A Short Break – Okwui Enwezor

A Close Reading of Okwui Enwezor’s “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence”

Post-Colonialism and Globalization

April 26, 2010

A story is told of the first South African to travel abroad.  The native, a member of the Khoikhoi group called Gorachouqua, was named Coree At the time of the arrival of an English fleet of ships to Table Bay (around 1616) he was about forty years old.  He traded with the group of sailors and was coerced into celebrating on the ship.  While he was asleep, the ship set sail for England.[1]  The author, Max du Preez, who recounts this story in his collection of work, offers his opinion of Coree’s sentiments upon arrival to London:

“Coree couldn’t have had a pleasant time.  London was a filthy, cramped city…Coree was accustomed to the beauty of the untouched Cape Peninsula; the crisp air, fresh streams and golden beaches…eating fresh fish, cooked with herbs and roots from the veld [countryside].”

In contention with these sentiments was one Reverend Edward Terry, from whom this story was acquired via his records in his book, Voyage to East India (1655).  He felt this “wretch” should have looked upon his then current situation in London “compared with his former condition, as Heaven upon Earth.”[2]  Such was the colonial and often is the post-colonial view; the West is a bright shining beacon of idealism and democracy with golden arches and pillars of technology while Africa remains a largely underdeveloped, over-ethnocentricized, violent, dry and backward aggregate of political unstable states.  Du Preez’s view of the beauty and majesty of Africa being one African’s interpretation of another African’s view hundreds of years earlier.  The two perceptions of Coree and Terry are in complete contradiction simply because one is the “other” and one is the “exotic.”  Or can both play the roles at any one point in time?

Such is the complex nature of describing one point of view from “the other,” especially in the case of a people once colonized.  Coree played “the other” in London, unable to find the good in his adopted home, while longing for the “exotic” (in the eyes of the Reverend).  Yet the Reverend is exotic to Coree, the fool who cannot possibly appreciate that Coree was a man who came from a place as a home, just as London was a place, which many considered home. Even Max Du Preez, a journalist and the author of a series of books with a clear intention of respect and empathy for the aspects of South African history, is “the other.”  He is Afrikaans, an ancestor of colonists turned natives who have occupied South Africa for over 400 years, and he is yet to be considered by many to be truly African.  For this very reason, describing a sense of place is integral when discussing Africa.  Without place, we cannot place ourselves in the greater discourse of humanity.

I begin with a story not only because of its sentimental value within the African historical context but its intrinsic connection to time and place.  Without the notion of time, there would not be an available comparison of the primitive or colonial or any of the other historical, comparative indicators.  As for place, it is a method of identity and empowerment, not to mention a source of pride.  Lucy Lippard in her book The Lure of the Local, states,  “wherever the individual stands at the moment is his or her place or position from which to speak.”  That much is indisputable.  She goes on to say, “Everything reflects on or stems from place, but this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily about place…”[3] It is here I disagree, in the case of Africa.  To Africans, the geography, the connection to the land and being at the mercy of their place defines them.  If one considers the pre-colonial Africa, the land on which people lived delineated the tribes.  Move into the colonial era and Europe sought to manipulate the resources of the land.  A tragic displacement of thousands of people followed, people who were forever connected to the land but almost never returned.  Moving into the post-colonial, borders mapped by the colonists became motivation for war, power and corrupt politics and still more were displaced, in a great Diaspora, which continues today.  Yet all those displaced still remain connected and are still African.  Africa is writing its own history so why is it that so many scholars, including Okwui Enwezor, cannot escape a rigid sense of time within the Western canon of History, placing themselves in a limbo of post-colonial, pseudo-modernity and what Enwezor calls “aftermodernity.”

