Creative Uprisings: Art, Social Movements and Mobilisation in Africa

Creative Uprisings: Art, Social Movements and Mobilisation in Africa

Nomusa Makhubu and Carlos Garrido Castellano

“How can the artist, an individual kept constantly on his toes by the divisive, pleasing or passionate events taking place in his society and in the world, shaping himself in their image, not be interested in others?” The artist, El Hadji Sy posed this question in his opening speech at the Art Against Apartheid (1986) exhibition in Dakar, Senegal. “Our profession,” Sy argues, “represents the chance to change ourselves, and by doing so, to change the community.” [1] On this occasion, attended by President Abdou Diouf, Léopold Sédar Senghor’s successor, artists such as El Hadji Sy foregrounded national and transnational social solidarity. Sy, at this time, was a member of Laboratoire Agit Art in Senegal, a collective of “artists and intellectuals who had chosen the media of experimental workshops, public debates, theatrical performances and visual creations” to challenge elitism in institutions. [2] Sy’s speech reflects the impulse towards politically and socially responsive creative practice in the late 1970s and 1980s, which confronted the crippling neoliberal policies that defined neo-colonialism after independence, as well as the erosion of affirming and dignified collective African identities. It poses a question that not only points to the role of the artist but also to the artist’s ineluctable responsibility to their society. While such responsibility may be open to debate, since the burden of colonialism often unjustly rests on the shoulders of the formerly colonized, it positions the artist not as one who simply contemplates and illustrates political struggle but as one who is inexorably part of it. As both neoliberalism and neo-colonialism are far from receding, Sy’s questions remain all the more urgent for us today.

This special issue of FIELD brings together multiple perspectives on interdisciplinary, process-based, collaborative, activist, participatory and dialogic art forms in the African continent. Having begun with an ambitious objective, we sought to cover the five main regions in the continent: West Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, North Africa and Southern Africa. With essays focusing on interventions in São Tomé e Príncipe, Uganda, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Zambia, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, this volume is by no means exhaustive. This geographical breadth is neither meant to taxonomize nor to survey socially engaged art practices on the continent. Rather it is aimed at exploring intersecting repertoires of resistance and communitarian art interventions, as well as the socio-spatial dynamics that shape them. It also draws attention to the extensive work yet to be done in the field to establish comprehensive, in-depth studies of socially engaged art in Africa and its diaspora, identifying the various approaches, methods and concepts developed by artists. Finally, it challenges the idea of socially-engaged art as a contemporary Western phenomenon, delving into and identifying the genealogies of radical artistic practices on the African continent as alternative and fertile genealogies.

As a term that encompasses an array of multifaceted art forms, social engagement art in African contexts galvanizes radical collective responses to postcolonial spatial politics and territorialities through social mobilization and solidarity across regions. It encompasses urban creative practices aimed at uplifting disadvantaged or marginalized communities, raising awareness about various political issues and creating platforms where artists can share skills, ideas and provide accessible free services. Artists, artivists and art collectives based on the African continent have developed distinct approaches addressing specific material conditions in particular cities, countries or regions. We, however, do not set out to emphasize the difference between social engagement art in Africa and that in other places globally. We regard social engagement creative practices globally as intertwined, even as they articulate place-specific concerns. For example, we might consider their genealogies to differ, but also acknowledge the historical entanglements from which they arise. Colonialism produces such difference while simultaneously sustaining entangled, unequal and exploitative dependency relationships. One might consider the genealogy of social practice art or socially-engaged art in general to have been more clearly defined in the 1980s and 1990s, following the advent of counter-hegemonic conceptual, artistic strategies such as dematerialization, performance, happenings and institutional critique in art during the 1960s and ‘70s in Europe and America. Artists globally challenged the conventions and practices of powerful public and private institutions. Studies of social engagement art in Africa are confronted with the disruption of colonial presence, institutionalism and heritage. This historical disruption presents a paradox in which the modes of art practice that were part of fashioning the post-colonial as modern and global were embraced, yet at the same time, anti-colonial thought drew many artists towards recuperating pre-colonial modes of social creative practice. As Sidney Kasfir points out:

The network of social relations in which art-making is implanted–the workshop, the apprenticeship system, the deference to experience and authority–is in many ways still similar to that which existed before colonialism, but with the interesting addition of a colonial model of art education for the elites and their reaction to it, which since 1970 has come full circle back to a newly found respect for precolonial modes of practice. [3]

In many ways, creative forms of social practice can also be seen as a recuperation of older, classical forms of art in public, performance and collective work such as festival performances, masquerades, market performances, and similar public expressions and interventions. Contemporary street dances, live art and parades build on the repertoires of older forms of participatory art and pedagogical approaches. This recuperation frames social engagement in creative practice as a continuation from classical to contemporary African art, embattled in a geo-political struggle over resources, and for social justice. Social engagement art therefore emerges in modern and contemporary African art as part of broader shifting global politics.

