Barthélémy Toguo
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critics / critiques 

John Peffer,
The Diaspora as Object
in Art Africa, 2005.

Barthélémy Toguo’s remarkable entry in the 1998 Dak’art Biennale of Contemporary African Art bore the stamp of an approach to both the materiality and the concept of Africa that has been breathing new life into the international art scene. A modest sculpture about the size of a tabletop, it was portable and made of wood, in the manner of those kinds of marvelous objects that were easily included in a visitor’s baggage during the colonial era and after, and that corresponded in size and technique to what Europeans could comprehend as art. But Toguo’s object made fun of that history: his portable African art looked more like a big French Champagne cork than a Dogon shrine figure (Fig. 1). What was he celebrating? It was in fact a temporary residence permit for France, of the sort that is both highly desired by and often refused to residents of Europe’s former colonies. Through art, Toguo was reimagining the carte de séjour as an unwieldy thing—the official yet arbitrary bar between the homeland in the neocolonial world and the phantasmatic promised land of economic self-sufficiency, fame, and intellectual fulfillment in the West. [1]

One method for understanding the significance of art like this, which is characteristic of a growing number of contemporary African artists who live abroad, is to consider the history of the discursive uses and aesthetic valuation of the idea of an African “diaspora” in art. This is important because what has been called “contemporary African art” has often in fact been diasporan. As a result of this history of conflation, African artists in Europe and America today, subject to novel forms of diaspora, are both privileged and burdened by their increasing visibility in elite international art venues. Much of the new art shifts “diaspora” from a subject-speaking position into an object-in-question. It thus holds the potential to offer a crucial insight into the current global condition. Still, this insight has its own international borders.

The Subject of Diaspora

James Clifford has argued that to articulate “diaspora” has meant becoming a specific kind of subject of history, one not fully contained by the political discourses of the nation-state. The word “diaspora” derives from the early Greeks, for whom it meant dispersion—literally a “complete sowing abroad”—and was linked to ideas of migration and colonization in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean in the Archaic period, 800–600 b.c. In the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Septuagint (Deuteronomy 28:25), it described the displacement of Jews exiled from Palestine after the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the Temple in 586 b.c.: “Thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth.”[2] Thus the formerly positive connotation of societies spread across and within different political and cultural geographies was turned into a term of oppression and victimhood, where the self is confined within the realm of the other. In the modern era the term has been used as self-descriptive by communities of Armenians, South Asians, Palestinians, Irish, and others. Most notable are the African communities in the New World after the era of the Atlantic slave trade. These too have powerfully embraced the biblical invocation of “Babylon,” slipping its meaning into a code word for the West or America, the new home of captivity, moral corruption, and alienation.[3] Characteristic of many, but not all, diaspora communities are a shared history of violent removal from a home territory, ahistorical projections of purity and timelessness onto the “homeland,” dreams of reconnection and return to the homeland, collective efforts to assimilate within hostile host cultures, and marginalization, often continuing for generations, on the basis of perceived ethnic, religious, or racial difference in their present home.

For many the shared experience of marginalization in the new home subordinates any experience of attachment to the homeland. For some, the history of being treated as “others” from within is perhaps the strongest point of common identification from which to construct an idea of community. As Clifford observes, “Diasporas are caught up with and defined against the norms of nation-states.”[4] Following Paul Gilroy, he claims that diaspora discourse constructs “alternate public spheres, forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference.”[5] In the particular context of what Gilroy calls the “black Atlantic,” connecting Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and Britain, the term “diaspora” is a sign of “political struggles to define the local, as distinctive community, in historical contexts of displacement.”[6]

Identification with the “land of origin” may be a site of ambivalence for many in diasporan communities, for whom “literal return to a well-preserved homeland” may in fact be undesirable.[7] With Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and the African-American colony of Liberia as perhaps the two greatest historical exceptions, the development of a collective myth about the nature of Africa and, especially since the 1960s, the re-creation of an Afrocentric culture in the diaspora have not led to any large-scale migrations of people (except as tourists) back to the continent. Of course African-Americans’ ambivalence about Africa as their “real home,” as opposed to the site of their collective rootedness, need not preclude a heightened and active interest in continental African affairs. Even so, after several generations of residence, even citizenship, and despite the ongoing and painful experience of structural racism, Africans in the “New World” for the most part aspire to the same values as the general American cultural mainstream. This largely shared aspect of an in-common American upbringing and world view is eloquently evoked in Sanford Biggers’s collaborative video with Jennifer Zackin, a small world... (2000), which juxtaposes middle-class Jewish and black families’ silent super-8 home movies in a 5 1/2-minute loop. The images of piano lessons, trips to Disneyland, and vacations at the beach look mundanely similar, and occasionally switch sides on the screen. What is edited from view, and lies outside this domestic framing of the American quotidian as a commonly middle-class aspiration, is the political history of marginalization of the subjects’ communities.[8]<

One could also read this situation in reverse since, as a long genealogy of commentators as diverse as W. E. B. Du Bois and Robert Farris Thompson have convincingly asserted, American culture en masse is itself in many ways defined by the African-American experience and has been created in large part by African-American cultural contributions. The extent to which this debt is repressed in mainstream culture may also be definitional of the American experience.

