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It’s Africa’s turn at the Tate

Since the building of the great modern art museums in New York, Paris and London, the narrative of 20th-century and contemporary art has been told, by and large, through the stories of European and North American cities.

But the Tate galleries in London have announced that it is time to look further afield. “There is not a crisis in British or European art,” said Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, “but we are conscious that art is being made across the world and those areas outside Europe and North America cannot be regarded as the periphery.”

Tate will reflect its new international focus through a two-year programme of activities focused on Africa, beginning on November 24. Events will include performance works in the new Tate Tanks by Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga and Angolan Nastio Mosquito. Next year, Tate Modern will show an extensive work by Benin artist Meschac Gaba. Titled Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002 and occupying 12 sections or “rooms”, it acts as a playful, questioning museum, while also highlighting that no such thing as a museum of contemporary African art exists.

Next year, Tate Modern will also show Britain’s first major exhibition of work by Ibrahim El-Salahi. He studied at the Slade in London and returned to Sudan in the 1970s, where he was wrongfully imprisoned. Now settled in Oxford, his work mingles European modernist influences with Arabic, African and Islamic visual ideas.

“We are recognising that we need to collect across the world. There is no single centre for modern and contemporary art and it certainly isn’t London or New York,” said Serota.

For the past decade, Tate has been actively collecting from outside Europe and North America. In 2002, a collecting committee — consisting of curators from Tate and private collectors — was founded to pursue art from Latin America. This has been gradually followed by committees focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Russia and eastern Europe and Africa.

Frances Morris, who heads Tate’s international activities, described the committees as “rather like exclusive book clubs” containing like-minded people who may be originally from the region focused on. Each member pays £10 000 to sit on the body — money that supports the acquisition budget of each committee, which is otherwise drawn from sources including Tate’s government grant in aid, its endowment and its Friends scheme. Individual committee members may donate further to support individual purchases. Tate spends £4-million to £5-million a year on acquiring art, of which just less than £2-million is spent by the international acquisition committees.

Serota denied that Tate could stand accused of a neocolonial programme of removing a country’s best art. Elvira Dyangani Ose, a curator who specialises in African art at the Tate, said: “It is important for African art to be part of a major international narrative. We are not taking everything out of Africa, but we need to tell the whole story of modernity.” ©  Guardian News & Media 2012

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