Contemporary African art is commonly understood to be art made by artists in Africa and the African diaspora in the post-independence era. However, there are about as many understandings of contemporary African art as there are curators, scholars and artists working in that field. All three terms of this “wide-reaching non-category are problematic in themselves: What exactly is “contemporary”, what makes art “African”, and when are we talking about art and not any other kind of creative expression?

Western scholars and curators have made numerous attempts at defining contemporary African art since the 1990s and early 2000s and proposed a range of categories and genres. They triggered heated debates and controversies, especially on the foundations of postcolonial critique. Recent trends indicate a far more relaxed engagement with definitions and identity ascription. The global presence and entanglement of Africa and its contemporary artists have become a widely acknowledged fact that still requires and provokes critical reflection, but finds itself beyond the pressure of self-justification.

Although African art has always been contemporary to its producers, the term “contemporary African art” implies a particular kind of art that has conquered, or, as some would say, has been absorbed by the international art world and art market since the 1980s. It is in that decade when Europe and the United States became aware of art made in Africa by individual artists, thus breaking with the colonial tradition of assuming collective “ethnic” origins of so-called “tribal art” as found in most ethnographic collections. The exhibition Magiciens de la terre by Jean-Hubert Martin in 1989 is widely considered (but also challenged as) a key exhibition in this very recent history of international reception of African and other non-western art. However, this reception, too, has its roots in an exotic and mystifying view on African culture from a dominant western position, as Rasheed Araeen argued in his response to Magiciens de la terre.

Therefore, although this exhibition and many that followed had a strong influence in creating a kind of a common understanding of what constitutes contemporary African art, it is true that it has been and still is subject to discussions and controversies. Almost every exhibition following Magiciens de la terre offered a taxonomy or system of categorization that helped to reflect the very notion of contemporary African art, but they failed to recognize the postcolonial need of giving up the Eurocentric epistemology.

Contemporary African art is believed to feature particularities typical to African aesthetics, while at the same time it shares properties with other international contemporary arts. Therefore, it is both, shaped by and feeding into the globalizing art worlds and art markets, like any other contemporary art. At the same time, there are a lot of contemporary art practices and forms in African regions and cities that are almost exclusively locally known. While meeting all three requirements of being contemporary, art, and African, they fail to fit into a certain type of art production that has been spreading on the international art market since at least the 1980s.

Exhibitions variously showed work by artists based in Africa; by artists using aesthetics typical to African traditions; by African artists living in the West but including aesthetics and topics related to their “roots”; traditional artworks related to customary practices such as rituals; and urban African art that reflects the modern experience of cultural pluralism and hybridity. Modernity as a colonial and postcolonial experience appears as an intrinsic and significant attribute in most conceptions of contemporary African art. Scholars and curators therefore have proposed a wide range of taxonomies that tried firstly to define what is African about this art, and secondly, the range of genres it covers. Diverse attempts to define particular genres of contemporary African art, however, mirrored the fascination of art scholars and curators for the appropriation of cultural elements from assumed “Western” into “African” modes of expression and traditions.


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