Africa in America

Another kind of ambivalence about the site of origin is caught up in primitivizing and anachronistic ideas more reflective of the hegemonic prejudices of the new home than of any real historical experience of the projected homeland. Especially when historical migration has been the result of a conquest of the native land by a foreign power, it is a common conceit of diasporans to feel the impulse to improve the lot of their supposedly backward compatriots in the homeland. They feel that their tragic passage from old world to new, into the center of the oppressor’s culture, has resulted in a net gain in worldly advancement and moral righteousness, and that it is their mission to help civilize both their provincial brethren and their fellow citizens.[9] In the American context, Alain Locke, the principal theoretician of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, was interested in the new forms of creativity made possible through the cosmopolitan matrix of Africans, West Indians, and black Americans from North and South who were converging in New York’s Harlem and other centers after World War I. He recognized that class differentiation and cultural differences no longer made it possible to regard the “Negro” en masse, even though the greatest experience of these different groups was the finding of one another in the metropolis. It was through, “proscription and prejudice . . . [that] these dissimilar elements [were thrown] into a common area of contact and interaction.”[10]

This coming together of disparate elements of the black world was not a phenomenon whose effects were kept insular. On the contrary, “As with the Jew,” Locke claimed, “persecution is making the Negro international.”[11] One product of this new diasporan cosmopolitanism was a growing consciousness “of acting as the advance-guard of the African peoples in their contact with Twentieth Century civilization.”[12] In Locke’s view, the moral position gained by Africans in the diaspora was a vantage from which to oversee future affairs in the New World, the Old World, and Africa.

For the black diaspora in America, Locke especially stressed the role of art as a kind of creative enactment of a coming-to-greater-self-awareness within the double consciousness previously proposed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. This Janus view was the product of seeing and living in two worlds simultaneously: the African and the American, the mainstream (white) world and the generalized, marginalized, and stigmatized world of a (black) minority. Art, for Locke, needed to be doubly conscious, and to compose the complex values of a marginalized people while paradoxically operating from within the mainstream. Critical too was Locke’s characterization of 1920s Harlem as already comprising a sort of doubled diaspora formation with other diasporas within it, including Africans, Carribeans, and rural Southerners. At the penultimate moment before the current formulation of the idea of a modern black diaspora, its actual site of “origin,” Harlem, was already a hybrid entity.

“Contemporary African Art” and Diaspora

The great irony of the African modernists of an earlier generation may be that it was the experience of living in the diaspora, outside Africa, that enabled them to engage more thoughtfully with images and ideas from Africa’s history. Perhaps the best-known African modernist, who lived in the diaspora from the 1960s until his passing earlier this year, was Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian. In 1955, Boghossian, who was raised in Ethiopia and whose father was an Armenian expatriate, traveled to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. He later moved to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and at La Grande Chaumière, remaining in the city for the next ten years to teach, make art, and absorb the cultural and political life of 1960s France. There Boghossian knew artists and thinkers of the Negritude and Surrealist movements, and commenced a life-long interest in Ethiopian Christian and vernacular art after viewing the collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He returned to Ethiopia in the mid-1960s, then moved at the time of the revolution to the United States where he taught several generations of young artists at Howard University in Washington, D.C.[13] Yet despite living abroad for almost forty years, Boghossian is seldom referred to as a diasporan or Ameri can artist.[14] Instead, like other expatriates of his generation such as Ernest Mancoba, Uzo Egonu, Gerard Sekoto, Ibrahim el Salahi, and Iba Ndiyae, his work has more commonly been described as “contemporary African art.” Though I think it can be valuable to include Boghossian’s work (and the work of these others) in this category, and thereby to complexify the meaning of “contemporary African art” as something without a fixed geography, it may also be rewarding to think of it in terms of how it relates to the idea of diaspora.

When categorized as an “Ethiopian” artist, Boghossian may be seen to have been a bearer of culture, one who carried within him the past traditions of his people. As a “diasporan” artist, on the other hand, he was an interpreter of the ocean of cultural signs from the past for future generations. Though Boghossian relished his status as an influential Ethiopian artist, his artistic aims were the antithesis of provincialism. His art stressed what he saw as the essential connection between all the art and music of the African and diasporan cultural worlds within the flux of a larger and more encompassing universal world civilization.[15] Although it was in Paris that Boghossian first began to study Ethiopian art history seriously, was it because he was himself from Ethiopia that, while this art was “new” to him, it presented itself as somewhat familiar? Is this why it was so exactingly encountered in his art? While studying in Paris, Boghossian was also studying the city itself, its life, its climate of intellectual and aesthetic debate. In Paris he was also studying Africa, both his own Ethiopian heritage and the pan-African world view espoused by the Negritude movement.[16] Was it not precisely his own mobility between cultural zones that piqued Boghossian’s aesthetic perspicacity? As he himself once said, “Nobody is a prophet in his own country.”[17]

