London’s Tate Modern takes a new view of Africa

The recent appointment of Elvira Dyangani Ose as the curator of international art at Tate Modern with a focus on Africa marks a significant development not just for the recognition of art from the continent, but also because it shows how the gallery is expanding the boundaries of modern art to become more inclusive.

Dyangani Ose’s position, which is supported by a Nigerian company, the Guaranty Trust Bank, is part of the Tate’s remit to acquire contemporary African art for its collection.

Born and raised in Spain but with roots in Equatorial Guinea, Dyangani Ose studied art history in Barcelona, where she was encouraged by her professor to exhibit art. Her first curatorial experience involved pop-up exhibitions in the early 1990s, organised with fellow students in the university’s corridors, rooms and gardens, and featured the work of young urban artists working outside the mainstream.

Her own journey into African art was atypical. She did not conform to the notion that “because I was black and I was African, I had to research African art”. In fact, she did the opposite.

“I was interested in other subjects. I wanted to talk about cities, how individuals can change a given space and can produce a social space from there,” Dyangani Ose said.

Later, she became more aware of African art, studying the path of socialism in Africa and discovering how colonial cities were transformed after independence. She looked at how artists reflected on change  “and that was to me a first access to Africa, through the idea of the city”.

One of her first exhibitions in Spain explored perceptions about art in Equitorial Guinea and the ways in which contemporary writers, rappers and artists “were challenging the notion of the Guinea [that] people have in their minds”. 

She was appointed curator at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in Las Palmas on Grand Canary. The island is geographically closer to Africa than Spain and is a showcase of African art.

A new language

One of her exhibitions there, ­Olvida Quién Soy (Erase Me from Who I Am), focused on South African art. It included the work of 14 artists who deal with issues of representation and was organised with three South African curators “because the idea of working collaboratively is something that really interests me”.

Dyangani Ose is fascinated by “the way in which artists’ collectives in different African cities challenge the notion of public space and the public sphere”, such as the Gugulective in South Africa.

These collectives “create another sense of community which runs in parallel” and “subvert or disrupt the boundaries between the artists and the audience to try to create art in society — a new language”.

Under her guidance, the Tate will run projects to complement the work it acquires. “It will be a platform to present the here and now of the continent — mainly to present artists, but also building up expertise and networks to develop several initiatives in different cities in Africa.”

The projects will involve events, such as exhibitions, films or performances, to provide a dialogue between artists and networks in Africa and the Tate — “to create a mutually beneficial exchange with different art scenes”.

The Tate’s African art acquisition programme would suggest it is planning exhibitions of modern African art, but again Dyangani Ose refused to be drawn on the details, given that major exhibitions can take years to plan. “The process of collecting is very meticulous and slow,” she said.

But there is “an incredible transformative aspect” to the opening up of the Tate collection and making it more inclusive. Revealing what the Tate has acquired so far “could jeopardise the process”.

Reassessment of modernity

“In the case of African artists, it will tell a story about international art in which you necessarily need to include these [African] artists, and I think that is a pioneering undertaking. It’s about giving more visibility to these works.”

By focusing on modernity in an African context, the Tate is hoping it will lead to a reassessment of modernity in relation to all art and thus tell a different history of modern art.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of history of art we are going to create, what kind of history of art the Tate collection will narrate. This is an organic process,” Dyangani Ose said.

The programme also aims to challenge established ideas about African art. “African art, in a sense, is partly an invention but also partly a set of values — cultural characteristics that are shared among many countries and many cultures and communities. It takes in the entire continent and it looks at a larger definition of Africanness. That includes, of course, the diaspora.”

The Tate’s programme will create platforms for debate and to confront those definitions.

The Tate has branched out to include Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives.

I asked: Would there ever be a Tate Africa, or would that be an act of neocolonialism?

“You’ll have to ask my senior colleagues,” Dyangani Ose said, laughing and brushing aside any suggestion of colonialism. “This can only be a dialogue of peers, period.”

What this dialogue might involve she will not say.

“Something will be happening very soon. You will hear about it.”

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