Yvette Mutumba (on left) and Julia Grosse of Contemporary And. Photo by Benjamin Renter, courtesy of the Armory Show.

Yvette Mutumba (left) and Julia Grosse of Contemporary And (photo by Benjamin Renter, courtesy of the Armory Show)

The Armory Show recently announced that for its March art fair it would organize a series of presentations and events under the banner of Focus: African Perspectives — Spotlighting Artistic Practices of Global Contemporaries. The Focus section, presented by the Armory each year, is a set-apart, invitation-only portion that highlights the artistic scene of a distinct region, involving representations of the particular geographic and cultural outlooks of the region through presentations, special projects, a dedicated symposium, and the Armory Artist Commission.

To curate the 2016 Focus, the Armory invited Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, the founders of Contemporary And (C&), a primarily online magazine that focuses on contemporary art being made in Africa or originating with artists from that continent and its diaspora. Hyperallergic recently arranged a Skype video chat with Yvette in Frankfurt, Germany to discuss her plans for the fair and how this opportunity came about. (Full disclosure: she and I attended the same university in London at the same time, so we have been acquainted for several years.)

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Seph Rodney: Yvette, please tell me who makes up Contemporary And (C&), and when and how you got started.

Yvette Mutumba: We started in early 2013. Julia Grosse and I are cofounders, and Julia operates as the editor-in-chief. I do some of the editing but am also working as a curator. We have Aicha Diallo as our coordinator and associate editor, and Olivia Buschey as an assistant editor. I have been interested for a long time in art being produced in Africa and its diaspora; I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on art from African perspectives in a German cultural context and realized that there was little visibility of African artists in Europe. Julia and I got together to create a platform to make artists, curators, art spaces, and events on the continent more visible. So we do many show reviews, we talk about art spaces, and we do lots of interviews with artists who are not represented by a gallery. The initial idea was to have a very accessible platform, so we mostly publish it online instead of in print, and we make the language not so academic.

We thought we would bring artists outside of Europe into a European context, but the network has grown so large that not only Europeans use C& to find out what is happening in Africa; cultural producers based in Africa also use it to find out what else is happening on the continent.

SR: How is C& funded and maintained?

YM: We are almost completely funded by the German government, including the German foreign office and the Institute for Foreign Relations. The British Council pays for translation.

SR: C& is published in three languages Why is that?

YM: Because though we are based in Germany, the language that unites most of the artists we feature is English. However, there is still the francophone part of Africa that we did not want to leave out.

SR: What are the other goals for C&?

YM: We want to primarily support artists. So we list calls for artist submission and residencies, especially those outside the cities typically thought of as the art centers: London, Berlin, New York. Because we constantly promote artists, we are starting to find that galleries use C& to find and pick up artists, so we are very glad about that. We also want to help develop critical writing on the arts by writers on the continent. We held a critical writing workshop in Lagos in March and found that there were many critics attending. So we are planning to create a mentorship program to continue the relationships started there, with experienced writers helping younger ones to also get a platform and perhaps submit articles to C&. This is a win-win situation for us.

SR: Does all your content come from other writers?

YM: Mostly, thereby bringing forward other writers. The only thing we often do ourselves is interviews. We have a big pool of writers and a pool of editors whom we work with on a freelance basis. Because of this structure, we are more fluid and dynamic than a typical magazine. We don’t change the content from month to month, but rather put up new stories as they occur to us, or as we feel readers are still interested.

Actually, that is another way that C& is important: it has become a kind of ad-hoc archive by which readers can track the development of art spaces or artists. So C& is a platform, a gateway, and an archive.

One of the works to be shown in the Armory's Focus: Untitled II-The African Queens (2012) by Namsa Leuba.

One of the works to be shown in the Armory’s Focus: Namsa Leuba, “Untitled II-The African Queens” (2012) (photo courtesy of Audrey Smith)

SR: How did the opportunity with the Armory Show come about?

YM: Noah Horowitz [former director of the fair, now Director Americas for Art Basel] approached us. He is very intelligent, reflective, and was very encouraging of our vision. It really speaks to the Armory that they approached us and understood that for us it is about content. They let us do our own thing within the constraints of an art fair.

SR: What is your own thing?

YM: Well, we don’t believe that there is such a thing as “contemporary African art.” This work is really part of a global contemporary, which is why the title includes “spotlighting artistic practices of global contemporaries.” But we also emphasize looking back on recent history to resist the idea that this movement is new. To further give a sense of history, one booth, for example, is given over to an older Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El Salahi, who has been working since the 1950s.

For us also, it starts with the artists. We invited artists first and asked their galleries to make a solo presentation of the artist’s work. We invited 14 galleries, taking quality over quantity. For galleries it’s risky, giving all that space to one artist, but most were up for it.

