Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2018
Annett Busch and Anselm Franke, eds. After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration Exh. cat. Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, 2015. 220 pp.; 50 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $29.00 (9788364177255)
Exhibition schedule: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, September 19–November 24, 2013; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, June 12–August 23, 2015
Installation view, After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, June 12–August 23, 2015 (photograph © 2015 Monika Kozub; provided by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw)

After Year Zero: Geographies of Collaboration—a book that puts the question of a starting point at its heart—wears a black-on-black cover. The black title is pressed in to the book’s black surface, barely discernible save for its slight gloss. On the back of the book, a large circle ringed in that same glossy black looms over a blackened oval. Riffs on these shapes appear in the book’s interior to separate the sections; they appear as white against black, reconfigured, layered, and partitioned. These design elements are suggestive of After Year Zero’s central preoccupations: universalisms new and old, de-centering Europe, conversations among “othered” folks around the world, and the -isms, -tudes, and -nesses of collective movements and experiences. That it is a book about so many things, tied to a series of conferences and exhibitions, gives it the feel of walking in on a spirited conversation already underway: provocative, at times hard to follow, occasionally circular, often surprising, and brimming with possibilities.

Contrasting the book’s austere appearance is the series of free-flowing conversations on the theme of “matters of collaboration” that helped generate its content (17). With support from the Goethe-Institut, the workshops created their own geography of collaboration moving from Africa to Europe, beginning in Algiers in 2012, and then continuing on to Dakar, Johannesburg, Paris, and Brussels through 2013. Initiated by After Year Zero’s editors and curators Annett Busch and Anselm Franke, the conversations attend to collaboration’s “double edge,” where the notion of “working together” also refers to secretive work with an enemy (17). It is a productive, generous framework for considering the lighter and darker sides of the deferred promises of collectivities and revolutionary ideas, legacies of colonialism, and transcontinental dispersals of peoples and ideas. But where and how to begin such work?

A year zero. The Bandung Conference in 1955 in Indonesia is presented as a watershed of Afro-Asian collaboration. It also serves as an opportunity to revive the unfashionable concept of the Third World, a grouping of everywhere else beyond the poles of the United States and Soviet Union cooked up during the Cold War. The book asks us to take that moment seriously again, a moment that anticipated the waves of independence and liberation movements across Africa and Asia that followed in the decade after the conference. In doing so, we revisit a time of particular willingness (thirst?) to collaborate in the service of big ideas about decolonization and black futures. The book does not place Bandung at the center of its discussions so much as uses it to anchor its contributions in the spirit of the high stakes of rethinking power relations. But it is a spirit that haunts the book, and to properly reckon with ghosts, popular myth says that we have to deal with unfinished business.

Fittingly, this is where John Akomfrah’s entry launching the series of essays begins, with a metaphor that treats négritude as a “phantom,” improperly buried but still hovering (39). Akomfrah brings négritude out of the shadows to ask the titular question: “Négritude as a Concept of Collaboration?” After concisely rehearsing négritude’s major critiques—that it is essentializing, insufficiently hybrid, too inflexible and politically conservative—he argues that its collaborative remit to reshape “the basis for a dialogue that could take place between Africa and Europe” deserves more consideration (43). However, in the following essay, “Passions of Blackness and Imperatives of a Post-African Imagination: Re-reading Black Orpheus and Black Images,” Denis Ekpo assertively declares that négritude is indeed dead. He also reveals a willingness to kill off its buzzy successors: Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism. Ekpo’s alternative is post-Africanism, an up-by-your-own-bootstraps formulation focused on development—broadly conceived—that requires pushing back against the trauma-laden narratives of slavery and colonialism that he claims have kept Africa stagnant, so that we may imagine other futures. For Ekpo, instead of acknowledging the presence of a ghost, we need to stop trying to raise the dead. The tension between Akomfrah’s and Ekpo’s essays sets the stage for the parade of competing ideas to come.