Fig. 2 Cowboy, USA, 1972, by Skunder Boghossian. Oil paint on drum skin with metal rim, 187 x 125 cm. Collection of The Studio Museum in Harlem, gift of the artists. Photo: Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem.One place to begin is the artist’s autograph, which Boghossian often signed in both Amharic and Roman letters—surely a mark that he was contemplating a kind of split subjectivity not unrelated to the double consciousness proposed long ago by Du Bois. Or consider, for example, his Cowboy U.S.A. (1972), made after his permanent move to the United States and the beginnings of his involvement with intellectuals in the Black Power movement (Fig. 2).[18] The image shows the Eastern (and Ethiopian) Orthodox Christian hero Saint George slaying a dragon. Is this a sign of Boghossian’s identification with the famed black cowboys and “buffalo soldiers” later eulogized by Bob Marley as a historical reference for black revolutionaries? Here the dragon, an ecclesiastical sign of uncivilized and ungodly evil, is Americanized with flaglike stars and stripes instead of scales. After the manner of traditional Ethiopian painting on vellum, the image is painted on a leather drum skin, which has been removed from its instrument, spread wide as if flayed, and turned into a standard or shield also reminiscent of a Native American artifact. The overall theme is menacing but the drum has been attached to a new rim, a metal bicycle wheel, which adds an air of whimsy to the composition. Cowboy U.S.A. combines the roles of symbolic warrior, native healer, shaman, mythic hero, and crusader against injustice in the new Babylon into a reassemblage of what is most potent in the diffusion of the world’s cultures.

A number of diasporan artists, like Boghossian, have been inclined to reiterate the space of Africa as dispersed within the universal civilization of mankind, and to reroute the universalist presumptions of high modernism as the result. One might take an even more radical position, especially in reference to émigré artists like Boghossian, and agree with Rasheed Araeen’s assertion that for this earlier generation, “The movement of artists from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to the west was also not between different cultures but a movement within the same culture defined and constructed by modernity.”[19]

Araeen claims further that, as with their European modernist peers like Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, who were also émigrés to the cultural capitals of their day, “It was essential for them to transgress not only the cultures they left behind but also their experiences of exile.”[20] Thus an art that keeps two worlds in view need not merely represent two distinct experiences of two different geographic or cultural locales, placing them side-by-side and not saying much else. It can also be critical of both sides of the spinning coin of identity, by suggesting their intimate (and often painful) fusion. The diasporan predicament of seeing double can be a disorienting subject position from which to make civilizational demands upon both the old homeland and the new home. In this regard Araeen is quite close to the political spirit of Du Bois./p>

Identity? Get lost

It is all very well to go traveling, but one of the inescapable consequences of letting go or getting lost is that you can never really go home as the same “someone” that you were before. During the history of Modernity, most people thought the loss of “home” was a tragedy: today, art suggests it may sometimes be one of life’s little necessities.[21]

The art of the pioneering twentieth-century artists of African descent created a visual space for subjective enunciation from within the double view of diaspora. In fact it gave plastic form to such a double consciousness. Theirs was an art of the place-marking gesture, like the spot on the empty canvas that enables the painter to begin a composition. Over the past decade a younger generation of African diasporan artists, who have come to artistic maturity in the post–Cold War era, have been reaping what was sown by their predecessors—whether they are aware of it or not—and are questioning the very ground of subjectivity itself. What has changed? Among other things, the old dichotomous thinking about us and them, self and other, Africa and the West, has become harder to justify in simple terms. Also, as Laura Bigman has shown, the social composition of African diasporans newly arrived to the United States after the 1970s was different in character from earlier forms of migration, whether forced or voluntary.[22]

n relative terms this new African diaspora is much smaller than that formed by the Atlantic slave trade, yet it has been highly visible in the public arena. Bigman argues that its members “tended to be from the more affluent, educated sectors of their own societies, in part because U.S. law functioned as a net filtering in those most likely to assimilate to American society.”[23] She cites Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Egypt as countries where the United States had “strategic interests” and where English was one of the official languages—thus facilitating greater mobility between countries.[24] These migrants were, at first, following in the footsteps of the many first presidents of postindependence Africa who had attended colleges in the United States, such as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah. Often intending only a temporary stay, in order to attend an educational institution in the United States and to use that degree as leverage for elite employment back home, many found themselves stranded with few prospects in Africa when major foreign aid to the continent was withdrawn after the Cold War officially ended in 1989. These new diasporans are often quite critical of a political scene back in Africa that has become progressively more draconian and has made returning to their families difficult.[25] It is not coincidence that these are the same expatriates are currently being promoted as the “next wave” in contemporary African art.

Why enumerate these dry sociological details? Because, having schematically outlined a history of relations between modernist diasporans and their use of “African images,” it is important also to tease apart the social context of production in which “contemporary African artists” in the diaspora are enmeshed. As a parallel phenomenon, how has the idea of diaspora itself changed? Currently, the concept of diaspora may be seen to be positioned among an array of such buzzwords as “border,” “creolization,” “transculturation,” “hybridity,” and so on, all attempting to describe intercultural contact zones and transnational cultures. As an example of the dispersal of this terminology within popular and academic discourse, Clifford cites the mobile definition proposed in the inaugural issue of the journal Diaspora: “The term that once described Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersion now shares meanings with a larger semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guest-worker, exile community, overseas community, ethnic community. . . . ”[26] Because of increased access to air travel and telecommunications, separate geographic places can now, more thoroughly than before, encompass a single vital community: sections of New York City, for instance, can be said to be continuous with the transnational culture of the Caribbean.[27] The idea of what a diaspora is has correspondingly become more diffuse, and has cross-pollinated in other discourses.

