Decades ago, Deutsche Welle started collecting works of art. Over the past years, that collection has been expanded to include contemporary African art.
Surrounded by thick black lines on a white background and a four-point star, an eye peers out of the canvas.
The image stares back at the viewer. The untitled work is by the Senegalese artist Issa Samb, known as Joe Ouakam, who died in 2017. He is one of Senegal's most important intellectuals, philosophers and artists.
The painting is one of a series of contemporary works by five West African artists presented at DW's broadcast offices in Bonn, part of a collection preview entitled "Past's Tomorrow/Today's Future" in the framework of the 2022 Global Media Forum. Since 2016, DW has expanded its art collection to include contemporary African artworks.
The artists have a global perspective. Soly Cisse studied fine arts in Brussels and his native Dakar, and today splits his time between Dakar and Paris. Serigne Mbaye Camara studied art in Senegal and France, and now teaches in Dakar. Akinbode Akinbiyi, a photographer also represented in the preview, was born in Oxford, grew up in England and Lagos and studied in Ibadan, Nigeria Lancaster, UK and Heidelberg, Germany.
Art exchange network goes back to the 1960s
These transnational links are evidence of a phenomenon rooted in the 1960s, when many African states became independent.
The two decades following the end of World War II saw an art movement associated with the Nouvelle Ecole de Paris and the Ecole de Dakar in Senegal promote contemporary African art.
At the time, Africa and the African diaspora criticized the exclusionary "ideological systems" of the colonial West, curator Angela Stercken writes in the exhibition text.
In this context, Okwui Enwezor's 2001 "Short Century" exhibition and the 2002 documenta art show — the Nigerian curator was its artistic director — provided momentum for the German art establishment to engage with contemporary African art.
Artistic exchange between Africa and Europe is based on a long tradition including art festivals in the 1960s in Lagos and Algiers, where works by contemporary African artists, both living in Africa and abroad, were exhibited, sometimes in direct proximity to works from Europe.
That would have been unusual in earlier decades. Stercken's goal is to make visible the global ties since the 1950s and 1960s.
DW started a small collection of contemporary art in the 1960s, mainly with artworks from Germany and Europe.
The collection has expanded since 2016 to include the works of 20 African artists. The aim, according to Stercken, was to critically reflect on a collection that started out Eurocentric, and to open it up for a shared, global future through African contemporary positions.
In the run-up to the collection preview, German-language media criticized DW for collecting artworks, as well as for the tendering process for art historical consulting.
In May 2022, Vice magazine and the Frag den Staat (Ask the State) organization sued DW under the Freedom of Information Act for access to files. The outcome is still pending.
DW declined to comment on ongoing proceedings. Director Peter Limbourg said at the opening that the expansion of the collection was complete after the acquisition of the African artworks.
Compared to French- and English-speaking neighbors, some museums in Germany have lagged behind when it comes to collecting contemporary African art and showing its global interconnections.
The UK and France began taking a fresh look at their relationships with their former colonies long before Germany.
Optimistic look to the future
During a panel discussion at DW's Global Media Forum, African artists expressed their views on the place of contemporary African art globally.
Photographer Angele Etoundi Essamba, born in Cameroon, educated in France and at home in Amsterdam, is optimistic about the situation of contemporary African artists.
The African art scene has been very lively for more than 20 years, she said, pointing out the increased presence of African art at the Venice Biennale art exhibition. "The artists' works travel, that's very important to support this effervescent fountain of contemporary African art," she said.
Akinbode Akinbiyi, whose works are part of DW's collection preview, is also confident about the future of young artists from the African continent.
Momentum has continued to build since the 1960s, the photographer said.
"There are more and more writers and filmmakers all over the continent, too — it's a good time for African art," he said.
DW's art collection featuring old and new works by Serigne Mbaye Camara, Soly Cisse, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Frederic Bruly Bouabre and Issa Samb aka Joe Ouakam are on display until September 20 at DW's offices in Bonn.