Okwui Enwezor coined the term “aftermodern” to define the state of Africa in his essay Modernity and Post-Colonial Ambivalence.  The essay was a response to Nicholas Bourriard’s “Altermodern,” a term used to title his curated show at the Tate Britain, which opened in February 2009 to critical reviews.[4]   There is a perpetual connection to the Modern, like an itch that will not go away.  Those in and out of the art world feel a masochistic need to pick it apart and put it back together again and again. Modernity implies a time long ago and, as Terry Smith put it, scholars and audiences everywhere tend to be “drawn to an earlier age of aftermath.”[5]One well known scholar defines Enwezor’s idea of modernism in the greater lexicon of African history best: “I start from the idea that modernity was at the origin of multiple concepts of sovereignty and therefore of the biopolitical.”[6] By biopolitical, Achille Mbembe means to describe the status of the colonizer over the colonized, a position they felt they were biologically predisposed to hold.  Achille Mbembe, a well-respected and often-published scholar on African politics and history is a favorite of Enwezor’s to quote.  By all rights, Mbembe is the perfect resource to argue the state of modernity but where they both fall short is their very attachment to this word.

From Bourriard’s altermodern, Enwezor extracted four modernities.  The first is “supermodernity” which applies to the West, namely Europe and the US.  He attributes it to the Enlightenment and the belief in rationality, empiricism and freedom. The second is “andromodernity,” which describes the amalgam of Asia, in the throes of development and modernity.  The third is “speciousmodernity,” as in the rise of Islamic theocracies and the anti-Islamic movements with it. Interestingly, Enwezor considers the predominantly Muslim countries of Northern Africa more a part of speciousmodernity than of the aftermodern. The fourth and final piece of the modernity puzzle is “aftermodernity,” which is Africa and the furthest from “supermodernity.”

Enwezor explains the aftermodern Africa as a necessary plate in the tectonics of modernity because “its narratives are predicated on an encounter of antagonism” by which he can only mean the colonial and post-colonial state of Africa as a whole.  The undeniable violence that has rocked the past of Africa causes a trauma that he claims forbids Africa from moving forward.   Aftermodern is also described as “the invention of a new African character that emerges at the end of modernity.”  To imply said “character” as a united, Pan-African trait is highly problematic, considering the indelible intricacies of language, geography, religion and ethnicity within the continent, but still, he raises an interesting point.

A colleague of Enwezor’s in the contemporary art world, Simon Njami, also addresses this phenomenon of Pan-Africanism, its failure to take hold politically and, yet, how it has succeeded culturally.  In an essay titled “Chaos and Metamorphosis” he posits that a simple game like soccer unites the African against an adversary, especially when positioned against a former colonial power (i.e. Senegal vs. France in the World Cup in 2002) so that the fan becomes “African” rather than Senegalese or Ghanaian, Egyptian or Congolese.[7] Several countries in Northern Africa experience a similar cross-cultural bonding when it comes to facing their former colonizers.  Enwezor, however, paints a stark contrast between the North and Sub-Saharan Africa in his essay.  He speaks of an African character and yet he neglects nearly half of the continent geographically, based upon a belief that the societies, which practice Islam, experience a higher status and more respect because “there is a classical Islamic past which Africa is said to lack.” Yet these countries, including but not limited to Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Ethiopia are a very large part of the continental history.  This history is worth considering, especially because it is all-inclusive of the citizens of the continent.

Njami relates to this by describing the notion that Pan-Africa is possible not only under a popular sport like soccer, but its history.  It is in history that everyone in Africa has something to share. He later describes, “the history of Europe in the past few centuries is an African history, whether ones likes it or not. Just as African history is resolutely European.”[8] Njami recognizes Africa as a part of a larger global narrative whereas Enwezor shrinks the continent while still utilizing the name in its entirety, compromising the definition of Africa without redefining it on his own terms. Enwezor would clearly resent Njami’s acceptance of history, considering he consistently attempts, and fails, at distancing himself and Africa from this relationship to Europe and the rest of the world.

