Lisa Binder on Cosmopolitanism, Trends to Watch, and Work as Curator at Museum for African Art
In the span of several years, awareness of contemporary African art has dramatically risen throughout the world.
This is at what Lisa Binder has personally seen as the curator of contemporary art at the Museum for African Art in New York. Her job involves paying close attention to art created by artists in African and the African diaspora and creating traveling exhibitions in conjunction with other institutions. This leads her to cross paths with a range of people within the art and museum worlds, from private collectors to African art luminaries like Sokari Douglas Camp, El Anatsui, and Magdalene Odundo.
What she told Art van Africa during our exclusive interview is good news to all invested in African art, as she sees a growing awareness of and interest in the genre. Advancing technologies bring images of Africa straight to people’s desktops, familiarizing a continent and its symbols to those who normally never would have come across it. The result is cosmopolitanism, she says, or relationships between other people and places.
AvA | How would you define contemporary African art? Is it different from, say, a traditional West African mask made by an artist living today?
LB | “People have different opinions and different perspectives. But a lot of the answer to that has to do with the market for acquiring these works, and that includes museums as well as private collectors. If someone’s interested in contemporary art versus traditional art that pulls specifically from traditions that predate the start of the contemporary art world practice, it’s a sliding distinction. But for me, I work with artists who live and worked in Africa — or the diaspora – and make work very specifically for a contemporary art market. So you would see these artists in MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] or the Guggenheim, or places of that nature. But that’s not to say artists who make masks or masquerades aren’t seen either. It’s just that contemporary art is a different way of consuming the art. So we have to make those distinctions.”
AvA | What is the public knowledge of and demand for contemporary African art like these days? Has it changed since you started at the Museum in 2007?
LB | “Sure, it has dramatically changed since the time I started – from when I was studying it and all the way up to when I was hired and the present day. It’s a global awareness, a global market. People are much more connected because of the Internet. It’s a more cosmopolitan world than it was 10 or 20 years ago, so artists and objects move a lot more freely than ever before. So in terms of awareness and interest it’s an African movement. It started with contemporary Asian art, then South America, and now Africa is hot.”
AvA | What’s been the driving force behind this change, in your opinion?
LB | “It’s what I was talking about before – cosmopolitanism. Having a relationship with other places and people. Artists from Africa are constantly traveling for residencies and going to see work in Europe and Asia and taking those experiences and incorporating them into their work. It’s nothing new. Because of this ability to move freely, the work becomes more accessible to the people who necessarily aren’t from there. We are familiar with the imagery or sentiment in a way we haven’t been exposed to in the past, so the exchange is a lot more fluid.”
AvA | The phrase “contemporary African art” encompasses an entire continent. Are there different genres or nuances in the art coming from the different parts of Africa?
LB | “There is not one solid answer. As a curator what I do is honor the self-definition or self-reference to the artist. Some of the artists I work with are very interested in the fact that the first thing I tell about them has nothing to do with Africa. Their work is just like any other contemporary artist’s. And then, more and more you learn the influences and those influences are often related to Africa. Other artists are insistent that being from Africa is the most important thing and paramount to their work and that needs to be highlighted.”
AvA | Which African artists stand out to you today in terms of international success and recognition? Haven’t you worked with notable artists like El Anatsui and others?
LB | “Of course El [Anatsui] has had a meteoric rise to fame and he’s doing amazing things. He’s in New York with a retrospective that I curated and is traveling and doing other shows of his work. He’s traveling internationally and being collected internationally.
One of the most interesting things is that a lot of the most amazing artists who live and work in Africa may not necessarily have had an exhibition in non-African settings yet or for various reasons have stayed away from that relationship. For example, we have another exhibition with Jane Alexander and she specifically stayed away from the art world and galleries because it was important to her. And this happens with a lot of artists in Africa. They’re either not connected to that world world or concerned of being connected. But her work is amazing and every artist in Africa knows her work and you can’t not know it [in Africa]. Because she hasn’t made an effort to have a gallery, we don’t know her as well.
Another artist we’re doing an exhibition of here in the museum is Ibrahim El-Salahi. He’s a Sudanese Modernist, actually – you can’t forget that modernism is happening in different parts of Africa at different times. He was an exile in the Middle East and now works and lives in London. He’s 81 and was part of this amazing Modernist movement in Sudan in the sixties and studied in London. He’s also part of the cosmopolitanism I was talking about — he incorporates into his work a very definite Sudanese but also a unique element. These are the kinds of things entering the consciousness of modern African experiences.”
AvA | Are there any current trends in the African art scene that people might want to know about?
LB | “I would say one of the trends that’s worldwide but also importantly happening all over Africa is the biennale. There were only a handful a few decades ago and now there are over 400 worldwide and this is to raw the attention to underrepresented artists and give voice to artists who aren’t part of the mainstream conversation. There so many amazing ones like the Johannesburg Art Fair, all you need to do is show up and be blown away.
That is a trend overall but in terms of artwork and practice it’s such a wide variety — often you’ll find incorporation of a very African style or technique or influences with something else, like American, European, or Asian. Not because the African style is Western but because it’s so astute at incorporating other experiences. It just takes it and makes it amazing and recognizable and interesting.”