As much as older and more distant geographic connections are being secured, multiple connections to multiple cultural histories are being combined in novel ways within the mobile sites of diasporas today. Among younger members of diasporan communities, cultural practices and forms of self-identification are more cosmopolitan and more globally inflected than ever before, especially for those “whose initial socialization has taken place within the cross-currents of more than one cultural field, and whose ongoing forms of cultural expression and identity are often self-consciously selected, syncretized and elaborated from more than one cultural heritage.”[28] This has in part been possible, according to Robin Cohen, because, where previously one’s citizenship in the modern nation state took official precedence over other forms of affiliation, diasporic allegiances are more open and more acceptable in this “age of globalization.”[29] It should be noted, though, that as participants in a Western-centered international culture, diasporan artists often relate to “their own culture” as if it were the “other.”[30] These artists are here now, and nowhere. They are temporally present and thus contemporary, but they are spatially always “in transit,” unsettled, and doubly alienated.

The diasporan condition, it ought to be noted, is not solely characteristic of marginalized groups or “communities of color” residing in the heart of the West. It is crucial to be clear about this point, since the vast majority of international population movements during the entire modern period, despite popular perceptions to the contrary, have been of Europeans. Cohen notes,

"In the period from 1500 to 1914 somewhere between 60 and 65 million Europeans participated in international migration, compared with a combined total of about 15 million African and Asian intercontinental migrants [including the forced migration of Africans through the slave trade]. Even in the period 1945 to 1975, when Europe became a major destination zone, the numbers leaving Europe for other continents probably constituted about half the global total of intercontinental migrants. This centrality is, of course, somewhat ironic as the nativist and racist movements that have mushroomed in European countries during the past decade seek to represent Europe as a timeless, stable, undisturbed continent threatened by hordes of restless foreign immigrants, particularly those with black, brown, or yellow skins."[31]

It is not just “somewhat ironic,” of course, that those whose perceived cultural difference, and whose social status as economic competition, is signaled so readily by the color of their skin are singled out by neotraditionalists and nativists as scapegoats for their own sense of disillusionment with the modern world. Was it not the “complete sowing abroad” of European peoples and cultural ideals during the imperial and colonial spread of the West that blazed the trail for the later “blowback” of Africans, Caribbeans, and others from the ex-colonies into the West? Unlike the colonial presence in Africa, which attempted to remake the world by imposing Western political domination and rewriting local customs,[32] the reply and “return” of ex-colonial subjects to the West has been characterized more by the insinuation of other people and other ideas from within.[33] Iain Chambers has described this situation as a destabilization of the colonial dichotomy of “us and them”: “From elsewhere arrive the ‘them’ who refuse to remain ‘them,’ but who at the same time refuse simply to become ‘us’; that is, who refuse to negate either the ‘roots’ or the ‘routes’ that render a ‘there’ also a ‘here.’”[34]

Just as the journey of Western visual and verbal languages beyond Europe’s geographic borders historically deprovincialized Europe,[35] the semantic alteration of Western codes has permanently altered both the ex-colonies and the former colonizers, for better or worse. In this regard Salman Rushdie has remarked provocatively that English, “no longer an English language, now grows from many roots; and those whom it once colonized are carving out large territories within the language for themselves.”[36]

If one wished to stretch to the theoretical limits of “diaspora,” the condition can even be read as a visible reminder of the universal human condition itself. In that perspective, the social phenomenon of diaspora, and the experience of marginality, are universal metaphors for the individual’s psychological makeup, especially in the increasingly dramatic intersection of the world’s cultures today. The approach is based on an adaptation to postcolonial studies of Lacanian psychoanalytic ideas about the “split” nature of human subjectivity, which is perpetually “lost” in a journey of self-discovery and self-invention. As Chambers writes,

"The migrant’s sense of being rootless, of living between worlds, between a lost past and a nonintegrated present, is perhaps the most fitting metaphor of this (post) modern condition. This underlines the theme of diaspora, not only black, also Jewish, Indian, Islamic, Palestinian, and draws us into the process whereby the previous margins now fold into the center."[37]

Elsewhere Chambers elaborates the idea that art is a potentially privileged site for such an opening up of political and social representations, especially because of its role in remaking the meaning of everyday images. It is through art, he claims, that

ideas about ourselves, about our democracy, our citizenship, our identity, are historically radicalized and transmuted into temporal processes. Here they are rendered open-ended and vulnerable to the journey of interpretation, to the interruption of an ongoing, worldly interrogation… Any narrative… renders the universal story many of us think we are living, more localized, limited, unsettled. [38]

Double Privilege and Double Burden

Although it is valuable to keep in mind this highly metaphoric view of the diasporan condition as a kind of privileged critical agency, I would argue that in day-to-day practice it is precisely because of their visible “racial” difference that certain diasporan communities continue to be held accountable for a social uprootedness that is in fact widely shared. Within the West, members of the African diaspora are a constant visible reminder of the current “global condition” (as are others from the “Third World”), and as such are in a tenuously privileged position to represent it, in artistic and political discourse. One could go farther and say that they are expected by the general public, including members of their own communities, to represent—to paint the picture of, to enact bodily, and to politically stand in for—the current condition of globalization and postmodernity. It is because of this onerous racial burden to “represent” that Kobena Mercer and Paul Gilroy have suggested, in the context of black British art, that the long history of expectation with regard to “the social responsibility of the (black) artist” needs to be questioned. Where for Locke this “burden” of black artists was a demand, even an honor, for Mercer and Gilroy this representational weight is seen as more of a curse: continually to begin from scratch, and to represent the black (diasporan) world as monolithic, in its entirety, every time.[39]

