The triptych, Quel Avenir Pour Notre Art? [What Future for Our Art?] (1997) by Congolese pop artist Chéri Samba (b. 1956) presents visual and textual representations of three significant stages in the artist’s life and career. Painted in acrylics in Samba’s characteristic comic strip style he combines self-portraiture, symbolic imagery and textual narratives to pose questions and offer personal perspectives about the history and politics of African art. This work is highly significant in terms of its content and its provenance because the scenes serve as a visual metaphor for the themes that lie at the heart of my doctoral research relating to the ‘othering’ of Africa within Western museums and galleries.
In the first painting Samba depicts himself and Pablo Picasso seated at separate tables, with the latter positioned in the foreground holding a pencil in his right hand next to an empty table covered with a geometrically patterned blue cloth, and the artist seated at the rear table which has four objects assembled on its florally decorated yellow cloth: two masks, a log of wood and a terracotta pot. The white text written above the scene questions the future of ‘our art’ in a world where artists are oppressed and also where, in order to gain international recognition in the art world, they (presumably Samba’s fellow Congolese artists, if not all artists of African descent, or from other areas of the francophone Global South) first have to be accepted in France. The statement closes with the question, ‘Isn’t the museum of modern art racist???’
Quel avenir pour notre art dans un monde où les artistes vivants sont le plus souvent opprimés? … Une seule solution, c’est d’être accepté en France. Il est parfait que, un artiste a accepté en France est sans doute acceptable partout dans le monde entier. Et qui dit France, dit le musée d’art moderne? Oui, mais … ce musée d’art moderne, n’est-il pas raciste???
(Chéri Samba, 1997)
The second painting shows Samba and Picasso walking side by side as they descend a set of steps in perfect unison towards a museum of modern art, each carrying a painting under the right arm. A brown face, or mask-like image, is partially visible in the centre of both canvases.
The final scene features Samba standing in the middle of a crowd mingling outside the Pompidou Centre in the Beaubourg area of Paris and holding another painting, dated 1989, which announces in bold red letters ‘Pop artist, Chéri Samba’. Two speech bubbles above the group of figures feature opposing views on the exhibition: with the words (in French) ‘Bravo the West! Bravo Cubism! Our museum is yours’ written inside a jagged-edged speech bubble coming from inside the Pompidou’s upper gallery area, and a more rounded bubble displaying the thoughts of a man in the crowd outside, positioned in the foreground facing Chéri Samba and questioning (using a mixture of French and Lingala phrases), ‘But what is this? Isn’t this injustice? Why do they refuse the work of Africans, and yet continue to present the same work (the mask)?’
A panel of white text over a narrow black margin on the left side of the painting provides a complementary textual narrative for this scene in which Samba poses a number of questions about the paradoxical practices of modern art museums in the West, as observed and experienced by him throughout his 22-year career as an artist up to that point. A particular concern is the absence of African artists in the spotlight of major exhibitions, which leads him to reiterate a similar question to the one posed on the first part of the triptych, ‘…le musée d’art moderne, est-il raciste?’ [‘…is the museum of modern art racist?’].
Quel Avenir Pour Notre Art? captures in three panels the essence of many of the issues under investigation in my doctoral research project – specifically that museums and galleries in the West routinely exclude artists based on their ethnic and cultural background as opposed to primarily making assessments on the basis of the aesthetic qualities of their artistic outputs.
De-coding Chéri Samba’s work
Through analysis of Samba’s biography and portfolio of work to date it is noticeable that he regularly uses his art as a vehicle for topical social commentary and cultural criticism, but disguises much of the overtly political content using symbols and codes that audiences come to recognise and interpret over time as a critique on the political situation in his native Congo, on pan-African issues and people’s lived experiences throughout the francophone African diaspora, or much broader world affairs (particularly in relation to international development).
Consider, for example, the following two comments by Samba that accompany the biographical entry about his work featured in Angaza Afrika: African Art Now (Spring 2008):
The day I opened my studio, I hung a big painting outside in the street: it was about a war between two tribes and showed lots of naked people fighting. It quickly drew a crowd and by mid-morning there was a terrible traffic jam. The police arrested me for causing a disturbance and for disrespecting Congo’s history. (Chéri Samba; quoted by Spring 2008: 288)
There’s poverty, stupidity, corruption, chaos, universal decadence…I like to think that artists can change people’s mentality; I stimulate people’s consciousness; artists should make people think. (Chéri Samba; quoted by Spring 2008: 288)
Just as in Quel Avenir Pour Notre Art? autobiography features prominently in many of Samba’s paintings, so that by situating images of himself in his work the locations, dates and characters, as well as the textual inscriptions, help to point his viewing and reading audiences towards a fuller understanding of his motivations as an artist, which, as Ben Ami Scharfstein suggests, are as much about politics and society as they are about aesthetics:
Cheri Samba and others like him have painted in accord with two implicit rules, the first to give pleasure, visual and emotional, and the second, to tell as much as they dare the social and political truth. (Scharfstein 2009: 353)
An example of this multi-layered coding can be seen in the inclusion of Pablo Picasso and two tribal masks in the first panel of the triptych, which suggests that Samba is using these images to critique Western constructions of ‘Primitivism’ as an artistic genre – particularly referencing the influence a visit to the African mask collections at the former Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907 had on the production of Picasso’s first Cubist work ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907): which also led to the years 1907-1909 being coined as the ‘époque négre’ (or ‘Negro Period’) of Cubism (Lemke 1998: 33). Similarly, by featuring the distinctive architecture of the Pompidou along with the date 1989 in the final panel of this artwork Samba appears to be making a direct reference to the staging of the Pompidou’s African art ‘mega show’ Magiciens de la Terre (1989) – at which the artist’s work was exhibited to high acclaim, enabling him to achieve greater international recognition on the world art stage. However, perhaps another, more political reason for spotlighting this exhibition could have been to draw attention to the way the show was criticised internationally for privileging established European artists above African contemporary artists in the way that works were positioned in relation to one another within the gallery space.
For me, this type of visual analysis of an artwork’s ‘social modalities’ is a crucial process for enabling understanding about how and why audiences view exhibition-based artworks differently, and is also a reason why any individual exhibit may have multiple meanings and interpretations that are all open to contestation (Rose 2012: 20-21). In terms of this triptych my personal view is that Samba uses the image of Pablo Picasso as a visual metaphor for the Western art establishment as a whole. So, rather than criticising this specific artist’s use of African-inspired images in his works Samba is actually commenting on a longer, broader history of Western art institutions’ collective preferences for showcasing African-inspired artwork by established artists from Europe and North America instead of artworks of African provenance created by people of African descent. Moreover, even when African artworks are exhibited, the display of traditional pieces is regularly privileged above the celebration of modern, contemporary art by emerging young artists from continental Africa and its diasporas.
Lemke, S. (1998) Primitivist modernism: Black culture and the origins of transatlantic modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rose, G. (2012) Visual methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual methods. 3rd edition. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Scharfstein, B. (2009) Art without borders: a philosophical exploration of art and humanity. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press
Spring, C. (2008) Angaza Afrika: African art now. London: Lawrence King Publishing