Africa is facing the greatest challenge in its long history—curbing underdevelopment—and there is one thing that deeply worries me: Africans seem to have lost their self-confidence.
What is hopefully only a temporary incapacity to find a miracle solution to our continent’s problems has spawned doubt and shared feelings of guilt. We no longer dare to think, invent, or decide our own future, nor demand our rightful place on the international stage. Our «underdevelopment complex» has turned into self-censorship.
This process seems implacable. But as the African continent becomes more impoverished, it demands more help. This aid does not target definitive solutions for sustained development and therefore encourages dependence. As a result, Africans of all social origins know that they «have to be helped». This complex has spread through society like a paralysing dart hitting its prey, sapping the moral fibre we need to envision and create our own destiny.
Superficial solutions are not acceptable because they rule out any option for structural development. It is therefore necessary to create a firm foundation that relates not only to basic human realities but also to questions of identity and self-awareness. Africa’s main problem might not be decolonisation, droughts and the imbalance of trade, but Africans themselves. Access to education and health and full awareness of environmental issues are evidently important assets, but I think that culture is absolutely fundamental in determining who we are and how we may formulate a structured response to the problems of underdevelopment.
It is a little-known fact that the cultural budgets of many African countries are relatively large in proportion to their available resources. It is therefore paradoxical that art is often regarded as a marginal accessory as opposed to a strategically important element in the formulation of State policy.
Unfortunately, in Africa art is an activity where the phenomenon of «dependence» reaches its peak. Apart from a few rare exceptions, the contemporary art world here is not very African any more: neither its collectors, its philosophical and sociological contexts, nor the financial means used to organise events. We are not in control of our own cultural domain and this has an impact on the content of our artistic production. The artist produces what his public expects, as if he were pulling a rabbit out of a hat. His art stops being the expression of what it could be and becomes what the perceptions of others, foreign to the culture, determine it should be. This is how I explain the second-rate exoticism of much of the art recently produced in a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, even though the potential for expressive, complex and audacious works is very much alive. These artists have become little more than craftsmen, an aesthetic has been laid out and styles have been championed that highlight superficial decoration over and above the true added value of art.
Let there be no misunderstanding, I am not trying to criticise the help we have received, nor revile cultural partners working with Africa. In the absence of any alternative or cultural initiative of our own doing, we can only welcome the interest that is shown us. My analysis is severe because I want to stir up collective consciousness.
The way in which we participate in our own cultural life will always be a fundamental challenge. We must stimulate creativity, promote our cultural field with the means at our disposal, explore and question issues of identity and aesthetics, our place in the world and in this century. We must not leave it to others to tell us who we are or, in a way, what we will never become.
The very idea that in the 21st century, the African contribution to the history of world art should be reduced to the level of decorative craftsmanship makes my blood run cold—or maybe the opposite: it makes it boil! We must all get mobilised, all the local cultural players: artists, the public, the Government, education, museums, galleries, Fine Art Academies and collectors must all rise to the challenge. If we cannot tell the world who we are, if we do not show them the best that we can do, we will never see an end to incomprehension, condescension and prejudice.
This alarming picture of continental Africa reveals the exceptional importance of the first Contemporary Art Triennial in our country, Angola. The Luanda Triennial is directly engaged in the ambitious perspective I have just described by creating a cultural policy for Angola where the individual is returns firmly to the centre of a strategy for development.
The Luanda Triennial questions the usual mechanisms by which culture in Africa has been promoted. Conceived, developed and financed by both private and public sectors, it has enabled us to welcome some of the biggest names in contemporary art: internationally respected art critics, such as Okwui Enwezor, Simon Njami and Olu Oguibe, and some of the best-known artists, such as Miquel Barcelo. Last summer, Angola was the cultural hub of Africa.
The initiative to base the Sindika Dokolo Collection in Luanda and exhibit it as a forerunner to the Triennial is also a political act.
We think that culture is a fundamental individual right. In the same way that the rights to artistic creation are written in our constitution we assert our rights as Africans, i.e., citizens of the world, to have access to the universal cultural and artistic heritage.
In deciding to base the collection in Luanda, our main objective is to show the public these major works, initially all linked to Africa but which will not have any arbitrary limitations. We want to initiate a movement that results in the creation of a contemporary art centre in Luanda and creates the conditions Angola needs to integrate the international art circuits.
We think that access to art is an equally fundamental and legitimate human aspiration as access to education, drinking water and health.
The art world seems to have been waiting for Africa. The virtual absence on the contemporary scene of this culturally-rich continent has, paradoxically, spurred the art market to listen out and open up to contemporary African works, as long as they are ambitious and structured.
Artists such as Kendell Geers, Ghada Amer, Yinka Shonibare, Billi Bidjocka, Marlène Dumas, William Kentridge, Olu Oguibe, Chris Ofili and Pascale Marthine Tayou have made their way to London and New York and become consecrated while imposing their Africanness. The pertinence of their artistic approach and the the artistic quality of their work has propelled them to the Dokumenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York… all at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde. Through their quiet, rigorous work that is a complex but calm reflection of what they are, they have managed to explore their African nature while asserting the universality of their art.
These artists (the list is of course not exhaustive) are the centre of gravity of the Sindika Dokolo Collection. Its driving force is the promotion of this cultural mechanism, which I like to think determines its quality.
We have consciously chosen to create an African collection of contemporary art rather than a collection of contemporary African art. In doing so we are challenging the usual cultural and artistic standards that govern the art world. This is not a collection created in the South yet shown in and based on the North for a Western audience; we have chosen to base the SD Collection in the South, close to the very cradle of its inspiration. Moreover, any international museum that is interested in any aspect of the Collection will have to agree to participate in a subversive reversal of typical cultural flow: they will each have to contribute—and this is a first—to organizing an exhibition of the Collection in an African country.
Certain detractors of these innovative and ambitious cultural projects argue that contem-porary art is elitist and so «conceptual» that it is inaccessible to the general public.
I understand them. Some artists can be unsettling and some works can be qualified as «difficult». Presenting African contemporary works to the people of Luanda has nonetheless proved that art, even when it’s avant-garde, is not the exclusive domain of a pseudo-intellec-tual elite. The multiplication of private collections, the success of exhibitions, the participation and enthusiasm of children and students in several Soso Lax interactive projects are all signs of a true cultural renaissance and have convinced us that this approach is well founded.
By promoting the culture of beauty and intelligence in our continent we are dignifying all Africans. This effort, backed by all the culture players—starting with governments that are confronted every day with the challenge of fighting poverty and underdevelopment—is a celebration of the humanity in every one of us. This consideration that Africa is giving herself is called self-esteem.
On a purely artistic level, the Collection also contains a number of works by Angolan artists. Meanwhile, Alvim’s central role in our acquisition strategy has sanctioned talented young artists and enabled them to improve their works. A virtuous circle seems to have formed around the public, artists, and private collectors, much to the benefit of national artistic production. Eminent personalities in the art world now come to Luanda, confirming that our dear capital has become a cultural highspot on the continent. Our artists have been highly remarked in prestigious international events such as Arco in Madrid where, at the Angolan pavilion, the Spanish King and Queen threw protocol to the wind and spoke to our young artists. Queen Sophia was particularly impressed by a contemporary representation of Queen Ginga and struck up a conversation with the artist, Yonamine.
It is the regard and admiration of others that creates awareness of one’s own value. Will Luanda be the capital of contemporary art in Africa within 10 years? What a challenge! What a project!