by Aarthi MohanOct 26, 2023
A few weeks ago, I got on a call with Azu Nwagbogu, founder of the African Artists Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation established in 2007 in Lagos, Nigeria. AAF organises festivals, exhibitions, educational programmes and community outreach on a local and international scale, focusing on supporting emerging artists across the African continent. The organisation recently announced a new travelling exhibition titled Dig Where You Stand, describing it as empowerment through regenerative co-production. This phrase caught my eye, and I had to learn more about what a regenerative art initiative looked like. Nwagbogu, who is a practicing curator and critic, had just landed in Amsterdam. Despite his busy schedule, we managed to squeeze in the most inspiring 20-minute Zoom call I have ever had.
By the end of it, what I learnt was that Dig Where You Stand is more than just an art showcase. It is an experiment, an investigation into how an art experience can challenge societal norms and economic structures. Right off the bat, Nwagbogu states, “We are still aping colonial hierarchies.” This exhibition explores ways to break free from those systems, encouraging regenerative practices and circular economies instead. So, what does this actually mean? The word regenerative itself means something which regrows and renews naturally, while producing enduring benefits to the system at hand. Through this travelling exhibition, Dig Where You Stand supports artists who choose to break away from linear systems, and invest back into their own communities. Nwagbogu says, “Every single artist we have invited has this circularity which is a reversal of the colonial hierarchy, where labour is not just rewarded but is considered an active collaborator in the community.”
One such artist is Ibrahim Mahama, an author and artist who lives and works in Tamalé, the fastest growing city in Africa. The artist is known well for his large scale installations using jute sacks. Nwagbogu tells STIR, “Mahama buys brand new sacks and goes to the market. He gives the new ones to the traders in the markets, usually women, and trades them for the old, used and worn-out pieces. He works with these market women to stitch them together and uses them to cover buildings which have an important colonial backstory. He creates a powerful metaphor for trade, the exploitation of Africa, colonialism and capitalism. This is not the end… Mahama then comes back and builds institutions in that community, directly investing into that locale.” Each of the artists selected to exhibit at Dig Where You Stand has a modality of operation which works to build the circularity of economy. The curatorial positioning here looks to fortify the source community and diverges away from the more common ‘exploit and profit’ approach in more ways than one.
Another key artist on view at the AAF exhibition is Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian artist who lives and works in London. Shonibare re-invests into his community with GAS Foundation, a charitable organisation that runs artist residency programmes in Lagos and Ijebu in Nigeria. Nwagbogu says, “Shonibare is very much in the peak of his career but giving back is part and parcel of his practice. If we have this sort of vigilance when working with artists, we can show art that is very socially conscious but also with a soul.”
Through the traveling exhibition format, AAF explores how contextualising and community is essential to maintain healthy and relevant dialogue between art and viewer. Nwagbogu says, “Usually what you have with curators with a travel exhibition is the idea to preserve an original idea, to make it sterile and keep to the compact. However, here we are doing the opposite. In each city it travels so it will absorb the energy of that place and reflect that. We re-contextualise the modality and change the way we frame the exhibition such that it is amorphous. That way it serves its community and is fit for purpose, learning and sharing fluidly.”
The advantage and challenge for AAF here is to preserve the diversity of a large continent, which is often flattened and homogenised in the Eurocentric gaze. Nwagbogu responds saying, “We should look at the problem and find a way to use it to our advantage. We need to start thinking pan-African, with consciousness of diversity especially in terms of gender. The stories we want to tell are of the entire continent, and we all have an imperialist history.”
Over the coming months, the exhibition will be visiting six different regions in the continent of Africa including Lomé (Togo), Lagos (Nigeria), Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Durban and Cape Town (South Africa). The first showcase took place in Lagos at Alliance Francais and closed on October 9, 2022. The exhibition featured works by Zanele Muholi, Renzo Martens, and The Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) among others.