Works of art in the post memory condition (Conclusion)

Untitled (mixed technique, wood, silicone, metal) | 2019 | John K. Cobra (courtesy of the artist)Untitled (mixed technique, wood, silicone, metal) | 2019 | John K. Cobra (courtesy of the artist)The explorer Henri Morton Stanley, in his work In Darkest Africa (1890), reports a meeting with King Roumanika who, in his palace, made him visit one of the rooms, which was actually a museum, and whose description reveals an important collection of objects coming from various regions of his nation and organized in a very methodical way.

This is just one example, of the many that could be enunciated, that allows us to ensure that the identification and relationship with the art objects was considered in Africa long before their presentation in European and American museums. And if Western museography, like all European disciplines of classification and ordering, claims to classify art objects, cult and functional, with the status of works of art, this was only due to a claim to a hegemony of a universal narrative about what works of art were admitted to be 1.

In the face of this new narrative that acknowledges artistic production and an appreciation of it by African communities, how do secular cultural traditions of African countries interact today with artistic training and production, in the case of Afrodescendant artists, who were born and raised in European countries? How do events in the history of Africa and Africans combine with the artistic languages of the “European schools” and, in particular, with contemporary themes?

It is possible to affirm that these memories of the most ancient artistic culture have an impact on this artistic production, and that they are reconcilable with the memories present in the second and third generations of artists who are heirs to the memories of the territories of origin mediated by their parents and grandparents.

It is possible that this is clearly seen in the works of several artists such as Bouchra Ouizguen, Moroccan choreographer, author of Elephant (2019), a dance that evokes the Moroccan “passeurs” of all eras and of all ages; Yto Barrada, Franco-Moroccan photographer and artist living in New York, who has long been working on Morocco’s paleontological past, revisited in works such as “Salon Géologique” (2016); or Faustin Linyekula, who in 2018 presented the performance Banataba in the park of the Africamuseum in Tervuren (Belgium), where he questioned the expropriation of objects and works to his ancestors, now exhibited in American and European museums; or even the artist Aimé Mpane, who assumes to be the heir of the sculptor artists of his original region, the Katanga, in the Congo / Democratic Republic of Congo.

One of the most important consequences of this process is the political nature of the arts. These works and these artists fight not only the amnesia of the consequences of slavery and colonialism, but also the concealment, by devaluation, of narratives and historical production relating to the colonized territories.

These evocations from the historical past do not prevent these artists, imbued with a critical spirit and a decolonizing project, and often claiming reparation for the violence exercised on their ancestors, have a propositive attitude and engage in a production process that is a synthesis of the deconstruction of colonial narratives and innovative languages of each one’s authorship, where the context is no longer exclusively Africa, but also Europe - the works of Franco-Algerian Kader Attia on the traumatic violence of World War I are an example of this. On another level, but also in this line, are the fictions in digital recordings of the multidisciplinary artist Sara Sadik, made from the appropriation of the recurrent language of clips and the musical and visual platforms of Youtube and others. The works of this third-generation artist refer us to the proposals of Afrotopia, a concept that contains in itself the possibility of building an African diaspora that refuses the pessimistic and negative vision produced by the media about the African continent.

Another aspect very present in this horizon of artistic production, and of particular prominence, is found in the works of the Franco-Algerian Djammel Kokene and Katia Kameli, the Portuguese photographer Pauliana Valente Pimentel, or the Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo, who bring a question mark about immigration. Why immigrate, where you migrate, what are the consequences of immigration, the disregard for which the great majority of immigrants pass, from this condition, the condition of “black” 2, are issues that gain a significant expression in the works of these artists, who do not limit themselves to a critical attitude, but claim the condition of citizenship with the right to global circulation.

Because the identity of these artists is multiple, and because Europe is not a homogeneous entity, but rather a space of diverse identities, one must be cautious about the temptation to classify these artists as a homogeneous group 3, standing out in a socially, politically and culturally one Europe. This problem of identities leads us to the new concepts of Afropolitanism and Afropolitanism. The term Afropolitanism - created in 2005 by Taiye Selasi in the article “Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)” 4, endowed the Afropolitan with an African and urban identity and sensibility that no longer had anything to do with self-referential pan-Africanism. The term, first disseminated in major African capitals and then in European capitals, has been recognized and used repeatedly in various studies and publications 5.

Almost simultaneously, the philosopher Achille Mbembe defines Afro-Politanism as an operative concept that produces a break with the traditional history of African Studies with regard to the emancipation of peoples 6. Refusing an afrocentrism and an insistence on African identity, based on essentialisms, the author uses the term to define the African diasporas in Europe and the United States of America, the literary production, fashion, visual arts, and cinema produced by these same diasporas or in Africa, in cosmopolitan environments that claim a transcultural cosmopolitanism and an assiduous and affirmative circulation of Africans and their ideas and cultural productions between Africa and Europe and vice-versa.

Now, if abstract terms define a situation and an artist profile, of which John K. Cobra, a multidisciplinary congo-Flemish is an excellent example, all the more so since he claims it as his profile, Afro-Politan manifestations can only take place in contexts of freedom and in a process of European decolonization of the European countries where this process began.

Although - we dare to say - a European renaissance started with these diasporas, is already well confirmed through the presence of the works of these artists on the European and North American artistic scene, with a significant expression and impact, there is currently a conjuncture that can be an obstacle. In the context of the pandemic, decolonization, the visibility of these artistic productions by the “children of immigrants”, may become limited, absorbed in a process of limiting the circulation of people and works, to which the rising nationalisms - which also affect the artistic scene, museums and theaters, in corporate movements “against foreigners”, and whose consequences include the artists and works of post-memory. And we must not neglect that the danger of a new amnesia over a recent history is a ghost lurking.

It is in this context that the reflection on these works that have emerged in the last two decades, their recognition in the contemporary artistic scene, as well as a theoretical production in the sense of creating the appropriate narratives and building a solid critical corpus on the works and their historical context, is one of the areas of work - and has been one of the main objectives - of the MEMOIRS project.


MEMOIRS is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation Framework Programme (No. 648624) and is based at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra.

  • 1. See: António Pinto Ribeiro, Newsletters Memoirs, “Works of art in the post-memory condition (1)”, 9.05.2020 and “Works of art in the post-memory condition: some attributes (2)”, 20.07.2020.
  • 2. For this expression, see Achille Mbembe’s work Critique de la raison nègre, Paris: La Découvert, 2013, where the concept is developed.
  • 3. For a detailed study on this subject, particularly on the difference between the African diasporas in the various European countries, see Olivette Otele, African Europeans, an Untold History, C. Hurst & Co, London: 2020.
  • 4. Bye-Bye Babar, The LIP Magazine. 3 March 2005 Selasi, Taiye. “Bye-Bye Babar. Callaloo, vol. 36 no. 3, 2013, p. 528-530. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cal.2013.0163.
  • 5. In this regard see the article “Esconjura da Memória”, by Paulo de Medeiros, about the book that deals with the relationship of several European cities with the African diasporas of Johny Pitts, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, in Jornal Memoirs- Público, nº2, 2019, p. 16.
  • 6. Cf. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis”, Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, Public Culture 16.3 (2004) pp. 347-372 and Sarah Balakrishnan, “The Afropolitan Idea: New Perspectives on Cosmopolitanism in African Studies” History Compass 15/2, 2017, pp. 2-11. Consulted 21.11.2020.
Translation:  Alicia Gaspar

by António Pinto Ribeiro
A ler | 28 December 2020 | África, african art, art, communities, memoirs, memory, works of art