This year’s Armory Show Focus takes a look at “African Perspectives,” curated by Contemporary And‘s Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba. On view March 3—6 will be work from African and African Diasporic artists, recognizing the far-reaching global connections of the region. Whitewall spoke with the Grosse and Mutumba about changing the conversation around African contemporary art.
WHITEWALL: How did you two begin to collaborate? What was your initial mission for Contemporary And (C&) when you founded the online platform in 2013?
JULIA GROSSE & YVETTE MUTUMBA: We began to collaborate with the initial idea to establish a platform for African perspectives on art. Contemporary And fosters a dialogue between artists, curators, and writers from Africa and the diaspora, and exposes this dialogue to an international audience. The title encapsulates our main vision: that an artist working today is first of all “contemporary and” maybe born in Accra, educated in Paris, based in Lagos, and so on.
WW: This year’s Armory Focus makes a point of noting the difference between art made by artists from Africa and the diaspora, versus strictly the geography of an entire continent. That distinction is not always made. Why was it important for you to work from the frame of “African Perspectives” rather than “Africa”?
JG & YM: Because there is no such thing as “African art.” And what is an “African artist”? Someone who was raised in London, with parents from Ghana, who studied in Johannesburg, and now lives in Lagos? Or an artist who grew up in Nairobi and never left his country? Africa has 54 countries and a painter from Cairo might have nothing in common with a performance artist from Dakar. It is too simple to reduce an artist and their work to where they were born. All of the diverse aspects surrounding an artist, such as his or her birthplace, education, and so on, combined, define and differentiate an artist. This is what we call international art from African perspectives.
WW: How did you go about selecting the work of emerging curators, artists, and art spaces you wanted to showcase?
JG & YM: We are both art historians and looked at the works from that perspective first. What’s important to us is to start with an interest in a particular artist and then go from there, approaching the representing galleries from Addis to Lagos to London. What’s important to us is the fact that most of the exhibiting galleries we invited are from African cities.
WW: How did the audience of New York affect your choices, if at all?
JG & YM: New York is one of the important centers of the art world and has a diverse wealth of cultures and nationalities. However, we received a lot of feedback that there is a very high interest in new voices from African perspectives. We are thrilled to be able to present and bring together artists and art spaces from Africa and the diaspora in a selection that is truly the first of its kind in New York.
WW: What has been your approach for curating “Focus: African Perspectives” within a fair context?
JG & YM: We are aiming to demonstrate that talking about “art from Africa” means to talk about an immense, diverse cultural production of artists from both Africa and the diaspora. This Focus leads visitors beyond the old, stereotypical idea of art from Africa. We think Armory Focus is a fantastic platform to expose the diversity of artistic practices by these global young contemporaries—not from Africa, but from African perspectives. Through this platform, The Armory Show exemplifies how the art market not only allocates an economic presence and value to art, but how it can also be an emphatic promoter and supporter of productive and creative networks and relations.
WW: Can you tell us about some of the work and projects that will be on view? Is there or are there common themes or threads throughout?
JG & YM: Of course, many of the artists have a certain sensitivity to the continent and the different political or cultural topics taking place in African countries. Our aim was not to look for one focus, like photography, but to really take the chance to show the aforementioned diversity of artistic voices—voices that go beyond the expected topics when thinking of the continent such as “poverty, AIDS, corruption.”
WW: What kinds of conversations are you hoping to start or even change around contemporary art from the African perspectives?
JG & YM: We would love the visitors to realize, in a completely non-dogmatic, non-didactic way, how diverse these artistic positions are and how problematic it is to use the label “African art.” But primarily, we want them to experience a great selection of contemporary art!