In 1999 a select group of young “African” artists, all under forty, were invited to participate in a series of exhibitions and symposia titled “Cry of My Birth” at the Art Institute of Chicago.[40] The events were intended to break open new ways of thinking about Africa and its art in this postgeographic age.[41] Interestingly, none of the artists included—Siemon Allen, Ghada Amer, Moshekwa Langa, Julie Mehretu, and Fatimah Tuggar—had lived in Africa for years. They were billed as “South African, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Nigerian,” but not as diasporans, which in fact all of them were.[42] These are some of the finest artists working today, and the premise for the show was a potentially challenging one, and yet . . . it was indicative of a larger trend in exhibitions on “contemporary African art,” which seem to have multiplied exponentially since the mid-1990s. These shows frame the artists, sometimes despite the overt content of their work, within the confines of “identity discourse.”[43] And they privilege diasporans as representatives of Africa.

I would adapt Mercer’s and Gilroy’s critiques of black representation to the practice of the current group of “contemporary African artists.” Their art is doubly privileged and doubly burdened. Their condition as transnationals gives them improved access to international structures for education and exhibition, and they also “see in two worlds” in the manner proposed long ago by Du Bois. Their vision of the world is thus privileged because it is circumspect. Their visibility is also greater than that of most artists residing in Africa, since they have better access to the platforms for exposure afforded by the (mostly Western-oriented) circuit of international biennials and exhibitions.[44] Still, they are burdened by the fact that their entry into the art world is largely on the condition that they enunciate some version of their “Africanness” manifestly in their art. As a result, they are also burdened by the audience expectation that they act through their work as interlocutors for all of Africa, even if they themselves hold a critical view of particular states of affairs on the continent.

The Diaspora Objects

“What is going on now politically is like a mirror of what has always gone on in myself, because I am a hybrid of the West and the East,” says Ghada Amer, a 38-year-old Egyptian-born artist who lived in France from the age of 11 and moved to Manhattan four years ago. “It’s a clash of civilizations that of course don’t understand each other. I’ve lived with these contradictions all my life.” . . . “I don’t want viewers to see my work as the work of ‘the other,’” she says. “That’s the most insulting thing that could happen.”[45]

One thing shared by many of the latest generation of African artists in the diaspora—those who have been successful on the art circuit—is that their work critiques the very burden of representation that is also the condition of their visibility. “Diaspora” is the object of these artists’ art, the thing in question and the construction material, more than it is a stable subject position from which to speak about their “perspective.” The space cleared through this new diasporan art is a questioning space, a space that objects to reductive concepts of identity. Ghada Amer, an artist whose paintings and installations are in line with this trend, potently challenges both the modern fundamentalist version of Islam in her birthplace (Egypt) and the more global essentialist notion of “women’s work.” Amer refuses to play the “other” for her audience, while not questioning whether the “other” exists beyond Eurocentric projections like Samuel Huntington’s notorious formulation of a so-called “clash of civilizations.”[46] Instead she declares herself a “hybrid,” the only possible interlocutor between worlds, and thus has it both ways. Amer is well aware of how the stereotype “Muslim woman artist” has helped her “command an audience,” but is also aware that such a platform is also ultimately a trap—a dangerous game.[47] Thus she claims a strategic position, by provisionally staking out the in-between ground of subjectivity, and this has allowed her to be critical of both “Western” and “Islamic/African” popular constructions of gender and sexuality in her art. After living in Paris for over twenty years, Amer ought to be considered a French artist more than anything else, even if she has yet to be granted citizenship in France.[48] But her art, like her public persona, is “hybrid,” and brings together multiple histories of art including Minimalism, Conceptual art, Abstract Expressionism, 1960s feminist art, and bad-girl feminist art of the 1980s, while also showing a sensitivity to the historically Muslim sensibility for the text-as-image.[49]

A seemingly inexhaustible number of variations and critical tangents have been proposed by “African” artists who have taken the diaspora as object in their art: Yinka Shonibare’s celebration and mischievous recontextualization of Dutch wax prints from the Africa trade; Meshac Gaba’s whimsical Museum of Contemporary African Art, which pokes conceptual fun at the “Magiciens de la terre” idea of the naive African artist, and at those artists who pander to it; Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s sensual embrace of the male-loving gaze, in the context of a photographic practice aimed at intellectually reconfiguring sacred Yoruba ritual; and other poignant examples illustrated in this catalogue.

