Issue 3/2019

Freedom Africa


“Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude,” African-American writer and activist Frederick Douglass once remarked. In the 19th century, Douglass, as an escaped slave, was still fighting for abolition of one of the most unspeakable regimes of violence in history, slavery. Today, almost 200 years later, human beings are no longer blatantly trafficked out of racist motivations. The factors that run counter to effective liberation, especially in non-privileged parts of the world, do not however seem to have diminished. It is not one grand violence-driven syndrome (colonialism) that impedes global democratization, but rather many distributed and interlocked systems (capital, climate change, border regimes, attempts to restore white supremacy on the planet, etc.).
Africa offers a complex, compelling field of study in this respect. That assertion needs however to be qualified straight away, for it is clearly absurd to seek to appraise the status and constitution of an entire – immense and simultaneously extremely heterogeneous – continent. Nevertheless, we venture here to try to some extent to put a positive spin on this absurdity: by addressing various individual aspects to form a patchwork picture of the extent to which over the last decades the continent's thinking and art (in what of course remains a partial appraisal) have moved towards the freedom Douglass invokes; and at the same time to consider precisely which factors still stand in the way of profound liberation and global equality.
To take an example from the realm of art: the fact that at the current Venice Biennale only seven (!) African countries are represented, out of a total of 87 national pavilions, is a blatant manifestation of a structural imbalance that is even more glaring in other areas. Although some states (such as Nigeria) are now experiencing an economic upswing with vigorous assistance from China, that may say more about new geopolitical spheres of influence than about actual economic or global cultural emancipation.
“Freedom Africa”: a way of naming the spotlight-like setting that we shall deploy to discover to what extent we are currently heading towards a significant degree of liberation – as a multitude that see itself as global and at the same time is hampered by many obstacles. A few points of reference should help to evoke a broad-brushstroke impression of this sense of moving along a particular course: with the emergence (and attempted suppression) of new migration routes, a more pronounced geopolitical – and not merely “developmental” – integration of the continent inevitably comes into view. The current catastrophe in Libyan reception camps or off the Libyan coast is just one symptom among many. How shall we react to these symptoms or points of departure when the climate crisis drives millions more to flee?
Achille Mbembe, who has written several excellent postcolonial studies, asks a simple question: What actually prevents us from imagining a largely borderless world that includes Africa? A world in which mobility is no longer regulated by a simple discriminatory division into privileged (rich) and non-privileged (poor “economic refugees”). Mbembe’s answers are telling and cite striking examples that run counter to such specification of borders – in opposition to the negative stereotyping of the continent that remains prevalent, depicting it as an endless reservoir of raw materials, a market to sell off cut-price goods or primarily as a producer of “human waste.”
This “Afropessimism,” which is slowly loosening its grip but has by no means yet been overcome, is sharply brought into focus by another piece. Almost no one has contributed as much to taking the sting out of precisely that Afropessimism through their life's work as exhibition maker and theorist Okwui Enwezor, who died in March 2019. In the text printed here (from the context of an exhibition of African photography in 2006), we wish to pay tribute to the eminent work of perhaps the most important curator of the early 21st century, as well as highlighting the ineluctable and enduringly valid positionings Enwezor has introduced into the field of contemporary art.
Entirely in the spirit of Enwezor (and Mbembe), discourses on decoloniality have attempted for quite some time to correct the image of the continent (again, in as far as we can talk about it at all as a uniform entity) and to counteract this with contemporary “Afrorealism.” Elizabeth W. Giorgis, Director of the Gebre Kristos Desta Center in Addis Ababa, talks to Anette Baldauf about the particular obstacles – and positive prospects – of her exhibiting practice. And philosopher Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux recapitulates not how one can think about Africa in a new way but how a more fitting global-ecological understanding can be achieved by means of approaches from African philosophy.
Attempts to familiarize a broader audience with multiple art practices from various African regions also play an important role in this context. The examples contained here, such as the work of photographers Zanele Muholi (South Africa) and Ananias Léki Dago (Côte d'Ivoire), point paradigmatically to the way in which still prevalent conceptual patterns and pictorial regimes concerning “Africa” can be removed from traditional forms of sclerosis afflicting them. Approaches to “Afrotopic” art as well as critical confrontations with the history of the colonial gaze (Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński) form important cornerstones in this endeavor. Together, they mark out the pathway of a liberation discourse that perhaps one day will be followed by more than just a handful of people.