“Not African, but contemporary” …
Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba on their magazine C&

African art is booming. Artists like Meschac Gaba for some time have been regarded as an integral part of the western art scene. Gaba's “Museum of Contemporary African Art”, which is currently on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, has been attracting international attention. But there still aren’t enough platforms and magazines specialized in providing a knowledgeable view of the cultural production on the continent and in the diaspora. One year ago, the magazine “Contemporary And” (C&) was launched to amend the situation. It was jointly conceived by the journalist Julia Grosse, who acts as editor-in-chief of C&, and Yvette Mutumba, who is a curator at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with the two co-founders.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Why is a magazine for contemporary African art necessary?

Julia Grosse: Because the art being made from Nairobi to Yaoundé, whether it’s festivals, biennials, or other projects, is as good as invisible within the dominant art establishment. It’s often not deliberate at all, but there are so many different exciting things happening, and no one in the “western” art world hears anything about it. But of course, artists in the diaspora are still very underrepresented in the exhibition and museum landscape. For one year now, C& has been acting as a platform that offers a network to artists and publishes articles, features, interview, and columns, but also informs the larger art world, which until now has known very little about contemporary art from an African perspective.
 
It’s actually a bit strange that we’re talking about “African” art; in the case of Gerhard Richter, for instance, you’d never refer to him as an exponent of “European” art, or put on an exhibition with young “European art.” Why is Africa still treated this way, as though it were a country? And what is the reality?

Yvette Mutumba: That’s a great point! The term “African art” is often used as a label that tends to lump together a very complex, multi-layered art history on the continent. A young painter in Harare addresses very different themes than a performance artist in Nairobi or a 75-year-old conceptual artist in Kampala. It’s important, and that’s why we’re offering this platform—to help people realize that the term “African art” is just as non-existent as “European” or “Chinese” art. What is “African art,” and what is an “African artist”? Someone who grew up in Johannesburg, studied in the British city of Newport, and is now represented by an Italian and a South African gallery?
 
Julia Grosse: And it’s exactly this reality of the countless “African perspectives” that we’re trying to describe when we call our platform Contemporary And. Basically, an artist is not “African,” but rather “contemporary,” just like every other international artist.

You were both born and bred in Germany, and you each have a multicultural background. What connects you to the African art scene?


Julia Grosse: Of course, we each have a certain sensitivity for the themes of the diaspora and for art made from African perspectives. But we mainly look at the art production as art historians.
Yvette Mutumba: For years now, a lot has been happening in African cities, from Addis to Joburg and Cairo, and this is what we want to communicate with C&, what we want to show and talk about. It’s significant that half our readers come from African cities and not Berlin, NYC, or London. We love to publish print editions on a regular basis, but in order to leave the distribution boundaries behind, we have to put our art magazine online.

You also talked about how great it is that an international network of correspondents and authors is growing up out of the magazine. Can you tell us something about how Contemporary & began?

Yvette Mutumba: The editorial team of C& consists of a group of art critics, authors, and cultural producers that are all connected to Africa and the diaspora. The idea of making a magazine, a platform that attempts to bring together the overwhelming art production of the continent, came about during the course of the ifa exhibition prêt-à-partagerC& is a project of the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa) and is funded by the “Action Africa” of the Foreign Office.

Each edition includes essays on migration, the diaspora, and racism. Is Contemporary & a political magazine, too?


Yvette Mutumba: Our focus is mainly on contemporary art, of course, although we always take a look “back” into the past that has influenced today’s artists. And of course, political themes always play a role, whether it’s features on 20 years of democracy in South Africa, or on migration, but also, of course, cultural politics in the everyday lives of the artists we introduce, for instance the missing funding needed to realize projects and festivals, which are deliberately put on without western support. Often enough, and this brings us back to the labeling we were talking about, there is a real “expectation” to always work in a political, socially critical way. And it’s natural, of course, that artists in countries where wars have been fought for many years tend to explore socially critical themes more than aesthetic conceptual art. But the latter exists too, as it should.
 
I especially like the idea of the Art Space, where there are online exhibitions by artists like Em’Kal Eyongakpa from Cameroon and Misheck Masamvu from Zimbawe, two real discoveries. Although both artists have shown in Europe, I’ve never heard of them before. Is that my fault, or is it really true that African artists are paid less attention?
 
Julia Grosse: The Art Space on C& is designed to use precisely this direct quality of the Internet and to give us the freedom to put on a show or a project spontaneously with artists and curators online in a relatively flexible manner. This works rather well, and it brings new interested parties into contact with the work. Despite this, it can never replace the concrete interchange, the physical exhibition that takes place in Addis or Dakar. It’s more like an alternative way to make many things visible that are happening from Joburg to Cairo. At the moment, there’s talk of an “African hype,” and museums are adjusting their collections accordingly, while major galleries here and there are suddenly representing more artists from African perspectives. And of course that influences the reality of an artist in Yaoundé or Addis only to a certain point, when he knows that the boom isn’t about China or India this time, but Africa. We’re not that interested in the hype, because of course we’ll continue what we’re doing after the art caravans have moved on.

Since the time Meschac Gaba started his Museum of Contemporary African Art in the 1990s, the art scene has globalized at an accelerated rate. How has the perception and communication of African art changed over the past decade?

Yvette Mutumba: Today, perhaps, a somewhat more differentiated perspective is cast upon the highly diverse art production happening on the continent and in the diaspora, and in the process, it’s become possible to steer clear of this problematic reflex of calling everything “Art from Africa” in such a one-dimensional way.

Julia Grosse: This is the approach behind our name, which deliberately doesn’t advertise “Africa,” but regards artists mainly as “contemporary”: working in a contemporary and conceptual way, studying in Cairo, with a gallery in Oslo, and—oh, of course, he was born in Dakar. That’s where it has to go, and we’re working hard towards that.
  
Are there museums devoted exclusively to contemporary African art in Africa? And if so, who finances these institutions?


Julia Grosse: A large museum for contemporary art from African perspectives is currently being planned in Cape Town, the Zeitz MOCCA, with the collection of the former Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz. But apart from that, the many independent initiatives and art spaces are important infrastructures in places where museums for contemporary art might be missing. This is where the actual art scene takes place, from the CCA in Lagos, RAW in Dakar, or 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust in Kampala.

What are your personal favorites in young African art? Who should we be looking more closely at?
  
Julia Grosse: Ah, that’s tricky, of course—there are so many exciting artists!

Yvette Mutumba: But if I had to name a few names, then certainly I’d include the installation and video artists  Dineo Seshee Bopape and Bogosi Sekhukhuni, as well as the performance artists Ato Malinda and Helen Zeru-Araya.