We preferred people who are not well known to those just getting started. Most of the artists we chose are young — born between the late ’70s and the ’90s — and artists who are really embedded in global networks that influence their practices. The Focus will have one commissioned artist who provides images representing the entire fair. This artist, Kapwani Kiwanga, is very representative of the concerns of C&. She was born in Canada with parents from Tanzania, is based in Paris, and is represented by galleries in Paris and Berlin. She is a trained anthropologist who makes work around false histories and afro-futurism.

SR: It sounds like it will be an important event.

YM: We see the Focus section as a great opportunity for us to continue and broaden our mission.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

15 replies on “A Conversation with One of the Curators Bringing African Art to the 2016 Armory Show”

    1. The art world has never been a meritocracy, but what is the problem with this project? I for one would rather see more African art at major fairs. It’s not plagued with commercialist bombast like much Euro-American and Chinese art is.

        1. Call me an idealist but I’d like to see art that isn’t *still* being made to fit in a mid-century historical model of what good art is (Greenberg / Rosenberg).. Which was also promoted by the CIA. There is already plenty of crapstract painting squeezing out those last dollars (and plenty of good abstract painting doing it too). The Armory, 100 years old now, is for international art being made *today*. It is where Duchamp and Cubism was introduced to America. If anything is in keeping with the spirit of the Armory, it’s showcasing African art unseen in the States.

          (And don’t worry, Armory Masters will likely have de Koonings and Pollocks, as it was created for people buying in the canon.)

          1. You seem to not know that the Armory isn’t THE ARMORY, and backing by the CIA isn’t proof of lowbrow art.
            Your so called idealism is fueling the Kinkades and Trumps and you (again) don’t know it.
            Your antisemitism is showing through your open fly.
            “…unseen in the States.” isn’t proof of quality either,
            as Madonna in Dung was nothing but crap, unlike Artist Shit in a Can, or Christ in Piss.
            I wasn’t at the Armory 100 years ago, but Brancusi was and Duchamp. I was on 10th Street though, where Art was made (with a capital A), not like the masquerades you want to be shown now.
            My experiences have formed my eye, not politics or populism.

          2. Yes, this Armory is in “homage” to THAT Armory. It’s not the same and I shouldn’t have said so. Corrected.

            It’s not anti-Semitic to put Greenbergian formalism in historical context, so save the ad hominems. (Rosenberg was for de Kooning, as Greenberg was Pollock’s champion. So I mention both.) I could accuse you of being “racist” for dogging out Ofili and Serrano, but that would be just as pathetic.

            As for appealing to your own authority, it doesn’t matter if you once got drunk at the Cedar Tavern. The subject is the relevancy of showing African art at the art fair. All you’ve done is gripe that the art world isn’t what it used to be or at least what you thought it was – “get off my lawn!” – as if that mattered.

            Do Kooning is my favorite artist, BTW. That doesn’t matter either. I look forward to this Armory now, because of C&’s work.

          3. Well, OK, at least that. I mean de Kooning.
            But what you’re promoting now is the popular thing to do.
            I was there when MoMA gave a wonderful retrospective to Romare Bearden. Great Artist and true hero to me and many.

          4. Identity politics is popular and I’m a critic of it. But that’s not the same as promoting an overlooked continent of artists.

          5. I like art from anywhere when it’s demonstrably good.
            Africa is as fine as New Zealand and Antarctica.
            (I know that there are no natives in Antartica, but that may be a good thing for identity of the daring : )

            The art of Africa may be overlooked because it’s not so good.
            I don’t like much Asian art. Am I overlooking it?
            Maybe, but there’s a big difference between not liking something and liking it because of its fashionable geographic location.

            Don’t get me wrong. I like Africa itself and think that an African Spring would be fantastic.
            Political corruption reigns there and I’m sick of hearing about it.

            Promoting art has been irresponsible for a long time.
            I was there when Soviet art was a big thing, and the Russian mobs got rich by stealing works from the artists and selling them to NY morons.

          6. You don’t have “demonstrably good” art without a demonstration of it. Nor do you have demonstrably bad art that goes unseen. Wanting to see African art at an international art fair justifiable and good, period.

          7. It’s more complicated than the art world paints it. Hence my criticisms of shallow moralizing, shaming, blackmailing, and self-aggrandizing. It doesn’t necessarily yield good results (e.g., making a few black artists richer and richer, making emerging black artists bow to race politics to get noticed, which severely restricts their artistic possibilities, etc). I’m not against the ethos of “diversity” and so forth. I am against the way it’s badly handled in mainstream art culture. It’s generally authoritarian and manipulative.

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