An Essay on the Art of Contemporary African Migrants

Modified: 24th Jan 2023
Wordcount: 2939 words
Arts Student

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This essay will begin exploring ideas of dislocation in contemporary African artists’ work. African artists who address significant issues of dislocation and artists who visually embed these stories within their artwork. Looking into contemporary African art, there is a clear pattern that demonstrates the experience of the migrant as one of dislocation.

Art is portrayed as an aspect of culture; using theorist and researcher to support this study, it is necessary to look at cultural influences to analyse the exploration of dislocation in the experience of African artist.

In relation to this theme, this essay will analyse the ways in which artist express their experience of disconnection living in Britain. For example, as a consequence of ancestor tortured under unlawful enslavement in 1853. The approach in which black people and their experiences, were situated and exposed in the dominant regimes has led to contemporary art filled with cultural power and black influencers.

Lastly, this study is to form an understanding of the ways and reasons why artist work explores a genuine representation of African identity and culture. Using particular artists to advocate their experience of dislocation will be discussed as we go on.


Ideas of dislocation

Dislocation is the process of dislocating or being dislocated. When an individual feels a loss of a stable sense of self, divided from situations. An experience of double displacements separating individuals both from their place in the social and cultural world, and from themselves – “crisis of identity” for the individual (Hall, 1996).

When dislocation happens amongst artist, we find an expression of displacement displayed narrating people lives, living on someone else’s terms rather than their own (The Guardian, 2014).

In a political arena the artist position as creator of African diaspora culture plays an active part in presenting pieces of identity, representation and embracing culture.

Apparently indifferent to the facts of developing the issues of dislocation in the works of African artist, we find discovery under the dislocated identity, which has major meaning in effect of slavery imposed on black people. As artist, their works become narrowed down to the problems carried on from their identity and culture violated therefore explains a lot of African artist expressing out of a sensitive emotional experience.

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Not Without Standing, this doesn’t mean all African diasporic artist work is based on them knowing what happened in slavery but due to this significant experience, the feeling of dislocation reoccurring in a different way still exists today. African artists, whether they realise it or not, embed feelings of dislocation rooted in the enslavement of previous generations (The Guardian, 2014).


Stuart Hall influence on John Akomfrah

Stuart Hall, (2014) is a Jamaican-born British Marxist sociologist, cultural theorist and political activist and significant leader who continued to explore issues surrounding multiculturalism.

Stuart Hall humility and firmness cultured generations of creative political thinkers like John Akomfrah, artist who learned to create intellectual and activist cultural productions. In theory Stuart Hall and others is concerned about, “the very process of identification, through which we project ourselves into our cultural identities, has become more open-ended, variable, and problematic,” (Hall, Held, Hubert and Thompson 1996).

Halls study inspired artist like John Akomfrah to produce films and projects surrounding his work. Akomfrah created a film called The Stuart Hall Project (2013) about revolution, politics, culture and the new left experience (Korossi, 2019). This film project created by Akomfrah fulfils a recollection of Hall’s achievements (Akomfrah, 2013). The significance of John Akomfrah documentary is important in enabling the understanding of the reason behind this impact of dislocation within today’s society.

The challenge is to rethink the history of colonialism and segregation amongst the diasporic people of Africa with the assistance of a few legends and influencers, “the black experience, is this identity which a black diaspora must discover, excavate, bring to light and express through cinematic representation,” (Hall, 1994) which Akomfrah did. This is the challenge that birth the sense of discovery for contemporary African artists to explore and express their issues of dislocation in their work.


Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen who produced the film, 12 years a slave (2013), a true story, drama film referencing variation of the 1853 slave experience. Under subjection of the white master the film shows an experience of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, under unlawful subjugation because he was a black man (McQueen, 2013). The exploitation of black people in 1853 shows in the film, Solomon was not in the right place, as he was a free man. In this situation freedom was taken away disturbed from his home in Washington, labouring on a plantation in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released (McQueen, 2013).

The importance of this film brings to the viewer’s attention, reasons behind black artist consistency to visually embed stories of disruption in their works to also show history matters and the valued reasons for effect on diasporic identity. The effects of slavery can be reasoned to the situation of dislocation, “Millions of Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, and towns and villages were depopulated,” (International Slavery Museum, 2019).

McQueen’s film is important because it brings to our attention issues of slavery that might otherwise be forgotten. Hall suggests that we must understand the history of post-colonial struggles and embed these stories within our artworks (Hall, 2014). McQueen is clearly doing this by retelling stories of slavery in his film and highlighting the historical situation of dislocation carried on through black people’s lives, which therefore influences artist to express truth. To drive to a better future avoiding the past struggle and possible stigma of enslavement.

In the guardian article, Carole Boyce Davies (2014) point out that the stories of black enslavement disregards ‘black resistance’, the power to fight back, in favour of the narratives. Davies (2014) quotes “there was also always resistance”, which it goes on to say McQueen’s did not show this side of the story (Davies, 2014).

