Editor's note: This year, 17 African countries mark 50 years of independence. The Mantle and Project Africa's joint series, African Revolutions, marks this milestone with a series of live events and online publications examining each of these countries.
An interview with Bill Karg, founder of the Contemporary African Art Gallery, New York City
Bill Karg founded the Contemporary African Art Gallery in New York City in 1987, where he has exhibited internationally recognized African artists for more than twenty years with the aim of changing perceptions about the continent’s contemporary art. At present, the gallery represents over thirty artists from ten African countries. Karg has lived in Africa for extended periods and has worked on a range of development projects in various capacities for the World Bank, USAID, the United Nations, and a number of African governments.
Currently, Karg's Contemporary African Art Gallery is exhibiting the work of the Senegalese mixed-media artist Viye Diba. Born in Dakar, Senegal in 1954, Diba studied art education at the National School of Fine Arts in Dakar and went on to receive a PhD in urban geography from the University of Nice, France. At present, Diba lives and works in Dakar, where he is a professor of art education at the National School of Fine Arts and president of the National Senegalese Association of Visual Artists. His work has been exhibited internationally for over two decades and has gained widespread acclaim. The current exhibition at the Contemporary African Art Gallery marks the artist's third one-man show in America.
Diba's artwork consists of vibrant, abstract canvases from whose richly textured surfaces emerge a variety of simple geometric patterns and evocative forms. Diba eschews imported canvases and oil paints in favor of local materials, making his canvases out of locally woven fabrics. Diba layers his surfaces with a range of materials, including strips of cloth of differing densities and discarded objects found in and around his hometown of Dakar, Senegal. While employing everyday objects and referencing such rich cultural traditions such as textiles and fabric weaving, Diba's process results in beautifully rendered abstractions that defy easy categorization. Indeed, Diba achieves the difficult task of harnessing these diverse formal elements into cohesive, complex surfaces that are also highly sculptural, exhibiting a three-dimensionality that at times tests the very boundaries of painting, and locates his works somewhere on the threshold between painting and sculpture.
I recently sat down with Bill Karg to discuss the work of Viye Diba, the larger mission of his Contemporary African Art Gallery, and have a broader conversation about contemporary African art on this, the fiftieth anniversary of Senegal's independence.
Max Weintraub:Where did your interest in African art originate and what were the initial aims behind the establishment of your gallery?
Bill Karg: I began showing this art because I loved it, and because I had five years living and working in Africa by then and had been around, so it’s not like I dropped in as a tourist. I also knew that most of the artists that I was interested in were well known and well shown in Europe, yet virtually unknown in the United States and I felt that that should change. Once I started, and because I’m drawn to things abstract anyway, I wanted to stay as far away from representational curio art as possible. I collected a particular aesthetic that would prompt people who came to my gallery to ask, “What makes it African? I like it but I don’t see anything African in the art.” I had to develop my own definition, which was simply if the artist is born in Africa and that I knew their art was inspired in some way by Africa—then that’s enough for me. This is the beauty of working with contemporary artists: I can have conversations with them. My approach has always been a careful interpretation of the art based in its cultural context and this responsibility to, as much as possible, correctly interpret it to the collecting audience. This is something I feel very strongly about now—perhaps more so than I did back when I started in 1987.
Currently you have on display the work of the contemporary Senegalese artist Viye Diba whose work consists of largely monochrome canvases and incorporates a broad range of found materials and objects. Can you talk a little about Diba's work and what attracted you to him as an artist?
I have always gravitated toward abstraction, but with Viye it was his use of reused materials and color that really attracted me. He is one of the first African artists that I know of to use reused materials. He has been doing this in his art since the late ‘80s, and while it has come into vogue since then, he was first to use such found materials. What’s more, these other artists haven’t used the materials for the very profound reasons that Viye uses reused materials, which is to make something of beauty out of something extraordinarily common, something that has been used to its fullest by the working people of Dakar.
Viye’s color is another reason I find his work so exceptional. In 1993, when Viye started working in this minimalist way, his colors were extraordinarily bright and rich and this drew me to him. I was attracted to the color and also the fact that with every work Viye violates what would otherwise be the frame or the edge of the canvas—either with an appendage very dramatically coming out from the front, as you see here in Red Escape II, sometimes on the edge or bottom of the work, and sometimes he actually breaks through the frame itself. Diba has been very creative in his physical handling of the media.
Has his work changed much since you first encountered it?
