Scholarship of the last two decades in cultural theory has created new paradigms in the readings of non-Western cultures. Not only have these theories critiqued the universal discourse of Western humanism, but they have also attributed agency and history to the subaltern human. Who has the authority to speak for non-Western cultures? Can the colonial past be transcended? What are the appropriate epistemological tools to understand the colonial past? These are questions that in the last two decades have been actively debated both in the West and the postcolony. Indeed, the decades radically rethought European epistemology and challenged prevailing universal concepts of European modernity to rework and redefine knowledge.
Nevertheless, theories of postcolonialism and cultural studies that have facilitated these debates have also often looked at the postcolony from a distant Western institutional base and have periodically neglected key components of subaltern identity. What is contentious is that those ideas that articulate the experiences of coloniality have also frequently overshadowed the significance of distinct and variegated narratives of the experiences of coloniality. Therefore, while there is an undeniable acknowledgment of the gains of cultural studies and postcolonial theory, there is also an emergent consensus among non-Western scholars to critically reexamine the textualities and discourses of these theories. More and more of us who work in the non-West are finding out that the claims of these theories cannot be unified under a broad rubric without taking into account diverse colonial histories and dissimilar postcolonial presents. Certainly, the interventions of these theories have given us a critical paradigm with which we can interrogate the hierarchies found in culture. Yet the riches of interiority ultimately call for a new kind of intellectual enterprise to consider the immeasurable archives that have structured disparate experiences, intellectual trajectories, and contrasting social and cultural practices.
For instance, debates in African modernism that in the last two decades emanated from diasporic African artists, curators, and historians successfully challenged traditional notions of modernism by introducing modernism’s plurality. Indeed, the hegemonic history of Western art along withthe art market had not accounted for the artistic production of the non- West in its narrative of modernism’s history. This authority of Western art history had long complicated the analysis, trading, and exhibition of African art. Exhibitions such as 2002’s “Short Century, Liberation and Independence” at PSI Contemporary Art Museum and journals such as Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art nevertheless challenged this canonical ontology of Western art and gave new importance to the creative principles of Africa. In the Western art platforms and institutions, complex aesthetic, political, and philosophical questions continue to dominate discussions of African modernity and modernism, exploring an alternative way to understand their trajectory beyond familiar discourses. Unfortunately, this discourse has also largely ignored the parameters of contemporary and archival accounts of African artists who live in the continent today. Its critical engagement has been confined to African diaspora artists, consequently marginalizing the production of art inside the continent itself.
The works of artists in the continent is characterized by local needs and indigenous cultural forces where the construction of artists’ identities is continuously being challenged. For instance, there are many artists who articulate issues such as the tribulations of obtaining visas to the West. If one passes by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, one is confronted with the notion of absolute Otherness. People are lined up in long queues to supposedly attain their passage to freedom. In question here is not peoples’ attempt to flee from Africa’s economic dejection that the West is so much responsible for, but the humiliation and harshness that the subject encounters to be granted this authorization. People are treated like animals, faced with harsh interrogation techniques and many times false accusations of forgery and deception. The African subject is constituted, among many other stereotypes, as genocidal and destitute. It is no wonder then that this subject deserves the cruelty bestowed to monsters and animals, not deserving the dignity of a human being. It is this spite of the visa officials that attempts to articulate itself in many artists’ works in the context of identities that both produce and are produced by specific environments.
There are also few artists who work on the challenges of neoliberal development paradigms. For instance, Behailu Bezabih, a prominent Ethiopian artist, works on collages made of old newspapers collected from homes that were destroyed to give way to road constructions, where many people are and continue to be displaced. Although the government provides compensation for these homes, often these compensations are not enough for purchasing other homes in the city, as real estate prices have skyrocketed. The influxes of foreigners who are representatives of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are emblems of neoliberalism, have also exacerbated the problem of housing, and many who are displaced are forced to settle for affordable places that are many miles out of the city. One encounters a sense of exile and displacement in one’s own country when identity is thus negotiated and renegotiated consistently. Road construction has become a fetish of modernity because of neoliberal models of modernization that favor infrastructure over everyday life. Therefore, artists challenge the contemporary social and political phenomena of Ethiopian subjectivity.
While postcolonial theory and cultural studies have greatly contributed to the debates of African modernism, consequently opening the space for African diaspora modernists to participate in the international art scene, these theories have also discounted African contemporary artists who live in the continent and attempt to articulate the political and social conditions of their contemporary experience.
It is therefore with great pleasure that we African scholars in the continent welcome the relaunching of CSSAAME and support its mission, as we urgently need the platform to critically engage our contemporary experiences.
© 2013 by Duke University Press