In his essay, Enwezor attempts to contextualize modernity in Africa as a series of failures.  For example, Africa as “relegated to an epistemology of non-existence” or as “no part of a historical consciousness” or having “cultural spheres developed out of oppression and violence.”[9]  While I connect with his attempt to compare Africa to a global historical map, so to speak, I take issue with his willingness to define Africa within the vocabulary of the modern in order to reach his ultimate point.  His point being that Africa has never reconciled with its colonial past and therefore will only enter a new phase by ignoring it.  He starts by excommunicating tens of countries in Africa, seemingly for their proximity to Europe and well-written histories.  His resentment contradicts his voice of disdain when writing about a term that he coined which perfectly applies here: Afro-Pessimism.[10] He claims that the practice of the term begins by “first invalidating the historical usefulness of the African experience.”  Does this experience not include the colonial, post-colonial and modern discourse?

Take Coree, our aforementioned South African reference.  Coree eventually returned to the Cape in South Africa, bringing with him all the stories and knowledge he had gathered (one being that brass was not, in fact, a fair trade for cattle and food) and used it against those who were attempting to colonize his native land.[11]  In this reference I again seek to relate a past with a present and find the story itself inspiring and somewhat comical: the act of the Englishmen finding the Cape a savage and deplorable “condition” and London in the early 1600s as “Heaven and Earth.” Enwezor seems to take this notion of modernity, according to the Western definition, at face value. He asks, “How can [Africa] lay claim to any experiences of modernity if not from an education derived from the master narrative of grand modernity?” and I would like to ask, “Why does it need to?”

Ownership of modernity in terms of a “master narrative” suggests a weakness or surrender.  Reconciliation with modernity in an African context focuses on a forward movement – a recognition so as to proceed all the wiser. Neither suggests an acceptance. Reconciling means making room for a different type of understanding of “what Africa stands for in the larger imagination”.[12] Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, Homi K. Bhabha is quoted as saying,

“Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection.  It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.”[13]

Bhabha speaks not of Africa in particular but of the individual to the village to the nation-state and each desperate need and intent to make things right in time.  Enwezor also holds this kind of hope not yet realized for his native continent but he approaches it as “a project of disinheriting the violence of colonial modernity.”  In one way he is not wrong – the colonial horrors throughout Africa were an abomination, but one should not attempt to disengage from them.  In conversation with such horrors, one is renewed in the strength and power to be better.  Even Olu Oguibe, a fierce critic of the Occidental approach to the history of Africa in particular claims that “there is an element of concessionism in tethering all discourse to the role and place of the outside.  To perpetually counter a center is to recognize it.”[14]  Throughout Enwezor’s essay, he argues using the very language he is attempting to destroy – the Modern.  He even quotes Hegel, a lengthy quote in which Hegel describes Africa using exoticised vocabulary such as “golden, shut up, childhood, dark, isolated, night and tropical.”[15]  This formulaic process of quoting colonial-era, Western philosophers is in direct opposition with the new conversation he is attempting to create with his term “aftermodern,” not to mention tired and in desperate need of revision.

One of my favorite lines in Enwezor’s essay was not, in fact, part of his argument but merely an analogic aside where he describes his own perception of European cities as evoking “the spectral nature of a museum of petrified modernity.”[16]  He meant it as a comparison to a group of images by photographer Guy Tillim, but what he conveyed was an untapped consciousness of “the Other” where he is the Occident and the West, the purveyor of Modernity, is the Orient.  It is, of course, essential that he take on this role to make his argument but his ownership of the role is ambiguous.  He decries the failure of modernity and post-colonialism in Africa when he should really be focusing on an inside-out view – what Africa is doing right in spite of “petrified” Europe.  Enwezor published this essay last year, in 2009, a time when Europe is virtually fading into the dusty pages of history, its influence weakening with each passing year, and continues to do so. Why the disdain as if Europe is still the determining factor or the author of history?  When did modern, whether super, specious, andro or after become the definitive standard of a country or continent’s growth?  It was the standard, about a hundred years ago, to “be modern,” but the word itself is dated, as is the argument.