The specter of Bandung and the analysis of arts and culture journals are the most engaging threads in After Year Zero’s multi-authored format and come together with particular strength and clarity in Clare Davies’ essay “On Souffles: Geographies of Solidarity.” Souffles, a short-lived literary journal from Morocco, is a springboard into a well-researched examination of debates about the visual strategies of revolutionary art and the competing visions for a so-called Arab art that its creators and detractors asserted. Nida Ghouse’s “Lotus Notes” turns to the Cairo- and Beirut-based literary journal Lotus, a publication dedicated to “Afro-Asian Writings,” as the journal’s full title declares, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ghouse writes with a keen awareness of her pursuit of Lotus and its history amidst the contemporary revolutionary moment she experienced in Egypt. The essay becomes a sensitive reflection on the challenges of doing history. In this vein, Lotte Arndt writes on the colonial relationships evidenced through the pages of Présence Africaine, and David Murphy revisits the battles over the soul of blackness in France through the person(a) of Lamine Senghor on the pages of Le Paria and La Voix des Nègres. Bisi Silva’s revelatory personal discovery of New Culture: A Review of Contemporary African Arts has kinship with Bongani Madondo’s mix of biography and analysis of music magazines in “Diggin’ or (Yes, Mr. Neogy, Magazines Do Culture . . . Sometimes),” as well as Stacy Hardy’s reflection on her experiences as both a reader and writer in South Africa in “Black Consciousness, Black Holes, Black Suns, and Black Collectivity.” Most of the publications discussed lived relatively short lives with lingering influence, but some, like Chimurenga, continue to provide a platform for new voices.

Coloring the series of essays—literally—is Kodwo Eshun’s discussion of “postal politics” in “Statecraft: An Incomplete Timeline of Independence Determined by Digital Auction” (139). Here, images reproduced to accompany the text shift to color. Through the work of the Otolith Group, we peruse the philatelist’s preoccupation of collecting and grouping stamps but in the particular context of nascent postcolonial eras. Eshun asks us to see visions of Pan-Africanism through the forms of these stamps, which reveal continuity with colonial-era imagery, as well as the aggressive black bars of redaction and the deliberate moves to champion new national heroes. The tiny, mass-produced form of the stamp becomes a site for looking closely at the “official optimism,” as Eshun puts it, of newly independent African nations (149).

Eshun’s essay, which includes views of stamps as well as a 2014 installation of the work, demonstrates that in After Year Zero, it is often the artworks that most adeptly perform the imaginative speculations and critical rethinking for which the essays call. Beyond films such as Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) and Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa (1959), which are also addressed at length in essays by Busch and Marie-Hélène Gutberlet and Tobias Hering, the artworks featured in the exhibition cry out for more of an airing than the alphabetically-organized set of artists’ entries included in the book’s final section.

When a book covers so much ground, it feels unfair to complain about what it does not do. However, the African side of the Asia-Africa solidarity of Bandung is felt far more strongly than its Asian counterpart. That said, though Asia features minimally in After Year Zero, those entries are potent. James T. Hong’s essay CPan-Asianism and the Question: ‘What is Asia?’” delivers an important account of a form of Pan-Asianism that fronted as a collective concept while masking a land grab. Shirin M. Rai’s short essay on the Bandung Conference itself brings us importantly into that historical context and connects us to the tenets of the “Bandung Spirit” (132).

Through the voices of twenty-eight contributors and the works of nineteen artists, After Year Zero’s task is undoubtedly ambitious and multi-vocal. Moreover, in its pages lie many possible alternative “year zeros,” not the least of which is 1989, a year that profoundly transformed the sites of After Year Zero’s exhibition: Berlin and Warsaw. As Bernd Scherer, the director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), identifies in one of two prefaces opening the book, HKW’s own history of engaging projects, including the Paul Gilroy–inspired “The Black Atlantic,” the Okwui Enwezor–helmed “The Short Century,” and the collaboratively curated “In the Desert of Modernity,” have contained many “year zeros” in their own right, from the initiation of diasporic formations to colonial entrances and exits. Several essays included in After Year Zero were previously published and/or presented in other forms elsewhere, but what matters more here is how they converge to prick, prod, and unsettle one another.

But while there is certainly a restlessness to the book, it doesn’t seem quite as urgent as our current moment demands. It has the feel of a whole whose parts formed before Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. In its appeal to insovereignty and placelessness, Fred Moten’s essay “History Does Not Repeat Itself, but It Does Rhyme” comes closest to anticipating the insular, xenophobic turn of 2016 in the West and the hashtag revolutions of “matters” and “falls.” The old curtains of “iron” and “color” have indeed given way to other barriers such as the “liquid wall” of the Mediterranean that Franke identifies in his essay “The Universal Project.” Yet in the high stakes of these discussions about barriers over which many lives continue to be lost, I have never more wanted to take a weed whacker to the density of postcolonial theory, to cut through to the heart of things. After Year Zero evidences this thirst for concepts around which to rally and through which to reconsider what we are asking for, concepts that extend us across vast territories to find the ideas of varying longevity that we can carry for what is to come.

Leslie Wilson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Purchase College, State University of New York