As a start signal to the Young Art Critics Award 2022 author Munganyende Hélène Christelle reflects on the insight that the critique we make of art begins with the question of who and for whom this critique is.
The very first art gallery I got to know is a collection of images from my childhood. The collection is a three-part act that begins with a thick burgundy hardcover photo album filled with 1990s photos and negatives from the social life of Kigali, Germany and Kampala. The people dance, laugh at each other and hold up their firstborn to point into the camera lens. Recorded on hot summer evenings, the scenes taste the kind of euphoric nostalgia you only find in pictures of migrant parents, sweet to the past.
†The first galleries I knew were black homes‘, writes Abondance Matanda in Where does the culture happen? Many of the people in the pictures in my photo collection black home died shortly after the footage was shot. The lives of the people in the album are museum objects, photo artifacts. I know the lives that were led in the pictures, mainly from memories that were told to me, the way a child’s brain wraps around the stories of adults. That there should be talk about their existence and not that existence past was the unspoken rule that applied between the provider of the album and the little viewer. The albums are a collection of intimate memories of postcolonial 20-somethings and their pulsating lives on the verge of survival and prosperity. Two years later, two of the twenty-somethings took the leap to prosperity; my parents. They left their homeland, but in the five years before they left, they recorded their love story for each other and their environment with an Olympus mju II, made to quickly aim and shoot, the apparatus with which the middle-class 30-year-old armed himself against the loss of hope .. The last shot is a blurred image of a vehicle on the highway, the last car ride we took on an escape route.
The living room as an art space took on new forms in our new home. More nostalgic forms. Home of migrants like us filled with artifacts. With us, instead of paintings, gourds and pangiers hung on the wall, raffia mats and Persian rugs lying on the floor, white Turkish curtains draped over the window to hide our brown faces, the smell of uunsi smoking through the open window like a lecture . The artifacts became the new way of guarding the past, with migrant parents as conservators.
More than twenty years later, I am back on the continent where my first art space was formed for the Dakar Biennale in Senegal. On the opening night, I enter the impressive building of the former courthouse where the opening night is being held. Inside, a hermetic cube hole has been drilled into the building, in which a garden has been planted, surrounded by a room filled with artifacts. The first thing that catches my eye are not these artifacts, but two women in indigo boubou, deep blue robes dancing around their bodies like a wave of dust. They stand in front of the work of Tegene SenBeto, a three meter high multicolored image of oil on canvas and textile. They happen to be there. Each of the invited guests will have a photo of them along with the artwork: for the colorful picture. The women are still there when I look again a quarter of an hour later. A small number of people waiting for a photo are formed. It strikes me now that more people with blue robes are walking around among the guests, they are also asked to have their picture taken at the works of art. They act as volunteers or students who giggle and benevolently participate in this interpretation of their everyday costumes as accessories to art. Are you here for the biennial? shouts a well-meaning guest in their ear to get over the echo conversations in the room. What? they answer.
Art is dead, art critic Arthur C. Danto wrote in 1964 about the death of art in an art world that is obsessed with itself. The essay, with the title The art world, was a critique of an art world that is only relevant to the art world itself. A world where art can only be understood with the so-called refined taste of the elite. Danto came to the ‘shocking’ conclusion when he visited an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s works. That year, Warhol presented its Brillo Boxes, a collection of boxes with factory packaging. It may have been a critique of over-consumption through the visual arts, but the items Warhol displayed were identical to the items in the supermarket. Danto wondered what made these boxes so different from all the other Brillo boxes in the supermarket and why the items in the supermarket were not art. For as long as I can remember, I have had the uneasy feeling when I walk into an art gallery. The feeling that art is something one either understands or does not understand and cannot be taught, you must have it† Due to his critical thinking on rhetorical art, Danto is seen as one of the fathers of art criticism. In fact, he formulated a question that working-class people, black and colored, can ask every time they walk into an art gallery. A question that non-Western art and living room galleries have been answering for years. Danto’s own answer to the question of who or what makes art is complicated: art is art because it is referred to as art. Ketchup bottles in an art gallery are art because it involves critical thinking. And critical thinking is created by the ecosystem in which art lives: the artist, the gallery owners, the art dealers, and the art critics. Together they form their own art world and their own audience. But if you are your own audience, how do you decide which critical thinking is valuable to whom?
