© Zebra Katz, photo by Alison Brady
“If, however, the Tate Modern were an institution working beyond the smug reflex of Western museological authority, it would have found right in its own context work of artists like Rotimi Fani-Kayode, the Nigerian- British photographer whose work—formally and conceptually—involves a long, rigorous excursus into the distinction between the nude and nakedness as it concerns the African body. The analytic content, not to say the formal and aesthetic contradictions that Fani-Kayode’s photographic work introduces us to about the black body in contrast to the modernist nude, is quite telling. More substantial is its awareness of the conflicted relationship the black body7 has to Western representation and its museum discourse. This makes the absence of works like his in the Nude/Action/Body section of the Tate Modern the more glaring. We can substitute Fani-Kayode with any number of other practitioners, but he is important for my analysis for the more specific reason of his Africanness, his conceptual usage of that Africanness in his imagery, and his collapse of the fraught idea of nakedness and the nude in his photographic representation. Fani-Kayode’s pictures also conceive of the black body (in his
case the black male body with its homoerotic inferences) as a vessel for idealization, as a desiring and desir- able subject, and as self- conscious in the face of the reduction of the black body as pure object of ethnographic spectacle. All these critical turns in his work make the Tate Modern’s inattention to strong, critical work on the nude and the body by artists such as Fani-Kayode all the more troubling, because it is precisely works like his that have brought to crisis those natural- ized conventions of otherness, which throughout history of modern art have been the stock-in-trade of modernism. Whatever its excuses for excluding some of these artists from its presentation, we should discount Tate Mod- ern’s monologue on the matter of the ethnographic films. Accompanying the extracts, which also manifest a characteristic double- speak, the label expounds on the matter of the films’ presence in the gallery:
European audiences in the early 20th century gained experience of Africa through documentary films. Generally these conformed to stereotyped notions about African cultures. An ethnographic film of 1910, for instance, concentrates on the skills and customs of the Senegalese, while Voyage to the Congo, by filmmaker Marc Allégret and writer André Gide perpetuates preconceptions about life in the ‘bush’. However, the self-awareness displayed by those under scrutiny, glimpsed observing the filmmakers subverts the supposed objectivity of the film.
The Tate Modern in this supplementary discourse imputes both the manufacture and consumption of the stereotype to some past European documentary films and audiences, which is to say that the business of such stereotypes lies in the past, even if it has now been exhumed before a contemporary European audience for the purposes of explaining modernism’s penchant for deracinating the African subject. But if the discourse of the stereotype as implied is now behind us, is its resuscitation an act of mimicry or is it, as Homi Bhabha has written, an act of anxious repetition of the stereotype (in “The Other Question”) that folds back into the logic for excluding African artists in the gallery arrangement? Does the repetition of the stereotype caught, if you will, in a discursive double-maneuver posit an awareness of the problem of the stereotype for contemporary transnational audiences or does the museum’s label present us with a more profound question in which the wall text causally explains and masks what is absent in the historical reorganization of the museum’s memory cum history? One conclusion can be drawn from this unconvincing explanatory maneuver: more than anything, it entrenches European modernist appropriation and instrumentalization of Africa in its primitivist discourse to which the Tate Modern in the twenty-fi rst century is a logical heir.”
excerpt of The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition, by Okwui Enwezor, “in Research in African Literatures” Vol. 34, No. 4 Winter 2003: 57–82