Africa is known for being painted with the broadest of brush strokes. From tales of the ‘Dark Continent’ to ‘Africa Rising’, for better or for worse the world’s fascination with Africa continues. Over the past ten years, a new wave of young African artists have explicitly sought to challenge racist representations and construct new narratives for the continent and its people. From different perspectives this generation of artists convey a similar message: an active Africa filled with possibilities and potentials.

From October 7-28 Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda will present In the Days of A Dark Safari, a solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Using photography, film, and performance, Kia Henda explores the subject of the past and futures, unravelling ideas of postcolonialism and modernism in Africa. The exhibition depicts Africa and Europe in the 19th and 21st centuries, criticising ideas of the continent that set nature against culture, civilization against barbarity and darkness against paradise. Through this, Henda suggests alternative narratives about the continent.

Around the corner from the Goodman Gallery lies another attempt to subvert tired stereotypes of Africa and Africans: the newly opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA). Located inside a grain silo built on one of the world’s most recognizable coastal spots – Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront – the building is home to Africa’s largest contemporary art museum. It is comprised of about 100 galleries spread over nine floors, a rooftop sculpture garden, a restaurant and reading rooms for educational purposes. The team behind Zeitz MOCAA has expressed an agenda of creating Africa’s first major museum committed to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

Artists such as Kia Henda, and institutions such as Zeitz MOCAA, contribute to presenting Africa as a region of limitless creativity and capable of producing ‘high art’, for external observers and Africans alike. This is internationally recognised: earlier this year Henda became the first African artist to receive the Frieze Artist Award, and Zeitz MOCAA has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Tate Modern’. But whose interests are these narratives of Africa nourishing?

These different faces of ‘African culture’ have a commodity value. This can be viewed as positive: for one thing they bring trade and tourism to Africa for its contemporary art, not its oil or safari parks. Last February British auction house Bonham’s claimed that in four years the value of African art had risen by 200%. But an Africa portrayed internationally as a producer of high art comes with new challenges. One concern is the consumption of culture without critical engagement of the way many of these artists convey the West and Africa. The market economy undoubtedly facilitates the consumption of this art – but does it empower those who are living the social and material realities in much of Africa?

Zeitz MOCAA’s intentions have been debated intensively. It has well respected advocates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu who mimicked a call to Nelson Mandela in heaven during his speech at the museum opening, declaring “Madiba says “Yes” – this is what we were fighting for!”. At the same event Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille declared that “Today we are celebrating this museum as a symbol of the confidence we have in being African”, while Western Cape Premier Helen Zille pointed to the jobs the museum will create and its wider benefit to the local economy.

But criticism has also come in thick and fast: the museum claims to create a space for dialogue and transformation by and for Africans, yet its architectural designer, patron and Chief Curator-cum-Executive Director are all white males. This is all the more significant in a country which continues to be troubled by racist colonial legacies. It also adds weight to the concerns expressed by the likes of Matthew Blackman, an art critic and scholar who wrote in an open letter that the museum is not expressing enough interest in engaging with the broad and diverse South African public. For some, the celebrity-packed 2016 Zeitz Gala sponsored by large companies such as Standard Bank, Gucci and Elle provides justification for Blackman’s criticism. For others, the event was the epitome of a ‘rising’ Africa.

It remains to be seen whether ordinary South Africans are convinced that the museum is theirs as much as it is investors and tourists. Only time will reveal who becomes the principal beneficiaries of the museum. And – more broadly – only African cultural producers can make active choices to use culture as more than a just a rhetoric of change. As Ghanaian artist and Co-Director of the Foundation for Contemporary Art-Ghana, Ato Annan, articulated in an interview I did with him last year: “The world has always looked at Africa. It [global interest in Africa] is nothing new; it continues to exist… For me it is not my preoccupation to change their narrative. My preoccupation is here and with people that I exist with.”

About the author

Jonelle Twum is a freelance writer with a regional focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and Scandinavia.