Italy as a scene for major international exhibitions dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and the African Diaspora has only in recent years made waves on the international arena, with the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale directed by Okwui Enwezor in 2016 representing an important landmark. In an art world dominated by Anglo-American and French institutions and their art markets, Italy today plays an emergent role in breaking that tradition. It is offering curators a new challenge for representing Africa from a position that is both hegemonic—Italy as one of the historical “centers” of European art and an ex-colonial power—and peripheral at the same time, which makes the Italian landscape an exciting space to watch.
Curated by the artistic director of FM Centro per l'Arte Contemporanea Marco Scotini, The White Hunter: African Memories and Representations brought together the artworks of thirty-seven artists from Africa, France, Italy, and the African Diaspora, featuring artists such as El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, William Kentdrige, and Meschac Gaba (among many others) that have the greatest visibility in the contemporary art world today and could be said to share the greatest burden of representation. The exhibition therefore took a risk: how to present artists we have grown all too familiar with, without replicating a generic, global perspective of contemporary African art.
With this in view, the curator undertook a collaborative approach, engaging prominent advisors including Simon Njami and Gigi Pezzoli for contemporary art and Ezio Bassani for historical art, as well as the communications focused cultural organization lettera27, which works to subvert multiple stereotypes that surround the African continent and to amplify the voices of intellectuals, artists, and cultural activists from Africa and the Diaspora.
This component of the exhibition was key to telling its own story, one set in juxtaposition and in dialogue with the history of African art in general (European constructions, images, and myths of Africa filtering through European exhibitions of African art); Italian colonial history during the Fascist regime (1920s–1940s) seen though archive material from this period; contemporary and historical African artworks from private and public collections in Italy from the early twentieth century to the present day, representing a dramatic shift in focus on collecting contemporary art. This combination of past and present successfully managed to take the audience on a curatorial journey through Italy's colonial past to the present and beyond, looking critically towards the future. As Marco Scontini writes in the exhibition brochure:
Recognition begins with a radical criticism of our view of Africa. Are we sure that what the white hunter saw, at the beginning of the previous century, is not still the same subject of our gaze? What should be heard throughout the entire exhibition is how this view (that of the hunter) has been fundamental in the construction of a subjugated Otherness. At the same time, we need to investigate the possibilities that cannot be assimilated that have been excluded.
The exhibition set the tone straight from the start. The public walked through a corridor transformed into a site-specific installation entitled African Cabana (2017) by Pascale Marthine Tayou that seemed to purposefully play with the idea of displaying tourist memorabilia as a hunter would display his “catch” in a safari-style hut. The walls and ceiling were covered in rattan mats with an eclectic collection of objects—textiles, masks, gourds, horns—and groups of exquisitely delicate glass statues embellished with recycled domestic cleaning products recalling the European fetishized fascination for nkisi figures (Figs. 1–2).
Sections 2–4 of the exhibition provided the historical context and reference points for the exhibition as a whole. Section 2 presented archival material from the years of Italian colonialism and Fascism—photo albums, books, photographs of colonial buildings in construction and a recomposed FIAT model plant by Peter Friedl originally conceived by Carlo Enrico Rava in Tripoli—all testifying to Italy's imperial ambitions and failed projects in the Italian colony of Libya and “Italian East Africa.” A film projection by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Pays Barbare (France, 2013), with previously unseen footage taken from the Fascist regime in Italy, Libya, and Ethiopia, highlighted the brutality and violence behind Italy's so-called civilizing mission in Africa. In the same space, the striking work of artist Kader Attia presented a series of dual-screen projections in black and white and color of wounded World War I veterans with disfigured faces set in juxtaposition with African masks and sculptures. This was a reminder perhaps of the Darwinian influence in Western art discourse at the height of European imperialism that adopted a grotesque classification system grouping the artworks of children, the mentally ill, and so-called tribal African art together as “authentic” expressions of primitivism (Fig. 3).
Section 3 focused on a detailed reconstruction of the Venice Biennale of 1922 (at the dawn of the Fascist regime), in which so-called Negro sculpture was first exhibited as “art” to accompany Amedeo Modigliani's posthumous works. The overwhelmingly darkened space was made up of three walls displaying a fine collection of nineteenth century African sculpture from various public and private Italian art collections (such as the Leonardo Vigorelli Collection in Bergamo for historical African art and the Gigi Pezzoli collection of archive books and material in Milan). The objects were dimly lit in order to accentuate their aesthetic appreciation, while at the same time heightening their exotic, erotic, and “primitive” qualities in line with early twentieth century primitivist ideals. The fourth wall completed the space with a display of archive material from Gigi Pezzoli's personal library (Milan). It provided a historiographic background to that Venice Biennial exposing its catalogue entries, the first editions of Negerplastik (1915) and Afrikanische Plastik (1921) by Carl Einstein, as well as translations of Einstein's works in Italian by the futurist Italo Tavolato in 1924. Included also were early articles by the archaeologist Carlo Anti and critic Ugo Antonielli which marked a shift in the Italian context for the artistic appreciation of African artworks formerly reserved for the ethnographic domain (Figs. 4–5).
Issues of history, imperialism, and power explored in the first two rooms continued in Section 4, where the public was suddenly brought into a brightly colored orange and white room displaying artists who emerged out of the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (Paris, 1989) in which Jean-Hubert Martin and André Magnin set out to present African and other non-Western artists essentially as “untouched” by the Euro-American world, thereby falling once again into the colonialist trap of representing Africa as “the exotic Other” (Fig. 6).
From this point on, the exhibition brought us into the present, moving away from the power issues brought to light by the idea of “the hunter” and “the hunted,” “colonizer” versus “colonized,” to a series of spaces displaying artworks by artists from disparate places, ages, and in different art media. These works brought to our attention complex questions relating to the art world itself, namely, why the West needs to label one group of artists as African, and why terms such as modern and contemporary African art are used interchangeably to refer to twentieth century postcolonial art movements in Africa and to contemporary artists who happen to share an African identity in a world that is increasingly interconnected and transnational. The White Hunter did not attempt to answer these difficult questions; rather it seemed to say: This is part of the story so far, where shall we go from here? (Figs. 7–9).
The exhibition was accompanied by a program of events and debates organized in collaboration with major partners, including lettera27 Foundation, Festival of African Cinema in Milan, the Lubumbashi Biennial, Lagos Photo Festival, CSAA African Archaeology Research Centre (Milan), and NABA New Academy of Fine Arts (Milan). A catalogue is available (in English only): Marco Scotini and Elisabeth Galasso, The White Hunter: African Memories and Representations (Berlin: Archive Books, 2017; 296 pp. €25.00 paper).