"Arte inVisible" at ARCO, Madrid 11 – 16 February 2009

Installation views Arte inVisible
arcoexhibit1 When I arrived in Madrid I had no idea that I was to be part of something historic in the context of the ARCO Art Fair. To declare that something is historic could be too grand a claim. Moreover to claim that a small event such as Arte inVisible, had special significance in an obscenely enormous art fair such as ARCO is even bolder. Apparently the event that was curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose, Gabi Ngcobo and Bassam el Baroni was a radical departure from the pseudo-ethnographic exhibitions that used to be staged under the title Arte inVisible in previous editions of the Fair.

arcoexhibit0 The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful and handy little catalogue with texts by Gabi Ngcobo and Elvira Dyangani Ose. Gabi’s text focuses on recent collectives on the African continent and while it is relevant it does gloss over how messy collectives can be. Elvira’s text uses Kobena Mercer’s text Cosmopolitan Identities as a point of departure to talk about the invisibility of African artists in Europe. I am not so sure I agree entirely with her emphasis on visibility. Of course there is still a problem of visibility has not left us but what is often disconcerting is that where such visibility is afforded African participants it is often a ghetto of some sort. That the panel on Indian art bearing the title (watch out here comes a mouthful) Production of Discourse and Construction of Modernity in India: Exercise in the Analysis of Contemporary Art Practices constisted of Indian artists, critics, curators to the exclusion of African panellists, as was the case with the exclusion of Indian panelists in ours, seemed like a missed opportunity for dialogue across the Indian ocean.

The exhibition which was the greater part of Arte inVisible was an interesting departure from the raw commercialism of the other spaces although I felt it needed more space. Naturally some of the work was stronger than other work. The drawings by Kemang, our fellow Dead Revolutionary, were amongst the stronger works (and I’m really not just saying that because he is our friend). I was also impressed by Nástio Mosquito’s work especially his manifesto (which is why we have included it in this edition). He also did a performance based on the manifesto which I missed.

uYa kae?, (2009) a drawing by Kemang Wa Lehulere
uYakae1 Also impressive was a work by Cláudia Cristóvão, Fata Morgana, which I had seen in Dakar where it won a prize in 2006. The work takes the form of interviews with both Black and White subjects who were either born in Angola and moved to Europe at an early age or children or Angolan parents. What emerges is an incisive portrayal of distorted histories, longing, exoticism, nostalgia, disjointed memories and a patchwork of unresolved identities. It does take some patience though. I have never been a fan of video work that takes its time to get to the point but this one yield more readings with each viewing, so it's worth it.

Chika Okeke-Agulu and Basam el Baroni
foro1 The other part of Arte inVisible was a discussion that was themed (hold on it’s another mouthful) Custom Markets/Custiom Alternatives: Perspectives on Contemporary Practice in Africa. The discussion was divided into three sections: a presentation by Chika Okeke-Agulu in conversation with Basam el Baroni, a presentation by Senam Okudzeto in conversation with Gabi Ngcobo and a roundtable discussion with Raimi Gbadamosi, Cláudia Cristóvão, Miriam Douala Bell and Khwezi Gule. The discussion though very interesting very quickly slipped into that morass I like to call: What is Wrong with Africa.

The Fair itself was themed: India with an impressive array of galleries from the Indian sub-continent. And although I could not say that I was highly impressed by much of the art that I saw as in the rest of the fair there were some superb works of art. The one thing you learn from visiting one of the most highly regarded art fairs is that Euroean artists produce more crappy art than anywhere in the world. However the fact that India, possibly one of the poorer countries in the world, has a booming art market, not from institutional buyers but from private collectors, is an impressive achievement. I guess that’s the power of having one billion people. This was itself something historic.

It is often useful however to pause when one encounters something that presents itself as historic and evaluate in what ways it is a departure from business as usual and in what way does it reproduce the same old structures and prejudices.

Also worth mentioning was an impressive array of magazine and book stands. sadly the majority of these publications were in Spanish and cost way too much for those of us whose currency is not the Euro.

Reporting from the frontlines of the art market this is Simba Sambo, Madrid, Spain.