Growing up there was always a steady stream of South African exiles, many of them artists, moving through Christine Eyene’s home due to her sister and mother. A Cameroonian born in Paris, the politics of African art and the search for black identity was part of her daily experience.
“As a child I was not interested in art but I was interested in stories about the struggle and black identity although I could not intellectually formulate it at the time. I was young then but it has influenced my thinking in many aspects,” says Eyene, alluding to a time when the apartheid government cracked down on black South African artists with force.
Hounded by racial discrimination, the constant threat of violence, lack of opportunities and disruption of their creative work, South African activists were forced to either flee or leave on exit permits. The list is extensive. Writers included Nat Nakasa and Lewis Nkosi. Photographers such as George Hallett or Ernest Cole. Musicians, most notably Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.
These artists and activists became essential to raising the profile of the international anti-apartheid movement; furthering the fight for liberation through artistic expression and political engagement.
“A lot of those South Africans were artists you know, intellectuals, writers and it sort of gave me a sense of empowerment,” she says of the effect of brushing shoulders with the greats.
The full extent of the profound personal effect these artists had on her and her work, came only later for Eyene. She took informal photography lessons with George Hallett while he resided in Paris. She was 21 years old at the time. She studied art history at the renowned Sorbonne University.
“That’s when I realised there was no writing, nothing on black or African artists living in Paris and that’s when I started doing my research,” she says.
Eyene is a curator and art historian, a Guild Research Fellow at the University of Central Lancashire. She has produced extensive research on modern and contemporary South Africa art since the late 1990s, specialising in exiled South African artists who lived in France and England during the apartheid era. Her work has probed their cultural interactions and collaborations with the Black Diaspora. She has written about art pioneers including Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto and Gavin Jantjes. Her other areas of interest include gender, representations of the body and urban culture.
“We can’t complain about the absence or underrepresentation of black African, or non-western artists, on the art scene and not do anything about it,” she says.
“One of the reasons I stopped photography was because I realised there were a lot of African photographers but not so much writing on those photographers. I really wanted to engage with those photographers on an intellectual level, create some writing for these to be considered on the same level as their western counterparts. I think on the continent we are lacking art writing, art criticism,” she says.
Her latest project is based at the Centre for Contemporary Art titled Making Histories Visible, which provides a platform for underrepresented African artists. Together with major art museums and cultural organisations, the project connects artists and communities with their local and international heritage through archives, exhibitions and public art projects.
”I am African, I am Cameroonian. I have no issue with that. I embrace that. But at the same time I’m interested in collaboration with non-African artists,” says Eyene, who believes that in this day and age, there needs to be space for reflection on art ‘beyond the prism of ethnic identity’. Through her interest in photography, sound and film she explores gender and female narratives that allow her to “unpack the complexity of identity politics and its representation in art.”
“African, Black and a woman, I remain. But my projects can also tell a different story. My projects are in fact about the artists, their art and a shared interest, translated into art exhibitions.”
Eyene was co-curator of Dak’Art 2012 and more recently WHERE WE’RE AT! Other Voices on Gender, Bozar, Brussels (June-Aug 2014) as well as Basket Case II, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (31 Oct – 15 Dec 2014). She has contributed to a number of international art publications including Art South Africa, Third Text and Manifesta Journal. She has also contributed to exhibition catalogues and art books.
Image by Antoine Tempé