Yes. Let’s start with the premise that every work of art has within it some interpretation about time and space. In Viye’s work, his statements about space are the linear, vertical stitches of the Rabal cloth and the positioning of these remnants of human figures, which you can see pretty clearly in Red Escape II. Time in his work, however, is extraordinarily subtle and it is one of the things that he has mastered in an intuitive way that I have rarely seen. I was struck by how he transitioned from creating very brightly colored works in the early ‘90s to these very muted colors that you see now. The first time I really talked to Viye about time in his work he had been at it for almost ten years and I said to him “Viye, I don’t know if this is true or not but I’m just going to throw it out there and I want to test it on you. The sun in Dakar, and Senegal in general, is so strong that it fades everything. I think what you’ve done is create a body of work that in fact reflects time as faded by the sun.” And this temporal aspect is perhaps also reflected in the grainy textures that he creates which can be seen as the settling of dust, so that the ravages of time and the ravages of sun are subtly and intuitively reflected in his work over a ten-year period. One has to look across a ten-year body of work to see it. This, in my opinion, is his comment on time.
So any given work is part of a larger whole, and part of a process that is ultimately one body of work?
Exactly, and depending on where any work might fall in that chronology it might be very different from another of his works.
So what was Viye’s response to your proposition about time in his work?
It really resonated with him. Viye and I are very close and there have been a number of times when we’ve discussed his work. When I first met him he was painting representational paintings. It was very clever and beautifully done but it came close enough to curio art that I wasn’t interested. So we had had a meeting here in New York about it and after Viye left he went back to Senegal and put everything down for almost three months. He went to Dakar’s antiquities museum, IFAN, and he literally meditated for two or three months. As a result of this, his way of working evolved and became abstract.
It is fascinating that he turned to traditional African forms as a source of inspiration at this apparent moment of existential doubt, and yet came away making abstractions—that is, something that might be considered more universal in value, as opposed to a more vernacular approach.
Yes, and it is almost minimalist in its presentation. But cleverly, the remnants of the human form are still there in it. In Red Escape II, for example the remnants of the human figure are found in the horizontal band of repeated pant-like shapes. You will find that form in every single work that he does. The more three-dimensional aspects of his art—at times he has pouches that appear on the surface of his works—are reflective of his time of meditation in the antiquities museum, where he was surrounded by sculpture. The pouches are the remnants of the three dimensional aspects of that work. So that’s Viye—the verticality of the stitches, the subtle remnants of the human form, and the intuitive interpretation of time as it passes.
When we first met, you and I discussed the challenges in overcoming the ways in which African art has generally been marketed to and perceived by European and American collectors, which, especially in terms of African sculpture, has threatened to relegate it to the status of folk art or even curio. Can you talk a little bit about those perceptions and marketing aspects and the challenges you've faced in countering them?
Sure. Take Viye’s work: American collectors—and sometimes museums—love the roughness and the unfinished nature of found materials because it speaks to their preformed image of something that’s African. They also love the grainy texture and the faded colors of the work because that rings true with what one would expect from art coming out of Africa. In other words, it strikes a chord that is seemingly widely felt, given our success in selling his work. I feel like it’s my responsibility to provide insights into the works so that collectors can move beyond such preconceptions and gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities of contemporary African art. If the collector leaves without such an appreciation for the reason, the purpose, the statement of Viye’s work, it would be almost tragic.
Tragic in what sense?
Well, there is a real danger here that as the market for an African artist like Viye develops—be it here or in Europe—he might be encouraged to continue in a particular style and encouraged to create simply because he sells. Moreover, once the work is made and goes out to a collector or dealer in America or Europe, no one sees it locally, aside from maybe a few friends or family who saw the work in Viye’s house or studio. No one sees it locally and no one collects it locally; the work is taken out of its cultural context. So there is a major issue here—he could be expressing the deepest of social concerns in his work but it doesn’t matter because the object becomes utterly divorced from it.
But isn’t there always the problem of artistic intent and misinterpretation of that intent? I’m curious how and why to your mind it is so important to try to maintain a local, cultural connection for African artists? Why is it so important to you to try and preserve that connection to the local African context?
Because it is the artist’s contribution to his or her society. Historically that has been their place—whether they’re bringing beauty or social interpretation or political confrontation. And while they may be speaking to other parts of the world, for the first time in history we may have a significant number of our contemporary artists in Africa who have nothing to say to their own societies.
