Identity and “Afrotopias” in the works of emerging African artists 

The virtual art exhibition, Foundations Art Fair, which runs until 8 August, reveals emerging talents in contemporary visual arts, with a focus on Africans. While showcasing the names, what is striking is the expression of the works, tracing new and different looks at the world from the narrative, landscape and aesthetic influences of Africans. 

The artists and the works reveal a kind of reconciliation with the African spirit, the assumption of identity, the new dilemmas of contemporaneity when the world “returns” to Africa. A trend that is also evident in the new Mozambican artists. But we are already there.

While the world is grappling with new issues around technological development, in how this will affect artistic endeavour, Africans’ works show another approach, which, while seeming experimentalist, is more a process of global influences giving expression to internal and local contexts. The heavy black of some canvases, the increasingly warm colours, are of a visual impact that signals a new chapter of experiences with local culture and societies. The new artists will be more concerned with aesthetics than the search for healing therapies in relation to a history of violence associated with independence processes that were never peaceful. So black and red will still be a connotative combination, as is the case with the work of Guinean Amy Amalia, which also calls us to introspection.

Meanwhile, the photography of Zimbabwean Tatenda Chidora shows the latest situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, in a provocative approach to the half-naked black bodies with a blue – colour of the cheapest disposable surgical masks – that creates a striking contrast and highlights the colour of the skin as more charcoal than brown sands. 

The human anatomy represented, are the bodies in front of the mirror, which when they see themselves, recognise themselves, feel themselves within a continent where global issues always have to be translated, the assumption of identity being a constant debate, especially when seen from African diasporas’ point of view. This reconciliation or sense of belonging extends to ancestral traditions and cultures, when it is assumed that there is an endogenous knowledge, which is not a world apart. The works of Lewinale Havette, from Sierra Leone, are an example of this.

The exhibition at 16Neto, in Maputo, by four young artists, Nália Agostinho, George Matsimbe, Chris Inácio and Maria Chale, shows this colour palette, with luminosity, vibrancy and presence. With the predominance of the body element and traditional African props, such as earrings, necklaces that remind us of Makonde tattoos, ears pierced with reeds, and other marks of the aesthetics associated with primitivism. They are Afrotopias, as philosopher Felwine Sarr writes, thinking Africa without romanticising or exoticising the idea of a place and people who have suffered, with open wounds and a dark horizon. It is looking at this certain disorder in the eyes of the world as a true order, as a place where the world can be saved.

A new way of resolving the conflict of identity – as opposed to a crisis. These artists are taking a path that, while not new, represents a break with the past in terms of aesthetics and narrative. Whereas the masters sought to be expressive in ‘rescuing’ and ‘reclaiming’ the values of Mozambican identity, replacing what had been subjugated by colonialism, the new artists are inscribing themselves in this identity that is grappling with globalisation and debates about new societies, feminisms and representativeness. These works also show us the new landscapes of the continent, in particular urban space and lifestyles. So, in this debate through the visual arts, they bring together elements and narratives, the idea of modernity within tradition or reinvention and transformation.

Therefore, in times when we can appreciate the Foundations Art Fair – and others – we can understand this current panorama and aspire, why not, that Mozambican artists find these exhibition and exchange spaces aimed at what is “new” to be created in Africa.

By Eduardo Quive

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