Each year at the Armory Show in New York, masses gather to not only peruse some of the world’s leading contemporary art but to engage in an international conversation about the artistic landscape of a selected region. This initiative is curated by a yearly Focus section that often responds to political spheres in a global context.
Last year, for example, the Focus section peered a spotlight on the crafted expanse of MENAM (Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean); the previous year, it spanned the dynamism of the Chinese art scene. As the show’s seventh edition, Focus organizers have captivated public attention through their 2016 theme: African Perspectives.
The aim of this Focus reaches beyond mere political or discursive remits; it unearths the spirit of African art within and beyond the realms of the continent. Conducted by fourteen international galleries, the region appears as it is artistically in both its traditional artistic practices and global contemporaries. Bereft of any preconceived or Eurocentric notions about African art, Armory goers experience international artworks from contemporary African viewpoints, virtually firsthand.
Through the voices of emerging curators, interactive installations, visiting galleries and booths, the show shares a panoramic understanding of markets through global networks. “From Lagos to London to Luanda,” the Armory Show movingly explores the artistic developments alongside convergent narratives of past and present. By emphasizing the semantic universality of African and African Diasporic artists, the world appears decidedly (and refreshingly) fluid in borders and global connections.
The curators chosen for the fair are none other than Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, co-founders of Contemporary And, an online platform for international art from African perspectives. Their online art magazine regales in discussion and information-based coverage on the contemporary Diasporic art world. Token to their magazine’s mission, they have changed the way the world looks at this emerging market. By introducing a legion of established and promising artists, curators, art critics and other cultural producers, they have burgeoned a line of discussion from the Diaspora to an international audience.
Their motivations extend from their magazine to the Armory Focus: “We agreed to curate the Focus section as we saw it as a great opportunity to be able to put young artists and cultural producers from African Perspectives on a huge platform and to present their work to a broad audience, which widely is not aware of their practices,” they said. “And that is our main mission: to spotlight the extremely multilayered voices from Africa and the Diaspora.”
As for their distinct curatorial decisions in this year’s Focus, Grosse and Mutumba carefully chose positions of a younger generation as they incorporate the contemporary, transcontinental perspective of many artists. However, Focus will also “look back” on the artistic achievements of an older generation. A central component to this retrospection is the annual symposium, “Looking Back, Leading the Way,” that features world-renowned artists El Anatsui and Sam Nhlengethwa. In a preliminary panel discussion on Wednesday, these influential figures discussed their own personal motivations and setbacks as aspiring artists, a reflection that inspired those in attendance to seek the same perseverance in their daily lives. The symposium will reach its apogee this weekend with a lecture-performance by Kapwani Kiwanga, a program of video art and more talks by participating artists.
In sum, Grosse and Mutumba emphasize their curatorial choice to include the many nuances that make up an African perspective: “It is still too often expected or taken for granted that art produced by an artist with some kind of affiliation to Africa should have certain aesthetics or deal with specific ‘African’ topics,” they continued. “While it is, of course, absolutely right and important for artists to work on topics or aesthetics related to a certain context, our aim is to contribute to an understanding that art from Africa and the Diaspora can look, sound, and feel beyond that in many different ways.”
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