Documented social engagement art in Africa is not consistently labeled as such. For this reason, it becomes more fruitful to map the trajectories of art as a social process within global historical intersections than to force the forms of social practice art in Africa into Euro-American genres. Moreover, the usefulness of the somewhat homogenizing banner “African Art” is continually open to question. The impact, for example, of large-scale “mega-show” exhibitions and biennales on the creative practices of Africa is hard to ignore. Not only have mega-shows canonized African art but they have also distanced it from ordinary spectators on the continent. This dislocates the “social engagement” evident in this work into consumable aesthetics. In this volume, we recognize that social engagement art is not without paradox. Artists’ struggles, genuinely tackling inequality, can be co-opted. So too can the discourse of social engagement. Communities can become the canvas upon which temporary explorations of social ills are sketched. Global forces affect local communities, creating the push and pull that characterizes social engagement art.

If we locate social engagement art squarely within the quest for rights and social justice, then the key questions it poses point to the precariatization of citizenship within the modern nation state. In the African context, where nations have been characterized as “shadow states” and where citizenship was “the privilege of the civilized” and civil society was “primarily a creation of the colonial state” founded on racism, the quest for rights is a continued struggle against the stranglehold of capitalist-colonial determinism. [4] What the articles in this volume show, is that a struggle against a transnational, global system of domination, that weakens nations and limits civil rights, necessitates transnational social solidarity. For example, the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA), which will be analyzed later on, and the Trans-African project, Invisible Borders, demonstrate the significance of social solidarity through mobility across colonially inscribed borders. Through the initiative Overcoming Maps, PACA sought to create networks across African countries, and in 2001 they wrote the Abidjan Declaration based on a roundtable discussion titled Art as a Tool for Cultural Integration. Drawing from twentieth-century Pan-Africanism–a political and cultural movement aimed at unifying Africans globally–PACA drew attention to the significance of dialogic methods in generating creative knowledge, which Western institutions strive to dominate.

Likewise, Invisible Borders, an organization led by Emeka Okereke, focuses on road trips and fosters trans-African collaboration and grassroots artistic interventions. For them, “[t]he African society is in flux.” Key to their methodology is what Emeka Okereke calls kinopolitics–the socio-politics of movement. In effect, creative activism and social engagement in general entails a confrontation with coloniality in its efforts to control space and regulate mobility. Okereke’s analysis of the Invisible Borders Trans-African Project in the context of this special issue also demonstrates art’s potential to deal creatively with the ongoing reterritorialization of the continent. Organized around a road trip that brought together artists from different locations across twenty countries, the essay highlights the subversive potential of mobility as a creative strategy while addressing the harsh material reality of borders. These issues are reassessed with the help of theorists such as Édouard Glissant, Chinua Achebe and Gayatri Spivak, but more especially from the direct experience of embarking on a mobile project mainly concerned with “living with each other.” Okereke draws important connections between the Invisible Borders project and pan-African solidarity, yet his aim is more oriented towards imagining “any would-be African unit.” In this context, art is presented as a projective tool capable of designing alternative futures by drawing on unexpected, unfamiliar solidarities.

Artist networks and collectives, therefore, point to systematic disenfranchisement compounded by weakened national institutions and the sway of international monied, but often exclusionary, private institutions. The ever-widening gap between socio-economic classes hampers access to resources guarded by institutions, and limits full participation in the global art world, or in the elusive ideal of democracy in general. It is through collaborative practice, alternative spaces, dissent, protest, interventions, provocations–indeed creative uprisings–that popular agency is reclaimed. Such connections and exchanges between artists, students and people from different classes widen the geographic scale of community as a set of networks that could specify immediate, local communities of practice, but could also be expanded to include, for example, national and global political communities.

By homing in on social networks across visible and invisible geographic and cultural borders, the essays in this volume address agency, epistemic resistance and the collective articulation of defiance against persistently oppressive social enclaves and hierarchies. It is in this way that political and cultural entanglements across urban, national and inter- and trans-national spaces can be seen as a significant field of inquiry in social engagement art, confronting what the sociologist Anibal Quijano identifies as the “coloniality of power”–the structures of domination that enable “continuities of colonial mentalities, psychologies and worldviews into the so-called ‘postcolonial era’.” [5] Such a protraction of coloniality in institutions and across geopolitical constituencies has necessitated decolonial approaches in social engagement art. More than this, art has proved to be a powerful tool to develop effective and creative networks, thus challenging coloniality-infused cultural institutions while generating alternative platforms for dialogue and action.

