Non-western artists can never get it right. If a painter from Kinshasa sticks to local traditions and themes he is at first praised exuberantly for his use of bright colours and African cultural awareness. But as opinions sway, he is soon considered to be 'plain', and he is accused of simply capitalising on the fancy of Westerners. Is it at all possible to pass judgement in these matters? Or are we simply faced with a form of neo-colonialism?
In the world of contemporary art exhibitions boundaries no longer exist; they have been replaced by nothing other then promising opportunities. Origin, skin colour, age or place of birth no longer matter; a young artist ventures into this world we call a global village and inevitably he faces criticism. A local hero bids his motherland farewell, is tapped into the latest communication technology, raises his voice loud enough and suddenly he is a world artist. The artist as nomad, someone who picks up ideas just as easily in New York and Cape Town as in Sao Paolo or Stockholm.
This new concept, this modern ideal of the artist wandering in a society where there are no conventional boundaries left, is indeed beautifully contrived, but bares no resemblance to the real world. Even a so-called 'global artist' from Mali can end up in a refugee camp, from which the next village is no closer than a four kilometres walk.
Congolese painter Cheri Samba (1957) deals with this romantic image-the Western idealisation of the nomadic artist-in his work. In an exhibition at the Ludwig museum in Cologne last year, he displayed a triptych bearing the title:' What is the future of our art?' The first panel, painted in the figurative style that characterises Samba's work, pictured the painter side to side Picasso. In the second each artist is carrying a painting under his arm as he leaves the building; the absence of Picasso implies that he has been granted an exhibition. In the last picture, Samba is surrounded by a pedestrian mass, most of them non-western. The message is clear and unambiguous: the Western world continues to ignore the majority of the African artists (and people). Through its claim to be 'open minded', it is in fact as impenetrable as ever. A closer look at Samba's life reinforces the depth of the message.
In 1998 Samba was 'discovered' at the 'Magiciens de la Terre' exhibition. Held in the very same Centre Pompidou. What followed was what is know as a hype; every self respecting art institution wants to do 'something' with young African art, so logically Samba was invited to exhibit his work. He is 'exotic'-his paintings display fancy bright colours. He is synonymous with African cultural identity. His topics differ from his Western colleagues: sex, AIDS, social injustice and corruption. His cartoonish style of painting is praised, his themes are deemed inspiring.
Then, all of a sudden, the gloss wears thin. Samba is scrutinised, his style of painting considered too smooth, his topics too accessible and 'easy'. He is labelled an opportunist who portrays the African world according to the western ideal. His work is formally assessed and his integrity is brought into question. And just like that he is no longer the genius we made him out to be What now, one might ask, is the next step for an artist to take when he finds himself in this type of situation? Should he switch to multimedia? Video's, performances, composing installations, art forms better suited for hidden meanings? No, not Samba.
Samba returned to Kinshasa where he continues to express his critical views on the western world in his own, well-known style. In an article in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition in Cologne, he states that his objective is to accuse the West of its hypocrisy. The article states that, though the Western world displays on one hand an admiration for primitive art, on the other hand it is less receptive of art made by non-western contemporaries.
Whether Samba will be present at the 2002 edition of the Documenta in Germany remains to be seen. The question is how far the artist residing on the periphery of the art world is prepared to go? Will he assume the language of international video and installation art? Will he opt to go mainstream with the risk of losing his grasp of everything he knows and loves? Or will he choose to stick to his roots and local customs, thereby destined to remain marginal and unheard?
John Goba (1944) is one of those marginal artists. Goba lives in Sierra Leone. When he was 30-years old a vision commanded him to make ritual masks. He obeyed. Over time, his masks changed character and became wooden statues. Frightening figures with burning eyes and angry mouths, replete with porcupine quills to emphasise their aggression- Goba's way of expressing his individuality, a way of distinguishing himself from the local sculpturing traditions. And it is exactly this clear line, this refusal to become the type of hybrid artist the West so adores, that will keep him form becoming a member of the faddish art circuit that distinguishes a global artist from the rest. Goba's sculptures, deeply rooted in tribal traditions, exhibit a fascinating beauty, yet they are foreign to most of the curators and artists who have taken it upon themselves to cross borders and travel the world. They do not appreciate the finer meanings in his work, meanings a Western audience is not likely to notice at all. Which is to say that there will always be art that is too 'exotic' for success on a global scale, even if the world is a global village.
This article appeared in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on 31-09-2000