The challenge of presenting an exhibition like The Global Africa Project is indicated by its very name. What is African? Given the nomadic, migratory nature of artistic careers today. Say “Africa,” and it suggests a specific identity, as much as an idea, or even a stereotype. The point of this exhibition has been as much to encourage museumgoers to consider the mutable experience of “the African,” as it's been to provide a survey of contemporary art, craft and design made by Africans and members of the African diaspora. The question is did we succeed? Is this an idea that can catch on in the larger discourse? Or are we falling into an essentialist trap?
On the third floor of the exhibition hang a few quilts. At some point on my visit a man read one label of two brightly colored quilts made from discarded saris. He then turned to me and asked, “Why is this Indian-made quilt in the exhibition?” We then learned that the two quilts in front of us were done by members of the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative in Karnataka, India who are descendants of East Africans who started coming to India centuries ago. And a few steps away from these women’s quilts were from Gee’s Bend, Alabama—a town and an art and craft practice that are so tied to the civil rights movement and the African-American community in the South.
And so with that simple inquiry, one sensed a tension between: the notion of “Africa” (and even “India” as part of “Asia”) as a specific identity, a demarcated continent; and that of a "Global Africa," which not only addresses the contemporary ideas of globalization, etc but also that of the historic diaspora, wherein "Africa" became embedded into different cultures/practices be that in India or in the States.
I will admit that there was both a sense of amazement at seeing two sets of patchy-abstract of quilts produced in different parts of the world. A good part of me wanted to say AHA! THERE IT IS! AN "AFRICAN" AESTHETIC. But that was quickly questioned and complicated by the other pieces in the vicinity like the chair made out of recycled Ikea furniture, or turn around and see pieces of silver jewelry and crocheted hats and Sunday hats made in Harlem. That was what the show did for me: it tested my tendencies to essentialize and stereotype, but it quickly raptured that notion by forcing me to relate so many objects in a concentrated space.
This observation expressly demonstrates why we decided to move away from defining Africa by representations of different coutry-states or traditional sites and focus on it as a psychic space that spans the globe. It is intriguing to see a quilting technique that has been associated with west African strip weaving in two different diasporic communities a world apart. But it also speaks to how the skills of the hand and various artifacts transmit, retain and riff off of traditions when peoples are displaced. The incredible versatility and invention in the Global African world has been propelled by material exploration --i.e. baskets made from telephone wire or objects created out of recycled materials and objects--and speaks to a creative impulse that defies boundaries and definitions. But on the other hand allow us to contemplate the correlations of responses from different areas and regions.
The vast survey of creation on view in this exhibition--the many currents of ideas, the intermingling of motifs from different parts of the world--are all proof that we are all African.