Social solidarity among artists and with others who share similar ideals enables the formation of counter-hegemonic critical masses against the “moral leadership of the bourgeoisie,” formulating the “articulation of resistances, [and] the attempt to recast them as a unified opposition to a social order represented as repressive in a specific way.” [6] The formation of networks as cultural infrastructures that cut cross borders, evokes senses of community that are fluid, itinerant, volatile but resilient and knowledge generating. Collective creative practice envisages what Elvira Dyangani Ose calls enthusiasm, where art is “concerned with collectiveness, with togetherness” and “intervene[s] in everyday experience . . . emphasizing elements of the ‘common things’ of the infra-ordinary, questioning ‘the habitual,’ and formulating new spatial paradigms for social relationships” (own emphasis). [7] It is, after all, in the common things and everyday experiences that power finds articulation.

Social engagement art in Africa therefore emerges across different historical epochs in response to specific political and socio-economic conditions. Creating changing senses of community, it shows identities to be fluid, but also situated within the contingent socio-political conditions that shape them. It also necessitates inclusive methodological approaches through which African art histories, attentive to the role that creative practice plays in catalyzing meaningful transformation, can be developed. The essays gathered in this volume cover a wide range of contexts and activist practices, ranging from public interventions to design activism, from alternative art institutionalism to exhibition-based socially engaged art or tactical media. Together, they convey the idea that socially engaged art and art activism in Africa are not homogeneous or standardized fields. On the contrary, the practices and initiatives examined in this volume clearly reveal the will of many African artists and practitioners to endlessly redefine art’s social value by critically addressing issues of artistic authorship and autonomy in light of the impact of neoliberal and neo-colonial (cultural) politics in the continent.

In her approach to the artistic context of São Tomé, Ana Nolasco Silva explores the inclusion of socially engaged art in the eighth edition of the São Tomé Biennial. Nolasco analyzes how the notion of social transformation was addressed quite differently by the various participants in the event. By exploring the distance between expectations and reality in several artistic projects, Nolasco calls into question the contradictions of adopting social transformation as a mantra that sought to automatically confer art projects with a higher value. This is particularly important in the case of São Tomé, where art has been mobilized to critically engage the archipelago’s history of colonization, while repurposing some of the roças, large-scale plantations oriented to the production of cocoa and other tradable products. Organized in a roça, the São Tomé Biennial offers a privileged location to see how the rhetoric of social transformation can be articulated with notions of national identity and heritage, but also challenged by creative practices seeking to address the shifting postcolonial power relations at play within and beyond Portuguese-speaking African countries.

In turn, Molemo Moiloa explores art’s utility for developing cultural infrastructures through the experience of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA). Infrastructural agency has become a central topic in contemporary art debates in Africa, as the socioeconomic structure supporting the arts very much remains precarious and externally controlled. Moiloa argues that the creation of infrastructural support is a first step towards any sustainable and meaningful social practice, understanding artistic institutionalism as an unfinished and urgent enterprise. By recovering some of the most important turning points in the history of art infrastructure development, Moiloa contraposes the sociocultural role of colonial and national official art institutions to the kind of institutional platforms developed by art practitioners. In this last case, she sees the task of creating infrastructure as intrinsically linked to the objectives and the strategies of social practice art.

Infrastructural agency also appears as a necessary first step towards any conceptualization of art’s social agency on the continent in the conversation between Raw Material Company director Marie Hélène Pereira and Nomusa Makhubu. The Dakar-based art space is a pioneer in critically rethinking the role of alternative art institutions in the reconfiguration of radical histories of art-making in Africa. Pairing research with artistic production, Raw Material Company has developed one of the most innovative models of a residency program on the continent, which integrates practitioners, curators and leading voices in cultural criticism. The interview revisits the history of Raw Material Company, tracking the project’s evolution from its creation by the hand of Koyo Kouoh to the present moment. More than this, Pereira and Makhubu situate Raw Material Company as part of a larger history of art-based research and critical thinking that is redefining the ways in which art is made and thought in the continent.

