At an exhibition of African photographs (Liberty/ Diaspora) by Omar Diop at Autograph. Inadvertently the exhibition confirmed a critical problem facing the Arts of Africa and the diaspora but particularly of Africa. We have lost our visual language and many of our artists have succumbed to the myth that western visual language is universal. As a consequence they struggle to find a way to speak. Over and again they find the western vocabulary does not signify what they wish to speak of.
In this exhibition the photographer has had to issue lengthy explanations to each photograph to explain what they are about. Now the issue is not that explanations might or might not be needed but that this is a clear symptom of an underlying malaise. Even with the explanation I can understand what he intended but I cannot ‘read it’ in the visual image. That this is catastrophic can only be proven by the fact that if I put another story to the photograph you would be none the wiser! In some situations explanations act as a gateway but having entered the photograph any other explanation would come across as plainly false. In this case struggling to say something he has said it in the text without realising that it fails as art …. It is not powerfully present in the photograph.
When one is told that Tchaikovsky’s 1812 ouverture is about the victory over Napoleon and such and such refers to the peel of bells announcing victory …. One is forever ‘with the story’ and any other explanation would sound false..the explanation merely acts a gateway not a substitute for what Tchaikovsky is saying. In Liberty /Diaspora the explanations have become a substitute.
However this loss of visual language is a major issue facing contemporary African arts and culture.
Inua Ellams, author of “Barber Shop Chronicles’, gave a reading at Poetry Cafe recently. He too had to provide detailed explanations before his audience could follow his poems. I challenged him to face this loss of artistic language which though most violently present in visual arts is also mirrored in literary arts. He acknowledged and was all too aware of the issue.
This issue is one of the major focal points is forthcoming art manifesto.