Take Enwezor’s argument for the andromodernity of Asia.  He describes it as lacking “the global structure of power” and the “infrastructure of economic, technological, political and epistemological force” which, in turn, means it is “incapable of world dominance.”[17]  One only need to visit one of many Asian cities or pick up an international newspaper to know that is just not true.  If any continent is a model for making peace with a colonial past and moving forward it is Asia, who holds (and will hold in the future) far more influence and power than Europe and the rest of West, politically, economically and culturally.  He pigeonholes Asia as in a rut, yet on the road to a sort of modernity experienced by the West; then Africa as not having risen to the occasion just yet.  Does he not recognize the richness of his own continent?  Does it not occur to him that Africa need not be committed to some asylum of the not-yet-evolved, just because the Western standard says it should be?

A large part of me, in betrayal of my own patriotism and love of my country, feels he has just been a victim of his place for too long.  Okwui Enwezor lives in America and has since 1983.[18]  He lives in supermodernity while commenting on andro- and aftermodernity.  He was born and raised in Nigeria, but is himself part of an African Diaspora.  Strange that he is quoted as saying, “to live in the West is to be intimately acquainted and ruthlessly confronted with the evil eye the media casts on Africa”[19] yet he fails to acknowledge his own handicap in his argument.  The place from which he writes, not only the West but also the Western art world is the same place where dinner table conversations are full canonical quips and witty anecdotes.  In this particular essay, he seems to have lost a connection to his place of origin; as if his opinions are fashioned by newsbreaks, politics and some old, decaying history volume rather than strides made in culture and community or the ability of Africa to maintain a beautiful and elegant timelessness.

Enwezor’s discussion of the aftermodern is very much influenced by the fact that he is an art critic and curator.  His writing is driven by a creative energy, struggling to shroud that creativity in theoretical practice and tradition.  Curatorially, he is constantly bombarded by the artist’s biography: where they are coming from and what that say about their work, not to mention their backgrounds of possible struggle, displacement, identity crises and conflict.  In his most recent exhibition, a monumental retrospective of contemporary African art, he attempted to exhibit “the idea of Africa.”[20] He says, in reference to the artists he work with that, for many of them “being identified as an African artist may prove a disabling label in negotiating the boundaries of power that inform the entire global, cultural complex.”[21] He had to and still must adhere to definitive boundaries in order to show proper respect to his artists, his audience, and his critics.  In this sense I have a tremendous respect for his work and can only imagine the pressure he feels to give the West some concrete ideas about what Africa is and what it could be, he being the African hailing from Nigeria who can safely and effectively “translate” beyond borders.  He has to be the other and the exotic, but more than that he has to own up to his role and write and curate with honesty and vigor.

Toward the end of the essay “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,” Enwezor uses a South African photojournalist’s work to illustrate what he feels is the struggle towards African modernity realized.  He begins by building a defense of the artist against the accused “reportage” style of his images, the “zealous sensationalism” of his composition as well as his self-insertion into “backdrops of social collapse.”  These images include children blankly staring into the lens from the grounds of a refugee camp in Angola, a smoker in the tenements of Johannesburg, and child soldiers purveying the streets of a city in Sierra Leone.[22] The images are hauntingly beautiful, offering a particular window into the lives of the people of Africa.  Yet, the distinction between photographer and subject is clear, the distance palpable.  Guy Tillim, in his own words, is attempting to contain in his images, “a walk through an avenue of dreams.”  It is when he states what the images are not that one begins to reaffirm Obguibe’s “center” from which Tillim attempts to distract the viewer.  Tillim says that the photographs “are not collapsed histories of post-colonial African states or a meditation on aspects of late modernist-era colonial structures.” By describing his scenes with an analogy in the negative, he depicts it precisely as such.

