradoxes. For example, there are enormous African cities lacking in basic infrastructures, you have high-density yet no high-rise, among other conflicts and contradictions that a normal architectural model wouldn’t fully explain. Africa is a privileged context for Beyond Entropy, because the transformation, the growing population and the speed of development is mind-blowing.

PN: This is also an important moment for some African countries and I would dare to say for the continent as a whole. We are in a process of re-structuring, re-construction and re-building not just infrastructure (that has long been destroyed or neglected due to long wars in some places) but also, re-constructing our nation’s identity.

OB: We have come to know the Biennale as a compendium of ideas and trends in the contemporary art world. From your perspective, what does national participation and visibility at the event mean for Africa?

SRP: Participating in the Venice Biennale is significant because it triggers internal debates, conversation and activities within each country. The fact that we are still talking about the work of Edson Chagas, whose ‘Found not Taken’ series was presented at our exhibition, Luanda – Encyclopaedic City, is already a success of the [Angolan] pavilion. The possibility that young Angolan artists might present their works abroad or a young person, inspired by Edson, decides to become an artist – it is part of the chain reaction a national pavilion can trigger.

PN: In the last years there has been a growing interest in the contemporary arts produced in Africa. However, it is important not to view this as a trend but to understand that there has been a long tradition of art production, not just crafts, and [that it needs to] retrieve its place in the history of the arts. For that to happen, Africans themselves also have to take a standpoint.

OB: But there is still a discrepancy between the considerable wealth and the indifference of African states to contemporary creation. There are still only five states hosting national pavilions. What is preventing more African countries from participating?

SRP: Last year, when Paula and I decided to develop the project of the arts pavilion, we asked the Angolan Minister of Culture for economic support. It was Beyond Entropy’s initiative to ask the government to participate – we formed a proposal for a pavilion and the minister accepted. I think that the reason why there are so few African pavilions in participation is not because of the lack of artists, but because of some sort of lack of political will to participate. Sometimes the political vision is missing and sometimes it is about financial means.

PN: I agree with Stefano. One can add, perhaps, the fact that sometimes governments and institutions fail to understand the benefits of participating in such events.

OB: It could be said that Angola and other African governments have a primary responsibility to commit to infrastructural developments to support local cultural production. Considering this, and the instability of the global economic situation, why is cultural exportation even important?

SRP: The countries should do everything possible to participate, and there has been an incredible initiative by the Venice Biennale to invite as many countries as possible. It is important to participate in the Biennale as it provides an opportunity to activate debate within each country as well as to expose artists to the international audience. The national pavilion may be considered an old-fashioned model, in an era where national states are collapsing. Still, I believe that national participations are important because of the geopolitical encounter where different countries express a position on a shared theme. I think it is healthy for a country to take such an opportunity.

OB: But still there is the situation of a dominant Western system through which, it would seem, artists from Africa await an international visibility and legitimacy. How will Beyond Entropy respond to the geopolitical conditions of globalisation?

SRP: Firstly, I do not think that the Venice Biennale is a form of Western legitimisation. An artist should not have to go outside of Africa to achieve success, but I think this issue of migration derives from the market and artists go where there is money. Now there is incredible economic movement on the continent, and I’m sure that African artists will have the chance to remain in Africa.

The more active the African audience will be in collecting and promoting artworks, the more interesting it will be for artists to show their work in Africa. Soon the phenomenon will be symmetrical: one of the most interesting migrations will be artists from Europe and America going to work in Africa. This is something we are promoting through an ambitious residency programme, involving the invitation of contemporary African artists to Sardinia, as part of “Beyond Entropy Mediterranean”, to the open-air gallery of Mangiabarche and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Calasetta.

From our perspective there is no fixed entity but a constant transformation – every migration is welcomed. One of the consequences of the Biennale has been exposing many Angolan or African artists to new environments, artists desperately need to go away to explore the novelty and the differences of these contexts.

OB: Hopefully this work will strengthen cultural exchange and the consistent development of artistic production on the ground and will encourage an internal dialogue. Is Beyond Entropy Africa interested in building transnational bridges?