Because of the mechanisms of the market?
Right, exactly, but there are a few small remedial ways that we can combat this, and I am proposing these in a paper that I hope to be presenting in a few months at the triennial symposium of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA). We must redouble our efforts to work on the economic development of these countries so that its institutions and private collectors can afford to collect and keep more of this art within its countries of origin. In this sense, I’m really dedicating myself to working myself out of a job.
The other remedial measure that I have dedicated myself to is the careful interpretation of the work, by which I mean such things as committing to bring artists to the States for their art openings. For example, Viye was here for his first opening and it was extraordinarily important to the people that attended. I think that the artist’s interpretation—straight from the artist’s mouth, is important and ought to be made possible. If this is not possible, then the gallery is duty-bound to interpret the artist’s work as carefully as possible through constant conversation with the artist. Luckily, because many of the artists I deal with are contemporary living artists, this is possible, so long as one is diligent enough to do it. If Americans are more turned off by my explanation of the work than turned on because it doesn’t fit their expectations of what African art should be, then so be it.
What ought to be happening is that the art of someone like Viye ought to be in Dakar—being seen, being collected, being talked about, being reviewed, and being socially interpreted there in Senegal. That’s when I’ll be happy, and this is what it seems to me we should ultimately be working toward.
So what are your thoughts, then, on the place of European stylistic influences or affinities in African art, and is there a place for it? What, for example, did you make of President [Abdoulaye] Wade’s recent unveiling of the monument—dubbed the African Renaissance Monument? Its bold realist style and heroically idealized figures—supposedly used to convey a sense of African success and progress—does so, somewhat ironically, through the idiom of Soviet style sculpture. Articulating Senegalese independence and celebrating an African renaissance through the vocabulary of Soviet aesthetics seems remarkable to me. As a gallery director, do you see this as a kind of burden or an opportunity when the work of an African artist exhibits stylistic affinities—perceived or real—with European or American modernist traditions?
In terms of Wade’s sculpture I would guess Senghor—Senegal’s first president and strong proponent of negritude—would, I guess, be turning over in his grave if he saw this sculpture at 50 years of Senegalese independence. This type of stylistic affinity is problematic. However, it’s a commissioned work and who knows what constraints the artists worked within.
In general, however, one of the greatest satisfactions I get out of my work is discovering affinities. I have a piece of Inuit art that people often think looks very much like a [Zimbabwean] Shona sculpture, and [that] the statistical probability that these different local artists are aware of what the other is doing is almost zero is very thrilling to me, because it says to me that there is in fact a universal consciousness at work here.
I would argue that it is more important that the work is correctly interpreted and respected within its own culture, because almost all artists nowadays are aware of other things happening in the world, and are going to be influenced by it. It is problematic, however, when the influences only come from Europe and the West. In this case, it is my humble opinion that the art will be shaped by these external forces. However, if the art is correctly interpreted, respected, and celebrated within the artist’s own culture and country, then the art will reflect that more strongly.
This age of globalization and of a greater sharing of all things—culture being only one of them—only compounds and compels the reason for supporting these artists in their own culture. Otherwise what they produce will become so diluted in terms of its cultural context, and so seduced by what might bring greater financial success or notoriety, that it loses it significance. An artist might try to anticipate what might sell in China’s booming art market, for instance. That’s a dangerous path. Affinities are fine and exciting, but affinities and other cultural influences, minus the relevance and support of an artist’s own society, are dangerous.
This raises some very interesting questions, one of which concerns the exhibition of contemporary African art. I was struck a few years ago to find the work of another contemporary artist that you represent, the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rather than in, say, the museum's Contemporary section. To me it seems that there might also be a danger in defining an African artist as such only by reaffirming some link to traditional methods or tribal forms and colors in their work, and a danger of such contemporary artists perhaps being burdened by such a tag. On the level of exhibition at major museums and in light of what you just said about the importance of art being rooted in a certain cultural understanding, is there value in situating El’s work in the African galleries versus in galleries shared by other artists from around the world, or might this lead to problematic and perhaps even artificial associations?
You really have to be careful to not stretch your interpretation of that setting to all others. The Met is by nature an extraordinarily rich, but also very conservative institution and the strength of the history of African art at the Met is in antiquities. Even the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) struggles with what to do with contemporary objects. It is very difficult for an institution to be nimble and contemporary and contemporaneous. And when that isn’t its overarching mission, as in the case of The Met, it’s almost impossible to be nimble. And so El’s art hanging in those galleries alongside African fabrics in the African section actually didn’t surprise me at all.