To what extent is art like this also “clinging to marginality,” as Gayatri Spivak has described the phenomenon in which upwardly mobile students of color are taught “to speak (only) of oneself” in a manner that ultimately contains those supposedly being asked to represent themselves—as when an African-American student is always expected to “represent” “the community” in any round-table discussion but is not to be heard from otherwise. Too often we unthinkingly internalize this “duty,” as much as it is imposed on us.[50] In a similar light, is “hybridity” or “diaspora” the new essentialism for identity, and is the “postcolonial” artist the new “other”? Has that which once heated up the contemporary scene, and scrambled the old and fixed ideas of self and other, now begun to cool off into a new lingua franca for art, as Gerardo Mosquera has recently suggested?[51] Audiences now expect artists to “enunciate their borderness” in much the same manner that an earlier generation was expected to perform an “Africanness” in order to validate their work for an international public.[52] Still, as I have argued, this conundrum is such an urgent one today because ironically the West itself is such a crisscrossed border zone.

Art Marks the Border

If we return to where we began, to the carte de séjour, we see that Toguo is critically aware of both the illusoriness of the dream of fulfillment in the European “center” and the very real rewards that await those African citizens who successfully navigate the system and find a place for themselves there.[53] Seen in this light, Toguo’s rubber stamp, turned into a crafty piece of African wood sculpture, registers on several levels at once. It decries the prejudicial international system of border controls, which perpetually casts the (black) African as suspicious and potentially criminal, as opposed to the hardworking idealistic émigré he or she is likely to be. It also plays both sides of a popular (and itself quite naive) Eurocentric cultural bias according to which what is real and authentic in Africa and its diaspora is always going to be visionary, primitive, made by hand, and easily portable.

Toguo’s art is also mindful of another Eurocentric bias, one operating at the level of the elite international commodity world of contemporary art practice, whose carte de séjour for entry into the art-world mainstream is a circumspect aesthetic method that takes after the fashion for installation art and proposes a critique of the construction of identity. Toguo’s sculpture is the mark of the political and economic border between Europe and Africa, which is all too often (and for purely ideological reasons) mistaken for a border between mutually untranslatable cultural worlds. His art object smartly situates itself literally and safely “in the middle”—but it is a cannon shooting dangerous symbolic volleys two ways. Is art itself not a sort of visa for temporary residence between supposedly distinct political, geographic, and temporal worlds?

The mobility of the locale for enunciation, as much as the object of enunciation, may be the key here.[54] Ten years ago I remember being struck by an interview between Thomas McEvilley and Tamessir Dia in which the artist spoke of paintings he could not exhibit in the Ivory Coast (where he lived), because of fears of official censorship, but would show in Venice and New York.[55] Rotimi Fani-Kayode too has said that his photographs, because of their perceived “decadent Western” content, would probably not go over well if exhibited in Nigeria.[56] The international platform from which this latest generation of “African” artists are able to display their work has enabled them to be critical of how “Africa” is framed both at home and abroad (whichever is which). Although the historical landscape has changed, and the rhetoric of “civilizing our African brothers and sisters” has been clipped, these artists are on a diasporan continuum with the ideas proposed in the 1920s by Locke, and earlier by Du Bois. The crucial question today is: Is the carte de séjour symbolic of a radical opening, or is it a certificate of dependency on the border?

Those artists who have taken diaspora as an object, and an objection, in their work are in a position to comment on the world today in ways that can be quite illuminating—for all of us. As for those still working on the African continent, but not yet part of the critical transnational elite, and for those whose art looks into other objects besides “Africanness” or “diasporaness,” the struggle for an image continues.

John Peffer

This text was originally published in Laurie Ann Farrell (ed.), Looking Both Ways. Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, New York, Museum for African Art, 2003, and revised by the author, John Peffer, for the present edition of the artafrica site.

John Peffer is a visiting assistant professor in the Art History Department at Northwestern University, and the author of The Struggle for Art at the End of Apartheid, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2002. His research and teaching are centered on African history, twentieth-century art and theory, and the politics of modern visual culture.
He has recently curated two exhibitions on South African art, and he contributes articles and reviews to Cabinet, African Arts, World Art, Rethinking Marxism, Third Text, and Art Journal.

[1] Barthélémy Toguo was born in Mbalmayo, Cameroon, and schooled in Grenoble, Düsseldorf, and Abidjan—he has traveled widely in the intellectual circles of both Europe and Africa.
[2] See The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., vol. IV, 1989. See also Cohen, Global Diasporas, pp. 1–6, which argues that the history and metaphor of the Babylonian captivity, traditionally understood as a site of oppression, can also be seen as creating a cosmopolitan space for the religious and cultural efflorescence of creativity that gave form to later definitions of Judaism. Cohen notes that very early on, the idea of a Jewish people was a product of this dissemination of persons and ideas, and that even “by the fourth century b.c. there were already more Jews living outside than inside the land of Israel.” By extension, the interspersing of any diaspora culture within the countries of others may be understood to be both definitional of those dispersed cultures and a conjuncture containing great creative potential.
[3] According to ibid., p. 31, the terms “African diaspora” and “black diaspora” were not commonly used until the 1950s. But various permutations of an Africa-centric, and biblically inflected, “Ethiopianism” among Africans in the Americas were already promising a quasi-imaginary “homeland” (somewhere) on the continent in the nineteenth century.
[4] Clifford, “oraspsDia,” p. 250.<
[5] Ibid., p. 251.

