On November 11, I attended Seattle’s first ever Affordable Art Fair at the city center. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had high expectations. The Affordable Art Fair is a traveling art show making stops all over the world, including New York, London, and Rome (Hong Kong will host the 2013 show). In Seattle, it seemed to signal that we as a city can appreciate international art, and that we have a burgeoning scene of contemporary artists and galleries worthy of attention. The Fair attracted the works of fifty galleries worldwide, and I was happy to see a lot of local art featured. I wanted to see some exemplary art by both established and emerging artists, and I was not disappointed.
I saw many amazing works over the course of the afternoon, but by far my favorite artist of the day was someone I had never heard of: the Senegalese painter and collagist Soly Cissé.
It is difficult to describe just how complex and intense Cissé’s work feels in theme, technique, and message. Brilliant blues, pinks and yellows leap from a background of black – something for which Cissé is famous. Of all the works I viewed at the Fair, Cissé’s work simultaneously captivated and challenged me as a viewer, and I immediately wanted to learn more about him.
I chatted with Mariane and Pierre Lenhardt, the owners of M.I.A. Gallery on Second Avenue, and the hosts of Cissé’s works at the Fair. They talked about Cissé’s reception in Europe as one of Africa’s most gifted contemporary visual artists, and of the furious pace at which he creates his art. They also related a story told by Cissé himself, of a French art critic who advised Cissé to quit using the color pink, since “pink is not an African color”. Cissé, appalled at such overt pigeon-holing of his work, retaliated by using pink, and lots of it. In his 2011 work “Pink Men” (see below), Pierre tells me that the critique retard fuck you inscribed upon the canvas confronts head-on the prejudices lurking beneath western tastes and trends in art. As the experience surely confirmed for Cissé, art from Africa continues to be appropriated by western viewers in order to confirm what we think we know about Africa.
The Lenhardt’s story led me to consider further the reception of “African art” in the west. Even the category “African art” ignores the incredible diversity of the continent, suggesting a cultural harmonization that is of our own imagining. The multitude of cultural difference found throughout Africa cannot be neatly summed up and spoken for. But do we seek specific narratives and representations of Africa when we look at “African art”? Have we come to expect a certain stereotype of Africa in the images of its peoples? Are these stereotypes confirming how we already feel about Africa?
It is time for us to examine carefully the Africa of today that we experience in our own culture. Not the Africa of a romantic past, or on our TVs. Cissé and the artists showcased by M.I.A. Gallery (which stands for “Missing in Art”) are challenging the stereotypes with a bold native voice. You can read more about M.I.A. Gallery in Brangien Davis’ article from Seattle Weekly.