In the film the effect of being in a place of unsettlement demonstrates a several forms of dislocation in the time of slavery, resistance was out of thought or too big of a risk. In this case of life or death, Solomon did not want to take the risk, that others did and died. He held onto the hope that one day he will be a free man again back to his home location in Washington (McQueen, 2013).

African artist work together to celebrate the black and brown cultures and the resistance of conformity and oppression patriarchy, in sympathy and acknowledgment of Solomon Northup experience. Photographer Omar Victor Diop, amongst others, reflective look at the story and heritage of black resistance throughout the diaspora in his works (Zama Mdoda, 2018). African artist representations show the importance to discover the effects and impact of dislocation and power as authentic as possible.


Maxine Walker

The artist, Maxine walker, expresses themes of dislocation throughout her work to rise predominant issues of identity and how black skin is represented. She focused on representations of black womanhood in her photography portraits. Walker demonstrates a layer of facial skin stripped away. The complexity of this narrative is that Maxine Walker is simple showing racial identity and the black image is the heart behind the painting, challenging the established cultural stereotypes idea of her facial skin not to be confused, “intimating that her blackness cannot – and must not – be stripped away” (Autography, 2019). This message delivers a seamless example of a true expression of resisting the themes of dislocation, demonstrating her facial skin is aa sign to be accepted in the way a person decides to be represented, rather that effected by disruption.


We find a number of black artists conception streams from political matters such as disruption and disconnection, continuing to fail those who originate from Africa, even in this current time. Walker works explores issues of dislocation with the strong declaration of her black skin being misunderstood. Therefore, her works send a message to remind viewers of African artist to celebrate or declare their true self and one’s vision of authenticity as a black person, expressing their cultural history. As a result, from African descendant’s experience of slavery, Walker comes away from identity misunderstood, and rightfully portrays this message.


Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili (1998) was an artist who created pieces of art based on situations that has happened to help people feel better essentially. Outwardly presenting No Woman, No Cry (1998) to demonstrate raging of a restlessly unhappy soul of Doreen Lawrence, experiencing pain from her son’s death to illustrate his paintings (Ofili, 1998). The issue of dislocation faced amongst diasporic African’s presented the reality of unprovoked racially motivated violence. Stephen Lawrence was unfortunately a victim of racial abuse. Stephen Lawrence’s death in April 1993 was a hard pill to swallow for the nation as in a time such as 1993, it was shocking that racially targeted attacks were still occurring not just with Stephen but within different communities also. Stephen was fatally stabbed whilst waiting for a bus in Eltham, south east London where he was believed to be racially targeted.

© Chris Ofili, courtesy Victoria Miro, London

Ofili ‘s intension was to portray the cry of Mrs Lawrence set among various abstract patterns and lump of elephant dung containing map pins to reflect on his mother’s emotions and portray a sense of sympathy signifying justice to be displayed in a form of art to create a feel of admission and powerlessness that in turn could allow others to feel power.

The impact of his work encourages visual artist to mark the emergence of particular forms of Black political consciousness most significantly in Britain. Ways in which visual art have referred to slavery in Britain and occurrences from this, question the kind image of Black British identity to present its truth and subsequently offered realistic representations as Stuart Hall states.

Considering Ofili’s artwork, this successfully demonstrates the understanding of racial attacks in 1993, directed against black people. This shows an expression of disturbance in reasons to believe the unsettlement Doreen felt, cause Ofili to create such tragic and emotional piece. The painting represents a theme of dislocation in the view of the artist advocating for an issue that effect black culture and trends a pattern from slavery, of punishment towards black people. Which is important to consider the significance in Ofili’s work as he demonstrates the experience of Doreen and black culture through his works.



To conclude this essay with the understanding that relationship between art and politics through such interrogation, can be said that cultural art is a form of radical expression. Faced with the situation among black people in the diaspora, we can begin to see that there are many collaborations and collective art work which impact famous afro-diasporic work to challenge issues of dislocation which continues to have an influence in contemporary art world.

As we can see Stuart hall suggests genuine representation of African identity and culture to advocate their experience of dislocation as artist utilizes many forms of expression in the art world.

McQueen in his film addresses this significant history experience to not only remind people of the ancestry struggles but to also visually reinvent the truth, the film ends showing Solomon Northup break through 12 years of living as a slave by fighting for freedom and holding onto the hope of survival. In addition, we find Walker display to represent her black skin as one not to be misread, a powerful way of declaring truth in the experience of black image. As Ofili supports the culture in advocating for the people’s cry, where publicly others can see the issue and understand the effect of dislocation, as in fact, Stephan Lawrence was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To conclude it is brought forth that the outcome of unsettled existents of black people tend to be the cause to expressions of dislocation in artist works of today.




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