Here is the full transcript of Touria El Glaoui’s Talk: Inside Africa’s Thriving Art Scene at TED conference.
Let’s talk about how the narrative of Africa is being told, and who is doing the telling. I want to share with you the selection of work by contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora.
I love this art. I find it beautiful and inspiring and thrilling, and I really hope I am able to pique your interest. I want to share something about myself and why art matters to me. I’m the daughter of an artist, so that means that growing up, I had the chance to see my father do artwork in his studio. My home was surrounded by art, and I had an early art education, being dragged to museums and exhibitions over the summer holidays.
What I did not understand, really, at the time, is that this also gave me an early understanding about why art is important, how to look at it, how to understand it, but also how to love it. So art matters to me on a personal level, and not only because it’s beautiful and inspiring and thrilling, but because art tells powerful stories.
All these artists have stories to tell you about what it means to be African, stories that tell you and touches about our African identity, but also stories that tell us about who we are as Africans, but also stories that tell us about our complex history.
So how can art tell you powerful stories? I want to share with you this series by Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop. This is a series of self-portraits, and the artist in this particular series is focusing on the representation of Africans in art history between the 15th to the 19th century.
I want to show you how, with one image, Diop is able to touch on our African identity, on the politics of representation, but also on our social value system. In this particular self-portrait, Diop is actually referencing another portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet. This picture is doing a portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley. Jean-Baptiste Belley was a native of Senegal, a former slave of Haiti, but during his lifetime, he also was elected to represent the colony at the third government of the French Revolution, and he advocated strongly for the abolition of slavery.
What is very smart and clever about Diop here is that he’s going back to history. He’s reclaiming this figure by restaging this beautiful royal blue uniform, where he is restaging also the pose, and he’s doing that to actually underline the issues that are still impacting individuals of color today.
There was nothing special about this very typical political portrait of the time, except that for the first time, an individual of color, in that case, Jean-Baptiste Belley, was actually named and acknowledged in a painting. What Diop is adding to this picture is this crucial element, which is the football under his arm, and by doing that, Diop is actually touching at our hero worship culture of African football stars, who unfortunately, despite their fame, their immense talent, and their royalty status, they are still invisible. Diop is asking us to dig deeper, to go beyond history and what has been written, and, basically, see how it still influences and impacts us in the present.
I want to share this other beautiful series called “Kesh Angels,” by artist Hassan Hajjaj. So in this particular series, the artist is really pushing on the boundaries of stereotype and cliché. Hassan Hajjaj is a friend, and honestly, I admire him dearly, but this particular series is talking to me directly as a Muslim woman. I experience this all the time, where, you know, people have a lot of expectations, religious ones and cultural ones, but what I love about this artist is that he’s putting all this on its head. He’s actually challenging every representation of Muslim, Arabic women that there is Hassan Hajjaj is a child of the diaspora.
He grew up in Morocco amongst bright logo goods, you know, counterfeit originals being sold at the souks. So to see those symbols representing in his work a celebration of the global culture, a critic of the global urban culture, is no surprise, but really at the heart of his work is his desire of a nuanced representation. He wants us to interrupt ourselves and all the perception that we might have on people, on a culture, and on environment. And for example, this particular picture, your common association would be, you know, certain street brand for a certain Western distinctive consumer. Well, he mashes it all up, where he is daring to imagine a female biker culture where actually Chanel or Louis Vuitton is designing the djellaba, and Nike, the babouche, and this is actually the standard uniform.
What I love about the women in “Kesh Angels” is that they are able to hold your gaze. We are completely participating in the image, but they are the one inviting us in, and on their own terms Hassan Hajjaj’s “Kesh Angels” or “Project Diaspora” by Omar Victor Diop offer me two strong examples why art is so instrumental. It is instrumental as it really inspires us to ask questions, but it is also instrumental because it ignites change. Seeing diversity in race and ethnicity in contemporary art is the only way that we’ll see changes in the art industry, but also for the relations between Africa and the Western canon.