So is there something gained in terms of the promotion and acceptance of African contemporary art by playing up, if you will, traditional associations—tribal colors and what have you? I was thinking only of the negative aspects of doing so, but is there a positive flipside to it?
It is a very good question and it is almost impossible to unravel. I will say, however, that in most instances I have not been able to find much of a lineage from contemporary African art to traditional and historical African art. I do have one sculptor from Cote d’Ivoire [Monique Le Houlleur] who uses a lost-wax casting process. Her work is very contemporary, but the lost-wax process of creating bronze sculpture is 600 years old in Africa, so there is a real lineage there. But this is rare. In most cases, artists aren’t pushing an envelope that already exists. I think that they are doing their own thing and really starting over. I think most artists would fit into this “I’m doing my own thing” model, rather that pushing a pre-existing envelope.
Has the business of contemporary African art changed a lot since you started in 1987—in terms of its marketing to the public—and are there things that you find encouraging about the current position of contemporary African art in the international market now as opposed to when you first started?
The most public marketing of contemporary African art over the years has been through auction houses. There have been a couple of very large collectors, Mr. Pigozzi chief among them. Pigozzi is a billionaire who has his own interpretation of what African contemporary art is and should be. He shows neither artists that are formally trained, nor artists that left Africa. Now there is a kind of purity to that, which I respect. I have heard however, and this is only hearsay, that he may also take advantage of the artists because they are relatively naïve in terms of the art market. In a way he is sort of collecting African outsider art, but because he’s a billionaire he is able to approach the likes of Sotheby’s and help finance an enormous catalogue and an enormous sale of contemporary African art from his own collection. There was a lot of press and attention for this sale and the difficulty is that because the standard has yet to be set, it can be influenced by a few people.
To set a standard where there is no standard becomes an extraordinarily difficult task, and begins to define before its even defined by anyone else, what “contemporary African art” really means. That’s unfortunate, because it has everything to do with marketing and little to do with a philosophy or a real care for contemporary African art.
Hubert Ponter is a very wealthy, Zimbabwean-born collector living on the west coast of the United States, who collects Zimbabwean art and has his own interpretation of that art. He and I agree on many of the artists worthy of collection, but not on the way of marketing them. I’ll give you two examples: I used to get an invitation to an opening where he would get a shipping container—a container!—of art from Zimbabwe and have an opening straight out of the container. Try establishing a discriminating market using that approach!
Another example is from when I was just beginning and poking around and trying to get a feel for what other people were doing in the field. I walked into Gumps department store in San Francisco—a high-end department store like Bloomingdales—and I go into a department full of decorating accessories where I find these little, ephemeral pieces of Zimbabwean sculpture. I started turning them over and looking for a name on the bottom and asking people who worked there if they knew who had sculpted them. Nobody knew the answer, because it wasn’t important that a name be associated with this “decorative” piece of work. I think this does a disservice to the field. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so serious if there was a full-throated following and collection of these artists in Africa, so there could be a counterbalance, a kind of pushback against it that could debate this type of treatment of the work. That’s what troubles me.
So does this type of marketing mean that the collector who came into the gallery in 1987 wanting to see something that fit a certain preconception of what “African” art should look like hasn’t changed much since you started?
I don’t know that it really has changed that much, unfortunately. A couple of things have changed for the better though. One thing is that museums are buying more from me than before, so there is now a more educated audience collecting in the form of the museum curator. There was also a sea change that took place in academia where now it is nearly impossible to find someone who is getting a PhD in African art that is not studying the modern or contemporary period. When I started the gallery in 1987, being an Africanist meant that you were an expert in African antiquities—focusing on some region or some tribal group and the artifacts that they produced. By mid-1990s that had totally changed. It’s a very different field now, and as those people go into professions that look over my shoulder, so to speak, there is now a much more in-depth conversation going on about the work than before.
In closing, what are your thoughts on the contemporary African art market going forward?
There needs to be a middle class and private and public collectors collecting contemporary art in Africa, otherwise there is no local reception and interpretation of the art being produced and the work becomes detached from the culture from which it originates. This is changing slowly and it is important that it continue. My aim now is really to work myself out of a job by having the art stay in the very culture that produced it. While this may not happen in my lifetime, this is something that I’m slowly working toward.
AR 2010, Senegal, Africa