“The people come to understand that wealth is not the fruit of labour but the result of organised, protected robbery.” – Frantz Fanon
The second iteration of the fair Also Known As Africa (AKAA) boasted 32 galleries from 18 countries. Hailed as the first contemporary art and design fair in France centred around Africa, it took place between the 10th and 12th of November 2017. The alleged aim of the fair was to create a commercial and cultural intersection – highlighting the diversity of both emerging and established artists from Africa and its diaspora as well as artists inspired by the continent. Victoria Mann, AKAA’s founder and director is quoted as saying, “Fundamentally, the African scene has a different sensuality and the artists have a different way of perceiving the world, bringing freshness with what they want to say and prove.”
To me that reads with a tinge of colonial-age fetishization of a homogenized and historically imagined Africa. Art Fairs have their roots deeply entrenched in The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations – a Victorian Era world trade show hosted in the Crystal Palace. It sought to display the cultural and industrial progress and plunder from the colonies and beyond. One of the sections included fine art – the currency of cultural colonialism. It was the first in a series of world fairs, a grand 6 million people attended in the months that it was open to the public. In addition to turning a massive profit, it also established Britain’s industrial, cultural and scientific ‘superiority’. This momentous event in 1851 ushered in the dawn of ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’.
Pearl-lined collars, hooped skirts and embroidered botanicals embellishment adorn seated figures. An abundant fruit platter spills over onto the wooden surface in opulence. Marion Boehm’s work depicts African figures in Victorian grab – their poses are also reminiscent of photographs captured in the expansionist era. At first glance, these pieces appear to be a much-needed insertion of black bodies into an otherwise erased narrative. However, as a German-born white woman, the complexities and around this kind of representation become problematic. Featured in this year’s AKAA – it further reinforces the fair’s culture of an unequal power dynamic between the subject and viewer. Depicting the image of Africa and Africans as valuable only when being consumed and used by Europe.
Almost two-hundred years after the first World Fair, and the West continues to profit off the image and cultural production of Africa. Globally, there seems to be a resurgent interest in the ‘African’ art market. AKAA appears to be riding that capitalist wave. One has to question the agenda behind creating events like this, and why its location in Paris feels so desirable and prestigious. The premise of colonialism was to exploit and expand – mining raw materials from the colonies, producing goods on an industrial scale and then selling them back to the peoples they had pilfered from – at a profit. This triangulation of power and commerce had also been integrated into a psychological complex. Africa, Europe did not discover you – not then, not now.