At the just concluded ART X Lagos, I attended a panel discussion, titled The African Collector; the panel bothered itself with the rise of African collectors now collecting African artists, it poses few questions about how influential these collectors are in the global art market, and most especially, how do we nurture a new generation of collectors locally and increase art appreciation. While the panel was ongoing, it occurred to me that, since we are talking about creating new perceptions, I should slide in my thoughts on how collecting a dance performance, might be a revolutionary idea within this landscape.
As a contemporary dance artiste, I have always believed that most aspects of African art can be traced back to the entire dramaturgy and multi forms of African masquerades, from visual art to fashion, from poetry to music, performance and the performing arts. The masquerade as an urban dance artiste is what may be identified as the precursor of most African art forms. It is therefore necessary to come to a robust understanding, in order to understand what there is to “collect” from the expressions of contemporary ‘masquerades’, here in referred to as performers, who maintain their integrity, carry a message, and equally bring pleasure to the collector.
It is general knowledge that a dance performance cannot be collected, because, as life, it can never be truly contained. The ephemerality of a performance can never be taken away regardless of any attempt to commodify it. What can be collected, however, are what I refer to as mementos of the original event. Just as we now strip the masquerades of their masks to exhibit, or their costumes for installations, or perhaps in the way that people collect memorabilia from daily life, we can collect these elements from live performance. So photos, videos, scenography, costumes, poems, music, installations, props, or a description of what happened by the artiste or a witness, and other remnants of the performance.
Beyond and above the personal joy of collecting, a collector should be completely involved in the art market, in designing trends and directing the focus. It is therefore, important that the African collector have general artistic knowledge and wider interest in African art history and trends. The person who is likely to buy a performance, or the ephemera from a performance, must no doubt, be inspired by what the matter represents, the cultural references, and other associations of the work. By collecting or reproducing a performance, we are trying to make its ephemerality more permanent and timeless in a sense — we are fighting against the very nature of what it is. But to try to do this is utterly human, and driven by the nostalgic need to hold on to the wondrously fleeting moments of life.
All art is essentially a document of an event or its succession, whether it is done in private or for an audience, and in that respect, even a finished painting is a documentation of life and its event. In any case, these documents extracted from a performance, which took place within a particular space and time, operate as triggers to memory and further imagination. Each rethinking and retelling of the experience reconstructs it; the meaning changes over time, as the work is considered within different contexts. These mementos are not the same as the work, they are another form in beauty, a replica that will never be the same as the original. But that doesn’t diminish its value. The African collector — at this stage of the art market — should have no intention of selling these works, but simply investing in the memory that an object holds in time, to perhaps give it a second life, especially if presented alongside the stories and emotional attachment to the original event.
In conclusion, I will say that in the face of the ongoing debate, as to what is collectable and what isn’t, performance artists have a responsibility to remain creative; in the way they treat what’s left after their performance. They should also put the same degree of creativity into assembling documentation and the creative process of their works. Producing mementoes that are beautiful is just another step of the creative process. Of course, other performance artistes will decide to stay focused on the ephemeral and not keep a memory, so it will change from case-to-case. But I guess nonetheless, there’s still value and reason for African collectors to learn about this type of works and to make their own intellectual acts of taking from it what they can, even if it’s not the full original work. As it is now, aside the traditional avenues, performance artistes have few means to make money from their art. So I ask, is it then possible to collect the moment itself? For collectors to commission a performance and then determine if and when it is ever presented again?
Image: (c) Sunara Begum – African Ballet at the Muson center Lagos.