[6] Ibid., p. 252. See also Paul Gilroy’s incisive and antiracialist analysis of the history and discourse of the “Black Atlantic” as a “counterculture of modernity,” The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
[7] Clifford makes this point in reference to Jewish experience (“Diasporas,” p. 248); it is also relevant for the African diaspora.
[8] See Edwin T. Ramoran, “Sanford Biggers,” in Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exh. cat. (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001).
[9] An ambivalent diasporan identification with the homeland can take very different forms, from the collective outrage against the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, through the benevolent technical assistance offered to newly independent African countries in the 1960s, to the continuing historical tragedy of paternalism and terror in the former American colony of Liberia.
[10] Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro, 1925 (reprint ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp. 5–6.
[11] Ibid., p. 14.
[12] Ibid.

[13] It is worth recalling that Howard University, where Skunder Boghossian began teaching in the 1970s, is where Alain Locke was once a professor of philosophy.
[14] The notable exceptions to this trend are Boghossian’s inclusion on the exhibition The American Experience: Contemporary Immigrant Artists organized in 1985 by Independent Curators Incorporated, and Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora at the National Museum of African Art in 2003. To my knowledge, Boghossian’s work has never been included in an exhibition of contemporary art of the Armenian diaspora.
[15] In a recent video interview in connection with the exhibition “Ethiopian Passages: Dialogues in the Diaspora,” at the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., in 2003. Boghossian was asked, “The exhibition is organized around ideas of movement, negotiations of identity, and experiences of diaspora. In what ways do you see these themes applying to your work?” He resplied, “That has always been a difficult question to answer: how do I see my identity in my work? I know who I am. I know where I am… It is nice to be an Ethiopian in America… a culture blessed with all the cultures of the world.” See interview with Elizabeth Harney at The question was clearly a leading one, and framed the artist’s answer in terms curated beforehand by the curator. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Boghossian’s answer skirts around the narrower definition of an “identity” that is “negotiated” in favor of a self-awareness that embraces all the best that world culture has to offer.
[16] Negritude was inspired in part by the earlier example of the American New Negro movement.
[17] Boghossian, quoted in Cynthia Jaffee McCabe, The American Experience: Contemporary Immigrant Artists (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1985), p. 44.
[18] See Elizabeth W. Giorgis, “Skunder Boghossian: Artist of the Universal and the Specific,”
[19] Rasheed Araeen, “A New Beginning: Beyond Postcolonial Cultural Theory and Identity Politics,” Third Text 50 (Spring 2000): 10. Emphasis in the original.
[20] Ibid., p. 11.
[21] Kobena Mercer, “Art and the Experience of African Cities,” in Pep Subiros et al., Africas: The Artist and the City, A Journey and an Exhibition, exh. cat. (Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporania, 2001), pp. 79–80.
[22] Laura Bigman, “Contemporary Migration from Africa to the U.S.A.,” in Cohen, ed. (1994).
[23] Ibid., p. 260.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., p. 262. On a more personal level, a well-off Nigerian friend recently confided to me that his mother would probably have to spend some time waiting things out in London if the political situation back home deteriorated any more. Recourse to some such escape pod—or the desire for one—is part of life in most of twenty-first-century Africa.
[26] Clifford, “Diasporas,” pp. 245–46

[27] Ibid., pp. 246, 256. Another example: the United States has had strong commercial links with Cape Verde since the 1820s, and over 300,000 Cape Verdeans live in the United States today, mostly in New England—almost the same number as the population of the Cape Verde islands themselves (Bigman, “Contemporary Migration,” p. 260). The global post–Cold War political and economic situation is a more complex scenario than I have space to consider here; for a more detailed analysis see Saskia Sassen, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: The New Press, 1998).
[28] S. Vertovec, quoted in Cohen, Global Diasporas, p. 128.
[29] Cohen, Global Diasporas, p. 174.
[30] See Octavio Zaya, “Meaning in Transit: Framing the Works of Boutros, Dridi, Ennadre, Gasteli and Naji,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 5 (Fall 1996): 50–53.
[31] Cohen, ed., “Prologue” in The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3. See also Cohen, Frontiers of Identity: The British and the Others (London: Longman, 1994).
[32] See Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1983).
[33] Edward Said has argued for just such a perspective on the history of modernity, one that foregrounds the interdependent relations between the West and the rest of the world, and brackets off the reductive racialist obsession with the inscrutability of “otherness.” See Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993).
[34] Iain Chambers, “Unrealized Democracy and a Posthumanist Art,” in Enwezor et al., eds., Democracy Unrealized: Documenta 11, Platform 1 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), p. 173. See also Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity (London: Routledge, 1994). Chambers’s theory is conversant with the idea of “hybridity,” described by Homi Bhabha as a mimicry of the colonizer by the colonized that has the potential to destabilize the colonizer’s holistic self-view. See Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
[35] Chambers, “Unrealized Democracy,” p. 175.
[36] Salman Rushdie, quoted in Timothy Brennan, “The National Longing for Form,” in Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 48. See also the Senegalese filmmaker and author Ousmane Sembène’s comments on French as a tool that the African artist may use or adapt as he or she sees fit, in Samba Gadjigo, ed., Dialogues with Critics and Writers: Ousmane Sembène (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993).
[37] Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity, p. 27.
[38] Chambers, “Unrealized Democracy,” pp. 174–75.
[39] See Mercer, “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), and Gilroy, “Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective: An Agenda of Difficulties for the Black Arts Movement in Britain,” Third Text 5 (April1989).
[40] See curator Valerie Cassel’s description of the program in “Cry of My Birth,” Art Journal, Spring 2000.
[41] Ibid., p. 5.
[42] These are the same four countries listed in Bigman, “Contemporary Migration.”
[43] This is particularly true for Siemon Allen and Julie Mehretu, much of whose work is abstract, conceptual, and only esoterically referential. Another instance: Sokari Douglas Camp’s sculptures imaging pram-pushing women in London, or another, more recent series on the international oil cartels’ destruction of the people and environment of southeastern Nigeria. Where do such works find a place in the current demand for “Africanness,” even “diasporaness,” in art? See Olu Oguibe’s related comments, on ethnological museums’ embrace of Camp, in “Finding a Place: Nigerian Artists in the Contemporary Art World,” Art Journal, Summer 1999, p. 34.