SRP: Our aim is to create an epicentre for cultural exchange. The art world is so frantic today, probably because the audience and the markets are becoming global. I believe that in a few years you will not have the usual group of American and European collectors buying art internationally, but symmetrically, you will have collectors from Africa buying international art. We are going to have a mix of everything everywhere; this will also be reflected in the art collected by Roundtable discussion with Beyond Entropy Undecided territory

Founded in 2011, the international organisation Beyond Entropy does not recognise a distinction between art, architecture and politics. Since the civil war ended in 2002, the oil-rich economy of Angola has become the fastest growing in Africa. The Lusophone nation’s influx of wealth has given way to serious urban redevelopment and infrastructural transformation, centred on its capital, Luanda. Acknowledging this, Beyond Entropy put forward a rigorous argument to encourage economic support to invest in creating a cultural point of view, impacting the reconstruction of Angola’s national identity. The product of this was “BE Angola”, a grassroots initiative that would take up the challenge of developing the inaugural participations of Angolan art and architectural pavilions at the Venice Biennale

The journey saw it win the prestigious Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. In advance of their installation at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Osei Bonsu discusses with Paula Nascimento (PN, director of Beyond Entropy Africa) and Stefano Pansera Rabolli (SPR, director of Beyond Entropy Ltd) the inner nature of Africa’s urban paradigm and the vibrancy of the continent’s contemporary art scene at a time of economic growth and political uncertainty.

OB: Stefano and Paula, what drew you to Africa, and particularly to Angola?

SRP: Beyond Entropy Africa is a collaboration between Paula Nascimento and myself. Paula and I met in 2004 while studying at the Architectural Association. In every context we operate in, we define a specific territorial condition from the point of view of Beyond Entropy. Any territory is interesting as long as there is something that doesn’t work; when there is a problem my curiosity is triggered. I am interested in the African cities like Luanda, where there are incredible paradoxes. For example, there are enormous African cities lacking in basic infrastructures, you have high-density yet no high-rise, among other conflicts and contradictions that a normal architectural model wouldn’t fully explain. Africa is a privileged context for Beyond Entropy, because the transformation, the growing population and the speed of development is mind-blowing.

PN: This is also an important moment for some African countries and I would dare to say for the continent as a whole. We are in a process of re-structuring, re-construction and re-building not just infrastructure (that has long been destroyed or neglected due to long wars in some places) but also, re-constructing our nation’s identity.

OB: We have come to know the Biennale as a compendium of ideas and trends in the contemporary art world. From your perspective, what does national participation and visibility at the event mean for Africa?

SRP: Participating in the Venice Biennale is significant because it triggers internal debates, conversation and activities within each country. The fact that we are still talking about the work of Edson Chagas, whose ‘Found not Taken’ series was presented at our exhibition, Luanda – Encyclopaedic City, is already a success of the [Angolan] pavilion. The possibility that young Angolan artists might present their works abroad or a young person, inspired by Edson, decides to become an artist – it is part of the chain reaction a national pavilion can trigger.

PN: In the last years there has been a growing interest in the contemporary arts produced in Africa. However, it is important not to view this as a trend but to understand that there has been a long tradition of art production, not just crafts, and [that it needs to] retrieve its place in the history of the arts. For that to happen, Africans themselves also have to take a standpoint.

OB: But there is still a discrepancy between the considerable wealth and the indifference of African states to contemporary creation. There are still only five states hosting national pavilions. What is preventing more African countries from participating?

SRP: Last year, when Paula and I decided to develop the project of the arts pavilion, we asked the Angolan Minister of Culture for economic support. It was Beyond Entropy’s initiative to ask the government to participate – we formed a proposal for a pavilion and the minister accepted. I think that the reason why there are so few African pavilions in participation is not because of the lack of artists, but because of some sort of lack of political will to participate. Sometimes the political vision is missing and sometimes it is about financial means.

