The “African” Label

Installation by Sharlene Khan

Between September and November last year I was fortunate enough to participate in a visual arts residency program at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. Living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa, I find many similarities between the two largest cities on the continent. Both Cairo and Johannesburg are bustling with people at all times of the day, the traffic is terrible and pollution is a real problem, but they also are the cultural and artistic centers of their respective countries. Despite these commonalities, Cairo and Johannesburg might as well be worlds apart economically, politically and culturally. The identities of both these countries are continuously shifting within their respective histo-political contexts, yet both define themselves as African cities.

This concept of “African-ness” that exists in both these very different cities is an intriguing one. During my time in Cairo, I often heard discussions among artists around the issue of identity and what it meant for a Cairene artist. While one cannot argue that Cairo is a city in Africa, Egyptians also bear other labels associated with their proximity to the Middle East, such as “Middle Eastern,” “Arab” and “Islamic.” Some artists felt that current Western curatorial practices have used these labels to scout work from a certain location, which conformed to certain political, economic or social agendas.1 And that this has often perpetuated particular stereotypes that favor work from countries that deal foremost with socio-political issues.

It would certainly be justified for African artists2 to feel aggrieved at the expectation that work from Africa has to be about political or unjust social happenings in their societies, because a similar expectation does not exist for Western artists. While political unrest, unjust social laws and poverty may be dominating forces in African countries, they are not the only valid representations of a continent that continues to thrive, produce and participate in all forms of cultural events.3 We cannot deny that problems do exist in many African countries, but to constantly foreground them in the arts is to continue to perpetuate a rather biased view of Africa.

Cairo-based artist Basim Magdy says that this inclination towards work dealing with socio-political issues might even affect the diversity of art being produced in the country. The challenge facing African artists is finding ways to change these preconceived notions. One thing to do could be that work should be chosen on the basis of concept and theme predominantly rather than on the geographical location and socio-political context. Another option is to try and break free from the ethnocentric labels that bolster western concepts of Africa and “African-ness.”

While the casting away of such labels seems like a logical step, one must wonder if it is in fact possible. Human society is made up of labels. They separate you from the other, defining your identity and helping you define theirs.4 South Africans too, struggle under labels (black, white, Colored, Indian) inherited both from colonial and apartheid times. While one can hope for world in which such labels and their presuppositions would disappear, realistically, new ones would only replace them.

However, even if this were at all possible, I would not wish for current labels to be forsaken post-haste. To discard such terms as “Middle Eastern,” “Arab,” “Islamic” and “African” is to leave all of their negative connotations and presumptions unchallenged by those directly affected by them — and who better to change stereotypes of Africans than Africans themselves? But, for one to challenge these misconceptions, one has to be rather self-aware and self-conscious of what one is or is not. Ask most people from Cape Town, South Africa to Alexandria, Egypt and they will say that they are African, without having a clear idea of what this means. What does it really mean to be African? Is the geographical positioning of a person the sole factor in determining whether one is African or not? How little do we as Africans know about each other’s cultural systems in comparison to what we know of European and American society?

It continues to be quite alarming how little Africans know about their own continent. Even the art world in Africa is not immune to this. I knew little of the contemporary art scene in Egypt, as did Egyptian artists of the South African scene. While it is disconcerting that Africans are consistently looking to the West as the preeminent standard of art, it is even more disturbing that these large Western art shows continue to present our work on such a stereotypical platform. What is thought of as “African-ness” in these shows is filtered through Western expectations and understandings of Africa. In Edward Said’s seminal text Orientalism (1978), one can substitute “Africa” or the “Middle East” for the “Orient” and find many of the same evaluations of the power relations between the West and the Orient. As with the discourse of Orientalism, the West’s power relations with Africa is always one of a “positional superiority” that is sustained through various guises (what Said lists as power intellectual, power political, power cultural and power moral). Art is also affected by this. African creativity is judged by, contrasted against and encouraged to emulate a western standard.

There are different approaches to challenging these practices. One could be that so-called Third World artists take up the task of deconstructing terms like “African,” “Middle Eastern,” “Arab” and “Islamic,” analyzing the various nuances and negative implications attached to them. Edward Said’s usage of the term “Orientalism” is useful in the rethinking of terminology. Said realized that the word “Orientalism” had negative colonialist connotations embedded in it, which were recognized by scholars who wanted to discard the term at the time he was writing. Instead, he “appropriated” it by first taking the term apart and then examining its discourse. Said deduced that even if Orientalism did not survive in the same form as it always did, it would continue to live on through the academic discourses concerning the Orient, and would thus retain its negative connotation. Similarly if such labels of Africa, the Middle East, and the Arab world were to be discarded in their current form, their negative identity would remain, never to be deconstructed by the people defined by them.

Walking in the streets of Cairo, I was often asked about my country of origin. Being a South African Indian, nobody guessed I was from South Africa. This challenged my own thinking of what I considered African — bright, colorful streets filled with the smell of food, the constant noise of people, objects and music, and the warmth of complete strangers. But unlike the city streets and buildings of South Africa, Cairo seemed rather muted in color — shades of cream and brown. It was there that I realized I had myself defined “Africa” according to my own limited experiences, and created my own stereotypes of “African-ness.” I am not suggesting that self-definition would bring a truer notion of Africa, nor am I idealistic enough to believe that it will be able to prevent alternate stereotypes from developing. I do however advocate that more contradictory and complex definitions and imagings of Africa are desperately needed.

In “The Fact of Blackness,” Frantz Fanon asserts this positioning of agency, self-determination and self-reckoning when he says, “I resolved, since it was impossible for me to get away from an inborn complex, to assert myself as a BLACK MAN. Since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known.” Fanon recognizes that you allow people to tell you who you are, when you, yourself don’t have a clear idea of who you are. It is only in achieving self-definition and understanding, that we can begin to refuse to be portrayed in stereotypical contexts and to say, rather loudly, what we believe we are, no matter how contradictory it is to established notions of Africa and the Middle East.

1. For instance, contemporary Egyptian artists Wael Shawky and Moataz Nasr, who participated in the 2003 Venice Biennale, felt rather upset by the presentation of their works in contexts and under “labels” in which they weren’t necessarily created for (discussion at Townhouse Gallery, September 2003). 2. This argument can be extended to Middle Eastern or any other artist from the Third World who works under similar expectations. 3. This participation, be it in the arts or sports, is also not without a sense of humor and criticality. 4. In “The Fact of Blackness” (1952), Frantz Fanon understands the notion of labeling especially in regard to “fixing” the identity of the Other. Fanon’s journey in a white world makes him slowly realize that under the white gaze he has already been dissected under “white eyes, the only real eyes” and that now he has become “fixed” — a fixed identity, a generalized stereotype, “a Negro!”