The Arak Collection is housed in Doha, Qatar. An acronym for the name of the collector – AbdulRahman Al Khelaifi – Arak is the most in-depth grouping of Sub-Saharan African art in the Gulf Region. There are over 3000 works by 250 artists. It is this respect and understanding of an artist’s range, instead of cherry-picking an individual favourite, which affirms the quality of Arak’s approach; its desire, first and foremost, to present the artist and their works not as a commodity, but as a cipher for a complex cultural expression. For as we well know, Africa has for centuries been the victim of an extractive colonial economy. In this regard, the Contemporary African Art Market is no different. While its goal is to champion creatives who have historically occupied a cultural periphery, in relation to an imagined centre – excised from the Western Art Canon, and now, in this revisionist era, re-integrated into a rapidly evolving global canon – one cannot ignore the fact, despite this noble ethico-political enterprise, that the African continent remains a remote fetish, a morbid fascination, a begging bowl, a repository of colonial guilt.
I say this, not to begrudge the successes of African art in the past decade. The global interest has been stratospheric. And here, one cannot ignore the invaluable role played by the Cameroonian-born curator and director of Zeitz MOCAA, Koyo Kouoh, who has spearheaded a potently Contemporary African Art Vision. Her ‘Africa’ surpasses the bounds of a continent, provides added depth to the euphemism, the ‘African Diaspora’. If ‘A country is an aggregation of cultural expressions and influences’, then those who conform to national aggregates such as Brazil, Cuba, or Haiti, for example, should, perforce, also be recognized as ‘part of the African continent’. This is because, for Kouoh, Africanity is ‘and idea that goes beyond borders’, as inter-regional as it is trans-continental. She reminds us that ‘more than half of Brazil’s 200 million people are of African descent’. As for the USA? 12% are African-American. My point? That cultural singularities are built on shifting boundaries, and, as such, are immensely volatile and porous. Thus, it is absurd to conceive of ‘African People’ within a continental boundary, or ‘African Art’ from an essentialist perspective, despite the fact that this prejudicial and reductive approach persists.
If I frame my reflection on the Arak Collection accordingly, it is because its goal is not to stunt or to overdetermine the nature and significance of Africa, but, more modestly, to grow an ever-evolving understanding. Africa, in this regard, is more an experience and an experiment, rather than an encompassing Idea. At the centre of the Arak Collection stands AbdulRahman Al Khelaifi – more familiarly known as A-Rahman – a retired banker who in 2016, following a 15-day adventure on Rovos Rail, from Dar es Salaam to Cape Town, developed an irresistible interest in African art. He, and his wife and daughters, travelled through Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa – diagonally from Africa’s East Coast to its Southernmost point. However, what was the trigger, what the generator of A-Rahman’s interest in African Art? Clearly it was not a fascination for the African curio, or curiosity, its decorous pastoral scenes, or its wildlife. Rather, it proved to be Africa’s aesthetic radioactivity, its visceral disregard for type, its disintegrative and transformative relationship with raw material, its rich complex of suffering and exhilaration – its agony and its ecstasy.
It is this paradox, and its varied inter-regional expression, which has inspired A-Rahman to continue his travels, deepen local connections, better understand the specifics of culture-geography-politics in the expression of artworks which are not so much iconic as they are inter-zonal – forged between worlds. As such, it is not the essence of an artwork that compels A-Rahman, but its organic ambivalence, or, its ability to traverse the dogmatic constraints typically affixed to African Art. Here, the fate of the African Mask – its spiritual-emotional-cultural deactivation via European Modernism – is a case in point, which has since been corrected. For it is not the expropriation of goods that matters most, but the complexity of their circulation. The same applies to people. Which is why Kouoh can reasonably extend the boundaries of Africanity. As Olu Oguibe has noted, ‘Movement is the human condition’. In this regard, A-Rahman’s collection of maps of Africa serves as a telling index, for boundaries are never fixed, always historically contingent.