[44] Thus the fascinating situation in which Yinka Shonibare is included in the ultimate chapters of both Richard Powell’s Black Art: A Cultural History (TK: TK, TK), which is predominantly a survey of black diasporan art, and Sidney Kasfir’s Contemporary African Art (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999). Kasfir concludes (p. 213), “One can say that African artists are not so much fighting for the freedom to be ‘African’ (whatever that may mean), but to be fully accepted as artists, though this can only be articulated through their Africanness, since that is the site of their categorical exclusion from a global art discourse in the first place.” I disagree, in part. What Kasfir describes well is the historical relationship of African modernism to the international art market. That situation has taken a turn over the past decade, though, with the situation now being that modern “Africanness” is a highly desirable commodity in art, though it is also still a pigeonhole. Today, in multiculturalism’s finest (but darkest) hour, only if you wear “identity” on your sleeve do they let you through the door.
[45] Hilarie Sheets, “Stitch by Stitch, a Daughter of Islam Takes on Taboos,” The New York Times, November 25, 2001.
[46] Samuel Huntington “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. Followers of Huntington’s reductive thesis include the popular historian and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who coined the unlucky phrase “failures at modernity” to describe (mostly Muslim) former colonial states. See Friedman, “The New Mideast Paradigm,” Foreign Affairs, March 6, 2001. The policy community generally follows Huntington while the academic community is more often in sympathy with Said’s critique, as restated in “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, October 22, 2001. See also Said, Culture and Imperialism, pp. 258–61 et passim. Benjamin Barber has also provocatively suggested that Huntington’s supposedly unmixable West and East (which he terms “Jihad versus McWorld”) are actually operating on the same technological and ideological terrain. Thus within the same modern world, “The tendencies of both Jihad and McWorld are at work, both visible sometimes within the same country at the very same instant. Iranian zealots keep one ear tuned to the mullahs urging holy war and the other cocked to Rupert Murdoch’s Star television station. . . . Jihad not only revolts against but abets McWorld, while McWorld not only imperils but re-creates and reinforces Jihad. They produce their contraries and need one another.” Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Times Books, 1995).

[47] See Laura Auricchio, “Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures,” Art Journal, Winter 2001, p. 32.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Interestingly, overt Islamic or Egyptian references have only entered Amer’s work rather recently—somewhat coincidentally with her growing visibility on the international art circuit—and have little presence in her earlier corpus. For a survey of Amer’s art see Ghada Amer: Reading between the Threads (Umea: Bildmseet, 2002).

[50] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Outside,” in The Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[51] Gerardo Mosquera, “Good-Bye Identity, Welcome Difference: From Latin American Art to Art from Latin America,” Third Text 56 (Autumn 2001), pp. 26–28.
[52] Araeen has recently admonished a number of these artists, and the curators and critics who have promoted them, for playing too close to the market’s demands, arguing that “the artwork which does not at the same time engage critically with the system from which it seeks recognition, is simply reduced to a rarified commodity for the art market.” Araeen, “A New Beginning,” p. 17. As if in dialogue with sentiments like Araeen’s, Shonibare’s recent photographic series, “Dorian Gray,” playfully indicts the vanity, and the short attention span, of an art industry that has given a small number of African diasporan artists a spot in the limelight.

[53] See James Clifford, “Diasporas,” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997). See also Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997). Clifford and Cohen discuss a range of diaspora formations and theories beyond the scope of the present essay. It is noteworthy that the thesis for the second Johannesburg Biennale was developed in part from Clifford’s text. See Okwui Enwezor, “Introduction. Travel Notes: Living, Working, and Traveling in a Restless World,” in Enwezor et al., Trade Routes: History and Geography. 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (Johannesburg: Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, 1997).
[54] This was the case in apartheid-era South Africa, where those who could move about, who were free from an “ethnic” geography and the prison-house of race, who could get in their cars or onto a plane and go anywhere outside or inside the country without fear of losing their identity or having their passbook/identity book questioned, were more free to speak their minds than the majority of the population. It is an oppressive state in which the freedom to be is considered to be in contradiction of the freedom to move.
[55] Thomas McEvilley, Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale (New York: Museum for African Art, 1993), p. 65.
[56] Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy,” Ten:8 2, no. 3 (Spring 1992), issue entitled Critical Decade: Black British Photography in the 80s.

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