2012 Varnedoe Lecture 1: “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism”

Okwui Enwezor gave his first talk of the Kirk Varnedoe Lecture Series on Tuesday, February 21, called “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism.” His series is titled “Episodes in Contemporary African Art,” which foreshadows a methodology centered not on grand narratives but on case studies that can enliven our understanding of an emerging field behind which Enwezor himself has been the driving force.

Today, we are all well aware that contemporary art has become a “global” phenomenon; from Chelsea to Venice we confront cutting-edge works by non-Western artists. William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Ghada Amer have all held significant retrospectives in recent years, in addition to countless others featured in group exhibitions. However, the “globalization” of contemporary art didn’t happen overnight, and as art historians we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the transition from “traditional” to “contemporary” in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Hence, Enwezor’s inaugural lecture, aptly titled “Setting the Stage,” offered a timeline against which the emergence of contemporary African art can be set.

William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope, 1998–99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper (47 1/4 x 63 inches). Image courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies), 2006. Two mannequins, two guns, wax printed cotton textile, shoes, leather riding boots, plinth (93 1/2 X 63 X 48 inches). Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Enwezor premised his talk around an inversion of the dictum that begins E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art—“There is no art as such, there are only artists”—proposing that when it comes to Western reception of African art, the reverse is often assumed; namely, that there are no African artists as such, only African art. African art has often been associated with ritual and collective production, in opposition to Western art history’s preoccupation with artistic genius, the “Master,” and individual oeuvres.
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