There are possibly as many (and as varied) African diasporas as there are countries and cultures in Africa. However, it is possible to speak about two very broad categories. The first being the historical diaspora, with a centuries-old throwback to experienced existing exclusively in the diaspora. Culture and identities were (and are) forged through this shared experience, which includes a merging with and contribution to the building of identities in countries of the New World such as the USA, Brazil, the Caribbean and so on. Culture, history and identity play crucial roles in forging worldviews and – more importantly – in shaping contemporary art practices. In this context, category merge clouds the importance of different concerns that both African and African-American artists deal with – especially in the wake of important issues such as the race discourse in the USA – while many African art scenes struggle to lobby their governments to support the arts through establishing international-quality art education, collecting institutions and industry infrastructure.
The second broad category is the contemporary African diaspora that has emerged post-colonially and includes the large number of artists currently residing in Europe and North America. Intellectually, however, this diaspora – especially in the first generations – has its own unique emotional and traumatic signifiers, which immediately differentiate the work of diasporan artists from those who remain at home. They go from being part of a majority culture to being part of a minority (with all that entails), from feeling at ease within their society and context to struggling to learn, from responding to their environment to being at one with it, to looking at their past through the lens of the present and looking at their new society as an outsider.
It should be further noted that three out of the ‘African’ eight were from Cape Town. This is absolutely not the paradigm, which represents the vast majority of artists on the continent. Most do not have independent means to travel and their African passports alone make independent travel difficult, if not impossible, as most visa applications require an invitation to specific projects and some form of sponsorship or endorsement. This paradigm, however, does describe the minority of artists with dual citizenship, independent means and international gallery representation – at least for those who are interested in and able to play along with foreign funding.
In particular, this immediately privileges diasporan artists and artists with the means and opportunity to travel and become diasporic. It also suggests to the new generation of African artists that leaving is the best way to advance your career. Currently thousands of artists living on the continent and choosing to remain on the continent are disadvantaged, if they want to pursue practices not attuned to funding concerns, or don’t have the means or the skills for writing grant applications, or ease of access to the internet – none of which hampers someone living in the diaspora.
While we celebrate the successes of all Africans everywhere, it is also important to keep sight of the issues that are the major priorities in building up art sectors on the continent, the mandate for achieving which belongs first and foremost to practitioners who live and work there. The push to blend into the international market and art scene creates a blur, in which the available platforms and opportunities serve to amplify diasporan concerns and cultural imperatives over and above those of the entire continent. Once we redress the imbalance, we will have a conversation among peers and a synergy in partnership, which is empowering to all.
Valerie Kabov is an art historian with a focus on cultural policy and cultural economics. Her research, writing and educational practice ranges from interculturality and globalisation, emerging art sectors and sustainability as well as art market analysis. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Education and International Projects at First Floor Gallery Harare, Zimbabwe’s first independent, international, contemporary emerging artist led gallery and educational space.
This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of ART AFRICA vol.01, issue.04, 'The North American Issue'.