To conceive of Afro-diasporicity as the result of antagonistic processes that question the relationship of the subject to the diasporic in-between is a challenge when approaching the field of the arts. In the perspective of the present dossier, this article engages in a dynamic cartography between the Africa of origins – real or imagined – and that of a topology of the Here conceived as an Elsewhere, a place and moment of paradoxical projection, in a trans-American artistic context. For when we speak of diasporas, and those of Afrodescendants at that, the only geography is that of passage. And of time, we can say - especially of the present - that it is a past that is ignored, as we say of the diasporic link, stretched or underpinned by a cyclical temporality, as the “diasporisation” of identities increases. Impossible or dual inscription, this now calls for the dispersion of consciousness in a Tout-Monde of practices of erasure or reactivation of culturally or pragmatically oriented links.
What about this dispersion that fertilises the migrant’s Elsewhere resulting from slavery and/or colonisation? Is it the result of a reparative logic or of erratic amnesia? In view of the politicisation of works of art and their reception, it is becoming urgent to refine the concepts with which they are analysed. Such a programme is all the more critical as it brings us back to the eternal question of unity in diversity, and more precisely, of the place of Africanity in globality, according to the modalities of its experience: biopolitical heritage, bliss, fantasy of belonging. So many options that contemporary American and Euro-Caribbean artists can seize in order to accentuate ethno-cultural aspects of their praxis. It is a contention of this paper to show that the aesthetic and political stakes at play in the strengthening of this orientation shape a sociocultural and context-based consciousness.
“Weave an artistic web in your Diaspora”: an imperative of this kind may well have made its way in the minds of the visitors who questioned the presence, and significance, of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s latest exhibition – “Black Forest” – at the Fondation Clément, in Martinique (FWI) in 2019. Like British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare and his famous counterpart, El Anatsui, Thayou creates artworks that connect all the descendants of the transatlantic trade scattered around the globe. By winning many international prizes, he has succeeded in translating the contemporary issues of his native Cameroon into the larger context of a modern, globalised artistic world, in collaboration with diasporic networks. Likewise, other artists based in North America or the Caribbean, like Simone Leigh, Manuel Mendive and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, have bridged paths over the oceans in an endeavour to create a hub of artistic interactions.
But the event is not the first one in the history of Afro-descendant art. Over the last 20 years, many exhibitions have showcased the distinctive talent of Afro-Caribbean artists, including “Infinite Islands” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York (2007–08); “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” at the Museo del Barrio in New York (2012); and “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art from the Caribbean Archipelago” at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California (2018). The accumulation of such international events focusing on art from the diaspora of Black America suggests the emergence of an Afro-diasporic consciousness in the region, and calls for socio-critical appraisal. These are positive manifestations, but challenging modes of representation occur as well.
In the wake of growing concerns over the visibility and representativeness of Afro-descendants in Western visual public spaces, it has become an urging question to pinpoint the role played by ethnicity in the representation of art dealing with postcolonial/transcolonial issues. The toppling of monuments dedicated to the memorialization of colonial power testifies to this fact.
Over time, discussions have progressively focused on Caribbean artists and their relationship to their roots, especially as the persistence of colonial violence calls for the recovery and support of ancestral knowledge and spirituality, and consequently the connection to their Afro-diasporic environment.
Diaspora can be theorized as “a syncretized configuration of cultural identity: shifting, flexible, and invariably anti-essentialist” (Goyal, 2003, p. 5). In this perspective the diasporic artist tends to reconfigure cultural identity with a view to avoiding binary oppositions, in accordance with Glissant’s rhizomic conception of culture and Gilroy’s double consciousness. But as Kandinsky would have it, art practitioners also need ideals to mobilize their psychic energy and build an inner cathedral. African heritage can thus provide them with a reservoir of beliefs, symbols, myths and kinships that constitute an ancestral foundation.
That such connections point to shared ancestral roots/routes leading to the formation of transnational and “co-ethnic networks” (Tsuda, 2018, p. 191) is evidenced in the hub of artworks produced by Cuban diasporic plasticians who embed webs of African-originated symbols in their pieces. Manuel Mendive, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Ana Mendieta and Daniel Lind-Ramos all refer to Yoruba cosmogony as the foundation of their aesthetic discourse. Not only does borrowing motifs and faith principles add to the symbolic power of the artwork but it includes their artworks in a spiritual network that is easily and readily recognizable by Afro-Caribbean archipelagos.
In the same way as Mendieta, Mendive supports the ideal of resilient politics that can suffuse Afro-diasporic aesthetics:
My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy, which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world (Blocker, 1999, p. 34).
Interestingly, such a commitment to diasporic citizenship and ancestry is not limited to celebrating origins, fostering encounters in national institutions, or structuring hybrid spaces, like “Afropea”, where black diasporic subjects might share an ideal “union” (Miano, 2020). These stimulating prospects are soon followed by pragmatic interrogations: how can West-Indian spectators relate to, and appreciate the African-ness of diasporic artwork, knowing that most of them have never seen the African continent? Can a remote member of a 200-million-person group achieve a sense of belonging when he or she ignores the exact location of his origins? Can art facilitate this kind of cultural and genealogical quest?
Answering such concerns points not only to the recurring issue of post-colonial Caribbean identity, but also to the propensity of the Afro-diasporic subject to find a cohesive force in the maze of scattered, fragmented black selves that call for reunification. Only commitment to Afro-diasporic citizenship within transnational artistic networks can motivate practitioners to indulge in so many efforts and sacrifices.
Between artists and artworks gradients of Afro-diasporicity operate a slow but constant transformation of aesthetic and political choices. The existence of sustained Afro-diasporic networks in the art scene shows that a transnational community bridging millions of people throughout the world can be empowered with the help of artistic archipelagos. Art is, in this perspective both a cure and a blessing.