In his conversation with Carlos Garrido, New York Museum of Modern Art curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi focuses on the importance of organizational practices and alternative art education in the context of Nigeria. Continuously moving between Nigeria and the United States, where Smooth has developed an important part of his career as a curator, the exchange examines the role of the Nsukka-based Pan African Circle of Artists in relation to the history of art education in Nigeria. It also deals with the singular place that the Dak’Art Biennial occupies within the global system of large-scale exhibitions. Finally, the interview addresses pressing contemporary issues, including the potential of decolonial curating and museum politics in Africa and the Americas. Social practice analysis poses exciting challenges to the ways in which we examine the socio-political relevance of cultural production more generally. Despite the increasing attention that this kind of artistic production has received, its critical examination is still very much a space of negotiation, where alternative models can be tested. In their essay, Carl-Philipp Bodenstein and Daniela Waldburger critically explore collaborative, creative research methodologies applied to a case-study in Lubumbashi. Both authors argue that more inclusive research methodologies are necessary in order to grasp creative practices based on collective exchange and decision-making. The concept of shared videography is advanced as a way of dealing with the proliferation of recording technologies and combined with a direct examination of the research process itself, which is turned into an object susceptible of being analyzed.

Like Bodenstein and Waldburger, Angelo Kakande and Inês Dias are also interested in exploring the potential of the collective in configuring “horizontal” public spaces. The authors zoom into fashion activism and the politics of art education in Uganda to provide an exhaustive report of how the Kampala-based Fashion Parade 2017 became a vehicle for non-violent, creative insubordination. The Parade democratized the views of the various participants on national identity and belonging, and emphasized the general feeling of discontent in Kampala in relation to parliamentary politics. Well versed in Ugandan and East African art history, Kakande connects the Fashion Parade 2017 with a broader genealogy of visual techniques seeking to generate spaces for critical dialogue and exchange. For her part, Dias shifts from fashion design to dance to address the public dimension of kuduro in Angola. As Dias argues, kuduro “has taken over the streets of the capital city of Luanda,” therefore becoming a crucial vehicle for exploring social interaction and popular politics at a broader level. Moving from an historical overview of the origins of kuduro to its current transnational success, Dias maps through kuduro a partially silenced history of political action based on the struggle for visibility in one of the most expensive and socially unequal cities in the world. From this perspective, Dias demonstrates that the evolution of kuduro overlaps with the history of postcolonial Angola, while offering at the same time some valuable insights about the role that urban styles like kuduro could play in envisaging a more equalitarian public sphere.

The two last essays in this volume address the work of specific artists and art collectives. Massa Lemu focuses on three art groups: the Kinshasha-based Mowoso collective, the Cape-Town iQhiya collective, and the Malawi-based Ozhopé collective. Borrowing from Achille Mbembe’s notion of “creativity of practice,” Lemu rewrites the history of artistic collectivism from the perspective of everyday life politics in three quite different African contexts. Finally, Andrew Mulenga analyzes the work of the Zambian artist Agnes Buya Yombwe and her work challenge the abuse of women. Buya Yombwe brings together cultural activism and a deep knowledge of Zambian history in order to encourage feminist resistance through art. Dealing with social practice art in Africa implies a challenge to the primacy of U.S. and European models for socially engaged art. Taken together, the essays and interviews included in this volume show the effervescence of art activist practices in Africa. They also demonstrate the existence of a vast network of creative initiatives that operate to support ongoing exchange and mutual solidarity across the continent.

Nomusa Makhubu is an associate professor in Art History and deputy dean of transformation in Humanities at the University of Cape Town. She was the recipient of the ABSA L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award in 2006 and the Prix du Studio National des Arts Contemporain, Le Fresnoy in 2014. She received the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) African Humanities Program fellowship award and was an African Studies Association (ASA) Presidential fellow in 2016. In 2017, she was also a UCT-Harvard Mandela fellow at the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Recognizing the need for mentorship and collaborative practice in socially responsive arts, she founded the Creative Knowledge Resources project. She co-edited a Third Text Special Issue: ‘The Art of Change’ (2013) and co-curated with Nkule Mabaso the international exhibition, Fantastic, in 2015 and The stronger we become in 2019 at the 58th Venice Biennale in Italy.

Carlos Garrido Castellano is Lecturer of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, coordinator of the BA in Portuguese Studies and co-convenor of the Languages and Cultures MA at University College Cork. He is the author of Beyond Representation in Contemporary Caribbean Art: Space, Politics and the Public Sphere (2019), Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future (forthcoming 2021) and Literary Fictions of the Contemporary Art System (forthcoming 2022).


[1] El Hadji Sy, “Art Against Apartheid,” Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, edited by Clementine Deliss and Jane Havell (Paris, New York: Whitechapel, 1995), p.235.

[2] Ibid., p.92.

[3] Sidney Kasfir, Contemporary African Art (London, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), p.13.

[4] James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 16. Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of late Colonialism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996): p. 17, 19.

[5] Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla vol. 1. No. 3 (2000), pp.533–580. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa (Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2013).

[6] Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony, edited by Y. Noorani and J. Chalcraft (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[7] Elvira Dyangani Ose, “Enthusiasm: Collectiveness, Politics and Aesthetics,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, No. 34 (2014), pp.25.