It is the ever-changing nature of places, countries, continents, in particular Africa, that has inspired A-Rahman, whose collection is as urban as it is pastoral, ‘Afropolitan’ in its largesse and generosity, temperamentally attuned to the legendary saying – ex Africa semper aliquid novi / out of Africa always something new. Because, if Africa embodies resilience, despite centuries of oppression, it also embodies an organically innovative open-ended authenticity. It is for this supreme reason that its artists, long neglected, now find themselves in the sight-lines of global interest and investment. That the London-New York-Marrakesh based African Art Fair, 1:54, is opening a platform in Hong Kong is a testimony to African art’s tentacular reach. That A-Rahman, a Qatari, should find himself as smitten is especially intriguing, given, to date, the relative disinterest in the Gulf Region regarding Sub-Saharan Africa. Geopolitically, Qatar straddles the East and West, its role as mediator in the current regional war and unrest unsurprising. That A-Rahman should diverge and expand the focus, in the full knowledge of Africa’s growing global importance – because of its cultural strength, not merely its natural and human resources – affirms the perspicacity of his vision. After all, Steve Bantu Biko was profoundly on point when he noted that Africa would gift the world its ‘human face’. And how urgently do we need this humanity – given the threat of a world war, or the tragic fait accompli of our Anthropocene Age.
Despite fatality, we must continue. Here, it is the undaunted strength of our African artists that carry the promise not only of the survival of humanity but its exultation. Some recently acquired works by A-Rahman stand as a testimony to this vision. At 1: 54 in London, A-Rahman spotted the mixed media work by the Malian, Ange Dakuo. The impact was strong enough to compel the purchase of two works a few weeks later at AKAA, the Paris-based fair, ‘Also Known as Africa.’ Titled ‘Esperance’, they are made with cardboard, newspaper, cotton thread, and acrylic, a now familiar recycled composite, which typifies African expression. Translated as ‘hope’, ‘dream’, or ‘fantasy’, ‘Esperance’ supposes a positive yet abstract expectation. As such, it embodies the yearnings of the world.
Another work acquired this year is ‘Abstract X’ by the late South African, Samson Mnisi, a combine of spray paint, pastel and collage on paper. A gnomic yet sunny work with a striated white-blue-black core, it once again conjures an aspirational mystique, in the manner, say, of a Rothko painting. That Rothko should note that his art is ‘not abstract, it lives and breathes’, should remind us that abstraction never operates at a remove, that it is an integral dimension of life itself. In the Arak Collection this insight is cherished. Abstraction and figuration are never seen as mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is their interpenetration that informs its greater body. Other new acquisitions of works by Hazem Alhussain from war-torn Sudan, and the late South African Savid Koloane, affirm this core intersection. Koloane’s charcoal and pastel drawing, ‘Traffic’, captures the implosive radioactivity I’ve noted earlier. A quintessential ‘Afropolitan’ work, it is life-affirming, and spectacular in its ordinariness. This qualification is crucial, when we consider that Africa has always been denied normalcy, always perceived in extremis.
Arak is the most in-depth grouping of Sub-Saharan African art in the Gulf Region.
If these acquisitions by A-Rahman, for the Arak Collection, tell us anything, it is that African art is a dynamic expression of a trans-local and inter-zonal global reality. For while it is singular, it is never exclusive. This, after all, is Africa’s true purpose, its global-civilisational design, its creative all-too-human role. As I write, A-Rahman is heading to Kenya (Nairobi), Uganda (Kampala), and Rwanda (Kigali), to visit galleries, artist’s studios, artist’s residencies, art centres and NGOs. His inquiry, indeed, his great adventure, is open-ended, for nothing can quite be anticipated in advance. This has always been the case regarding one’s relationship to art, though art historians would tell us otherwise. Art, after all, is an unbidden encounter, a miraculous insight, a prompt, a spur – a hope.
It is this respect and understanding of an artist’s range, instead of cherry-picking an individual favourite, which affirms the quality of Arak’s approach.