The Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg is eerily deserted when I tour Lumières d’Afriques in April. My virtual viewing takes place during the Covid-19 pandemic and while I am in South Africa, where – as in many other countries – a strict lockdown has been imposed to lower the spread of the deadly virus. As the pandemic magnifies and exacerbates inequality, mounting calls for radical changes to policies and power structures increases the urgency of the issues with which the exhibition is engaged.
Themed “The Light of Africa,” Lumieres d’Afriques features fifty-four artists, one from each of the continent’s countries, and comprises painting, installation, photography, tapestry, and assemblage. Its artistic direction is led by French curator Jean-Michel Champault and a steering committee of people from multiple sectors and countries. According to its website, Lumieres d’Afriques aims to reflect on issues around development and access to energy on the continent.
The current moment of catastrophe – in which “a crisis for fossil-fuel commodities” and increased food shortages triggered by the pandemic, as well as intensified state violence are some of the many issues continuing to raise alarm – urges an updated reading of the artworks and the environments surrounding them.
Paris-based organization African Artists for Development (AAD) initiated the exhibition in 2015, and says the show is “driven by the conviction that African development and climate protection can dovetail harmoniously.” It also states that “contemporary art can ‘add a bit of soul’ to the continent’s growth.” While the organization pinpoints a conviction about an intersecting approach to development on the continent that is astutely aware of the environment, the sentiment that contemporary art can “add a bit of soul” seems to diminish art’s role in catalysing innovation and participating in development-related discourse.