Enwezor, however, is staunch in his fortification that the photographs reveal “the notion of a continent in the throes of aftermodernity,” as if Tillim’s subjects are still running from a past, rather than taking ownership of a future. It is this disowning, this decontextualization that he wants the photographer to translate. Just as the images lack the portrayal of the hope that Enwezor and Tillim aspire to describe, the argument fails to stake a claim in the African identity or take hold of a greater faith in the humanity and potential of Africa as a whole.  Tillim remains the Occidental, regardless of his South African roots.  His images reek of a moralistic attitude so common in South African art.[23]  No matter how hard Enwezor tries to reinterpret these documents, they remain, transformed monuments of a history he refuses to recognize.[24]

In his last sentence, Enwezor expresses his desire for a tabula rasa for the African continent, on which compose a new and brighter future, but it seems in wiping the slate clean, he sweeps so much life under the rug.  I do not attempt to champion for the colonial, but for those who suffered under it.  Their history matters and without acknowledging it, one cannot possibly proceed.  What Tillim photographs is a part of the vocabulary.  By disengaging from the “decaying legacy” of the colonial and post-colonial, one simply meets with it again, further down the road. What Enwezor needs to do is meet it and use it to display a completed vision of what Africa can be, with or without the modern.

In this particular essay, I felt Enwezor did not use the force of speech and knowledge he could have.  Perhaps it is time to speak in a language the West cannot understand.  Dispose of the modern. Disinherit the word.  Look at the New Africa.  He often describes the “disturbing nearness” of proximity and it may well be that he fears moving forward, in language and image in terms of Africa.  The global world is upon us. It is happening all around us.  The forward movement of communities and politics within Africa is no less intimidating than the rise of Imperial England or the Dutch East India Company.  It will be no more exciting or ruthless.  It will define itself only by starting with its own history and that of its people.


[1] Du Preez, Max.  Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets – Unusual Stories from South Africa’s Past.  Zebra Press. Cape Town, South Africa.  2004. P. 8

[2] Ibid. P. 9.

[3] Lippard, Lucy.  The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multi-Centered Society.  New Press. New York. 1998. P. 33.

[4] Tate Britain: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/

[5] Smith, Terry. “Creating Dangerously, Then and Now.” The Unhomely: 2nd Biennial of Contemporary Art – Seville Catalog. Fudicion BIACS. Spain. 2006

[6] Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Trans. Libby Meintjes. Essay taken from: http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/icuss/pdfs/Mbembe.pdf

[7] Njami, Simon. “Chaos and Metamorphosis.” Africa Remix. Hatje Cantz Publishing. Germany. 2005. P. 14.

[8] Ibid. P. 18.

[9] Enwezor, Okwui.  “Modernity and Post-Colonial Ambivalence.”  Altermodern. Tate Publishing. London. 2009. P.12.

[10] Enwezor, Okwui. Snap Judgment: New Position in Contemporary African Photography. Steidl. Germany. 2006. P. 11.

[11] Du Preez, Max.  Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets – Unusual Stories from South Africa’s Past.  Zebra Press. Cape Town, South Africa.  2004. P. 11

[12] Enwezor, Okwui. Snap Judgment: New Position in Contemporary African Photography. Steidl. Germany. 2006. P. 11.

[13] Lippard, Lucy.  The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multi-Centered Society.  New Press. New York. 1998. P. 32.

[14] Oguibe, Olu. “In the ‘Heart of Darkness.’”  The Culture Game.  University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis. 2004. P. 4.

[15] Hegel, G.W.F.  The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York. 1956. P. 91

[16] Enwezor, Okwui.  “Modernity and Post-Colonial Ambivalence.” Altermodern.  Tate Publishing. London. 2009. P.13.

[17] Ibid. P. 10-11.

[19] Enwezor, Okwui. Snap Judgment: New Position in Contemporary African Photography. Steidl. Germany. 2006. P. 11.

[20] Mudimbe, V.Y.  “Situating Contemporary African Art: Introduction.” Contemporary African Art Since 1980. Damiani. Bologna. 2009. P. 11.

[21] Enwezor, Okwui. Ibid. Pg. 11.

[23] Dumas, Marlene.  Marlene Dumas. Phaidon Press. London. 2000. P. 140.

[24] Foucault, Michel. Archive Fever: Photography Between History and the Monument. By Okwui Enwezor. Steidl. Germany. 2008. P. 11.

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