(All images by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Despite being the exhibition catalogue of an exhibition that originated at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Environment and Object: Recent African Art is seen by its editors as an independent document.

Created by exhibition curators Lisa Aronson and John S Weber, the book is an impressive 150-page hardcover that overviews a selection of work by artists living and working in Africa as well as the African diaspora. The introduction offers interesting insight into the curators’ approach outlining how they strategically circumvented “typical” references to Africa, to instead select themes that at first sound tangential and open-ended, but through focused investigation into each work and its circumstance, are relevant and topical.

The result is that despite the fact that the artists span the globe and work in all media — these African artists’ works are unified under the umbrella of two central themes: their choice of materials (object) and the relationship of the work and the artist to their surroundings (environment). Yet despite these themes sounding ambiguous, the selected works are visually cohesive and the book holds together as an interesting visual testament to what the editors are proposing are some of the common reasons behind African artists’ reference to materiality.

The artists selected are eclectic and hail from diverse parts of Africa, so in addition to the publication’s visual continuity, it also includes thoughtful contributing essays that carve out the rationale behind each artists approach in relation to their situation. The essays are structured to provide historical as well as geographical context to each work, describing the country’s physical (often environmental) and social situation from which the artists have drawn their inspiration.

Artists such as South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethewa document migrant coal mine laborers from Mozambique, Ghanaian born Bright Ugochukwu Eke considers water resources by using recycled water bottles and fallen trees to create “Ripples and Storm 1 and 2” in a similar vein to his mentor El Anatsui (also in the exhibition and book) and London–based Yinka Shonibare, originally from Nigeria, references the challenges of the oil industry in his birth country, using painting techniques that attempt to break the stereotype of what “looks like” contemporary African art. This background information provides a holistic overview of each work in context to its place and mental space of creation—and proves invaluable to an increased understanding of the work.

In the background of this image you can see “Black Gold II” (2006) by Yinka Shonibare, which references Nigeria’s complex relationship with its oil reserves.

However, despite these essays being written by six qualified and able specialists, therein lies my single fault with the book: all of the essay contributions are written by university professors living and working in the USA. Granted, the exhibition travelled to three venues in the USA including the gallery at Skidmore College, the Museum of Art at Middlebury College and the Anderson Gallery, however the publication — if it is indeed an independent document — should have perhaps been more considered and inclusive. Surely a critical voice working at universities actually on the African continent could contribute an important perspective? As a result, the six essays not from the continent re-entrench the notion that Africa can only be legitimized if dealt with within the context and format of first world paradigms. Why can Africa only be valid when dealt with externally?

On the left, Barthélémy Toguo, “Stupid African President 2” (2006), digital inkjet print (click to enlarge)

This issue is partially addressed in an interview at the publications center. The interview features a discussion between artist/historian Chika Okeke-Agulu who is an assistant professor at Princeton University and a former professor at the University of Nigeria, and the curators/editors. The discussion offers compelling insight in to the complexities of understanding what defines contemporary African art, and Okeke-Agulu tracks the history of artistic practices in Nigeria and shows how art in Nigeria, as well as the rest of Africa, has become increasingly exposed. To this point Okeke-Agulu observes:

“In terms of important exhibitions of contemporary African art outside the continent, Europe is still the place. At least from my own experience, while most non-exhibition scholarship comes out of the United States.”

Does this explain why it was important to include the texts by US-based professors in context with an exhibition? Perhaps. What Okeke-Agulu does express however is that African contemporary art is sprawling and as a result is a topic open to all — and that this inclusivity of Europe and America in African dialogue is can be both productive and healthy.

To its credit, Environment and Object: Recent African Art masterfully engages avoidance tactics in order to successfully circumvent pigeonholing artistic practice on the continent within stereotypical themes, whilst still being able to address topics pertinent to these themes. One such avoided topic is the generalized idea of the body and its entrenched affiliation to traditional African art. Instead, the publication chooses to address economic, social and ecological environments discussing the history and politics surrounding each artist — ideas pertinent to the body whilst avoiding the loaded symbology of the actual finite theme.

The publication avoids re-entrenching stereotypical notions of African fundamentalism, which has happened so readily in the past when discussing work made of found objects. Here, the layout and text reveal the impact of the environment on the artists work offering insight in to the inspiration and reasons for executing the work in such a manner. These rationales afford the work and artists a much-deserved theoretical basis. There are also moments of honesty in the publication that don’t presuppose existing knowledge. Even I being born in Africa still need the practical inclusions of a map of the continent to situate African countries. In this way, Environment and Object: Recent African Art has adopted a refreshing approach by reformulating ways in which to incorporate old themes and history without taking on its baggage. The publication is as a result both a “how to” guide and a professionals guide to contemporary work being made in and about Africa.

Environment and Object: Recent African Art (Prestel, 2012) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...