To counteract this demand, there are alternative initiatives during the Dakar Biennale, the so-called Off Programs, which focus on the work of independent artists and galleries outside white cube† Off programs are different from the programs in the official galleries because they do not take place in a classic gallery room, but for example in a living room or kiosk. One of the galleries we go into takes the idea of the art gallery as white cube cheated by the classic African kiosk made of corrugated iron that acts as a point of sale and is usually filled to the brim with things, painted white and transformed into white cube†
That white cube originated in the twentieth century and is a response to more and more abstract modern art, which caused artists to hang their works up against white walls to minimize distraction. But the white walls also came to symbolize a white Eurocentric art world and art space where the working class, black and brown faces with bowed heads entered. They became spaces where colors stained, questioned and radically challenged. In the Dutch context, we have gaps that also carry their own weight in relation to white cube such as OSCAM (Open Space Contemporary Art Museum) in the heart of Bijlmer, Amsterdam, The Nightshop on Rotterdam Schiedamseweg and recently the Hama Gallery, which is gradually shaking Amsterdam Oud-Zuid.
Art is an intimate space for memory. Not only as an archive, but also as a reminder of lost lives that could have been led. And as a reminder of the grateful life you live. To ask what role the modern art critic plays, we must ask where art originates in modern space. For me, as for many non-Western children and migrant children, it is in our memory of the home; an intimate space. The room where our parents used to show that they had to walk in harsh or bittersweet conditions is the living room. In my parents’ photo album, I lost myself and reinvented myself over and over again. Wandering living rooms are miraculous places. They are well-known places in foreign safe harbor where migrant families came home. The spaces could have been on the other side of the globe, thus becoming the breeding ground for identity formation.
Art is a living being. If we look at art as a space to live in, we quickly see that art exists only by the grace of the community from which it arises. An art discipline that early understood this important condition is the art of the hip hop community. Hip hop exists by the grace of black society and urban space. In the hip-hop environment, the artist and the critique are one. Together, they are part of an ecosystem that keeps each other alive: unlike the art that only exists in white cube exists, and like the migrant room, the direct consumers of art are also the creators of art. They monitor quality and make or break popularity.
Art is a way of dreaming us free, as feminist Ebony Janice calls it. This applies to artists from previously colonized areas, artists who fight injustice within their home front, artists who are feminists and artists who are queer, artists who are unsolicited politicians and artists who are honestly themselves. This applies to migrant parents who became conservators and gallery owners of their culture and identity within the walls of their migrant living room. Take the migrant living room as an art space. It conveys a history of art as a space for memory. They provide intimate art and knowledge production. Knowledge of art is implicitly transferred: thanks to hours of human archival recordings of stories that were lost in history but that the elders of the local communities carry on their tongues. Stories of hope and despair, of courage and self-forgiveness, of love and the complexity of life.
If we see art as a space for remembrance, to dream you free, we see that it can not be an elite’s exclusive right. We recognize that the critique we make of art begins with an essential question: Whose critique is this?
The Prize for Young Art Criticism 2022
The Prize for Young Art Criticism is an incentive prize for a new generation of critics and essayists from the Dutch-Flemish language area who write about contemporary visual art. The award is an initiative from the Appel kunstcenter, Kunstinstituut Melly, Mondriaan Fund, Stedelijk Museum, Van Abbemuseum, M Leuven, Flemish Culture House de Brakke Grond, Mu.ZEE and Z33 House for Contemporary Art, Design & Architecture. With the award, the organizers want to invest in the future of a high-quality Dutch-language art debate, which without loss of quality is also available to readers with less expertise in contemporary art.
In 2022, the two-year prize will be awarded for the eighth time. Critics under the age of 35 are encouraged to submit contributions in the Essay and Review categories. Grand prize: € 3000 per. category. In addition, participants may submit this edition to the Innovative Art Critical Practices Incentive Award. The winning essay is published in The green Amsterdammer. The deadline for submissions is September 1, 2022.