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Blood Art from Africa?

"African Map" (partial) image from

Everywhere one looks these days, the supposedly "forgotten" continent is under the glare of spotlights. But there is a thin line between patronage and plunder.

It's happening in the movie business, with films like Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland; and at publishing houses, which are now spurring a 'boom of African writings (including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Orange-prize winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun). Africa is increasingly being looked to as a trove of stories, images, and trends. It should probably come as no surprise that at this time in history, after having been exploited over centuries for land, minerals and labor, as it still is, Africa should also come to be seen as an eminently exploitable terrain by the global arts and entertainment industries.

Now it's the art world's turn. Although the visual arts are typically ahead of the curve, uncovering trends before they are seen in more commercial art forms, it seems they are coming fashionably late to Africa. This year, at the 52nd annual Venice Biennale (June - November), Africa is the star. The biennale, held every two years, is something like the art world's Super Bowl. For months its exhibition spaces serve as gathering ground for the international art crowd. The focus on Africa means an unparalleled opportunity for working artists from that continent to gain appreciation for what they are doing, and some believe Africa is undergoing a "golden age" in art production.

photo (partial) by Malick Sidibe

The curator of this year's biennale is the American Robert Storr of Yale University. He presided over a panel of curatorial eminences that selected the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art to anchor the biennale's Africa theme and be exhibited at the emblematic Arsenale exhibition space. Sindika Dokolo, it should be said, is a young Congolese businessman, the heir of a real estate fortune who now makes his home in neighboring Angola.

Unfortunately there has been a stink. Critics and whistle-blowers in the art world have claimed the Sindika Dokolo collection is splattered with the blood of civil wars, dictatorship, and the unsavory Angolan diamond business. Whatever the truth of these allegations, before the scandal blows over, an astute observer will be able to glean many lessons about how the business of culture is conducted today, across national boundaries, across fuzzy lines of ethics and old colonial hurts. Another question lurks in the controversy, as well: isn't it hypocritical for Western media to question the roots of African art initiatives when our own art world has also been the child of robber barons' fortunes?

For many, it is a contradiction inherent to contemporary art that the work of avant-gardist, socially-conscious, and sometimes overtly political artists should end up in the collections of wealthy transnational capitalists, gracing the walls in extra rooms of their mansions. It is also an open secret that art sales are an aid to money laundering operations the world over. Once art enters the market, it is impossible to control what happens to it, of course. And rich, powerful patrons have been a part of the art equation probably since early historic times. So the question becomes; what sorts of ethical lines need to be drawn today, when money, people and art wash over national boundaries? How does the individual artist position himself in this world? And more relevant to this case; how do museums and institutions like the Venice Biennale position themselves? How can they help improve the robustness of the art world in under-recognized parts of the creative planet like Africa, without seeming to become complicit in the tangle of dark interests that have kept these areas poor for so long? Or should they even worry about such things?

photo (partial) by Malick Sidibe

The Artnet magazine article that triggered the scandal focused on Sindika Dokolo himself and his close connections with Congo and Angola's political elite. ( "Art and Corruption in Venice", 23 February 2007) According to the article, his father's ties with the Congolese dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu helped the family amass its fortune, in part through corrupt banking deals. Then, in 2002, Dokolo married Isabel Dos Santos, the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, ruler of neighboring oil-rich Angola since the '70s. The article cites reports connecting Isabel Dos Santos to state corruption and the exploitative Angolan diamond business.

The article, by Ben Davis, also points out that the Sindika Dokolo collection, based in Angola, was chosen for the biennale not only because of its breadth (it includes some 500 pieces), but to draw attention to it as a supposed exemplar of modern-day art patronage. In their announcement, the selection committee refers to the collection as "a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa generally." (see also "Update on Dokolo in Venice", 18 May 2007) Davis ends his article asking a valid question: might this collection not instead draw more attention to the wide gulf that separates Africa's often-corrupt and fabulously wealthy elite from the poor majority? What's certain is that the Dokolo controversy has cast a shadow on other Africa-related happenings at the biennale. For example, Malick Sidibe, from Mali, became simultaneously the first African and photographer to win the biennale's prestigious Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Dokolo, who has begun to fight for his good name. He sent a long protest letter in response to Artnet's article. He threatens legal action and asks the publication to remove the article from the Internet. He asks why he was not contacted ahead of publication and asked for his side of the story. He says: "Would this basic journalistic work have been neglected if I had been a European or American collector?" He accuses the article of painting a "caricature" of African elites and failing to dig deeper for the truth.

He goes on to ask why his wife was dragged into the matter if she has no connection to the art collection. And he paints a starkly different portrait of his father. According to Dokolo, his father was a widely-respected real estate developer, an early art collector, and visionary private banker in Congo. He was born poor and himself suffered persecution at the hands of Mobutu's regime.

Other evidence has revealed that a significant part of the Dokolo collection was purchased from a German shoemaker. In other words, Dokolo bought himself the result of someone else's collecting and patronage. But, on the other hand, this fact also shows the collection was repatriated to Africa, its point of origin, through Dokolo's patronage.

Meanwhile, at least one prominent African artist, Barthelemy Toguo, has publicly cut ties with Dokolo, according to the blog Art Heat. And Storr, the biennale's curator, has been put on the defensive, telling reporters that as far as he can tell the evidence connecting Dokolo's art collection to corruption is not there. He also repeats again and again that the curatorial decision was made without knowledge or consideration of the matters Artnet dredged up.

Here is the real center of the controversy. The question is not whether or not Dokolo or his fortune is corrupt, but whether or not the curators should have taken matters of this kind into account. As Africa becomes more and more a part of the global culture circuit, and as other relatively neglected areas of the creative world do the same (South America, the South Pacific), powerful trend-making individuals and institutions from wealthy countries need to step carefully. The danger is not only that they reinforce exploitative systems their own colonialisms put in place, but that they will miss opportunities to encourage sustainable and authentic creative ecosystems.

There is a thin line these days between patronage and plunder, and if one is not to be inextricable from the other a first guiding policy should be to put the artists themselves in the driver's seat. It should not only be corporations, politicians, academics or businessmen determining who gets heard, seen, read and appreciated.

photo (partial) by Malick Sidibe

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