“Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora” is an exhibition that affords several practicing artists the chance to explore the psychological terrain between the West and Africa, examine the constantly changing physical geographies and contexts in the perceived ever-increasing globalization of the African diaspora and identify the various emotional expressions and aesthetic ambitions that manifest in their own work as result of African diaspora. The curatorial vision of the exhibition set out to create a distinct space of personal and cultural histories, perspectives and artistic visions, while attempting to avoid homogenization of the multiple realties of the artists involved. (Nka, 2008:41). This essay will critically investigate the concept of diaspora, the place it serves in the artistic community as well as the issues of nationalism, the desire to create new spaces, migrancy, memory and the disruption of traditional Western narratives that are explored in the works exhibited in the “Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora” exhibition.
Derived from the early Greek language, the word diaspora means ‘dispersion’ –a literal “sowing abroad” and has since then been linked to ideas of colonization, migration and violent removals from homelands (Peffer, 2003:22-23). The term itself has been critiqued and contested as a concept that is neither neutral nor simply a descriptive term that can be employed by the West when relating to “groups of people, their history and their cultural identities” (Minty, 2004:11). This in itself may explain why some artists were reluctant to participate in the exhibition of African diaspora for fear of their visual artworks being subjected to a homogenized Western view and “pigeonholed into a category” and expected to “bear the burden of represent Africa to the West” (Nka, 2008:42).
Within the West, members of Africa are constantly seen as visible reminders of the “global condition” in respects to globalization and the need for the preservation of cultural identity (Minty, 2004:11). However advocates arguing for the usefulness of the concept of diaspora say that it allows for the opening up of avenues of understanding the post-modern world –“a world of transnationalism, of travelling, of cross-culture borrowing and of mixed, hybrid cultures” (Manger & Assal, 2006:7). Diaspora in this context allows a basis for the re-defining of identities, sense of belonging and the formation of adaptation strategies in coming to terms with new “configurations of social reality” (Manger & Assal, 2006: 12), individual and collective memory.
From a visual art perspective, African diaspora identifying artists are seen by the West to be in a privileged position to represent Africa in both a cultural, political and aesthetic discourse. They are often expected by not only the public, but by members of their own communities to represent –“to paint the picture of, to enact bodily, and to politically sand in...