PN: I agree with Stefano. One can add, perhaps, the fact that sometimes governments and institutions fail to understand the benefits of participating in such events.

OB: It could be said that Angola and other African governments have a primary responsibility to commit to infrastructural developments to support local cultural production. Considering this, and the instability of the global economic situation, why is cultural exportation even important?

SRP: The countries should do everything possible to participate, and there has been an incredible initiative by the Venice Biennale to invite as many countries as possible. It is important to participate in the Biennale as it provides an opportunity to activate debate within each country as well as to expose artists to the international audience. The national pavilion may be considered an old-fashioned model, in an era where national states are collapsing. Still, I believe that national participations are important because of the geopolitical encounter where different countries express a position on a shared theme. I think it is healthy for a country to take such an opportunity.

OB: But still there is the situation of a dominant Western system through which, it would seem, artists from Africa await an international visibility and legitimacy. How will Beyond Entropy respond to the geopolitical conditions of globalisation?

SRP: Firstly, I do not think that the Venice Biennale is a form of Western legitimisation. An artist should not have to go outside of Africa to achieve success, but I think this issue of migration derives from the market and artists go where there is money. Now there is incredible economic movement on the continent, and I’m sure that African artists will have the chance to remain in Africa.

The more active the African audience will be in collecting and promoting artworks, the more interesting it will be for artists to show their work in Africa. Soon the phenomenon will be symmetrical: one of the most interesting migrations will be artists from Europe and America going to work in Africa. This is something we are promoting through an ambitious residency programme, involving the invitation of contemporary African artists to Sardinia, as part of “Beyond Entropy Mediterranean”, to the open-air gallery of Mangiabarche and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Calasetta.

From our perspective there is no fixed entity but a constant transformation – every migration is welcomed. One of the consequences of the Biennale has been exposing many Angolan or African artists to new environments, artists desperately need to go away to explore the novelty and the differences of these contexts.

OB: Hopefully this work will strengthen cultural exchange and the consistent development of artistic production on the ground and will encourage an internal dialogue. Is Beyond Entropy Africa interested in building transnational bridges?

SRP: Our aim is to create an epicentre for cultural exchange. The art world is so frantic today, probably because the audience and the markets are becoming global. I believe that in a few years you will not have the usual group of American and European collectors buying art internationally, but symmetrically, you will have collectors from Africa buying international art. We are going to have a mix of everything everywhere; this will also be reflected in the art collected by the continent’s national museums.

Today you may find the most glamorous parties in Luanda or witness one of the fastest growing economies in Ghana. I have the impression that many of the preconceived notions about Africa are totally out of place. The world is developing much faster than we would have expected and today artists from Africa have incredible perspectives to form new discourses and fresh positions. Changes in art are always triggered by social and political transformations. African artists will develop new aesthetics to make sense of the dramatic and radical changes that are happening in African cities.

PN: There is a lot to be done (at times from scratch) and there is a chance to avoid certain mistakes that have been made in other regions. It is a challenge to stop and reflect on the models that are being implemented based on either European, American or Asian ones and on the other hand, look without prejudice or preconceptions at what exists, at the potential of what is characteristic of the African cities and acknowledge there is a need for a paradigm shift. continent’s national museums.

Today you may find the most glamorous parties in Luanda or witness one of the fastest growing economies in Ghana. I have the impression that many of the preconceived notions about Africa are totally out of place. The world is developing much faster than we would have expected and today artists from Africa have incredible perspectives to form new discourses and fresh positions. Changes in art are always triggered by social and political transformations. African artists will develop new aesthetics to make sense of the dramatic and radical changes that are happening in African cities.

PN: There is a lot to be done (at times from scratch) and there is a chance to avoid certain mistakes that have been made in other regions. It is a challenge to stop and reflect on the models that are being implemented based on either European, American or Asian ones and on the other hand, look without prejudice or preconceptions at what exists, at the potential of what is characteristic of the African cities and acknowledge there is a need for a paradigm shift.

This interview was originally published by New African in October, 2013 © Osei Bonsu, 2013.