How can gatekeeping theory in the circulation of cultural objects, including knowledge production, inform the way cultural sociology investigates the role of the producer and the cultural object as “gated” entities? Using the case of producers working under the rubric of “Contemporary African art” to investigate opportunities and restrictions to inserting themselves into the gatekeeping process I ask: How do artists differentially position their work in relation to the idea of “Africanness” and how does this impact the way they frame their work alongside primary gatekeepers? I explore this process of professional self-positioning using 30 interviews with contemporary artists, 6 curators, content analysis of 130 artist profiles, observations of 6 art talks and secondary interviews with artists on online platforms. The findings suggest that as an artist’s biography interacts with the thematic content of their work, a focus on method, form, or an issue-based agenda offers three ways to distance the artists’ work from “Africanness” and yet “Africanness” functions as a productively ambiguous misnomer. The data also suggest that variation in how one trades in (eschews) or trades on (employs) Africanness provides the basis for an institutionalized culture of diplomacy in contemporary art and scholarship, one that prioritizes cooperation over confrontation. “Africanness” is a professional trading chip and Contemporary African art acts as a kind of boundary object. While it is useful for assembling thematic exhibitions, accessing resources, networking, and gaining exposure, a focus on “Africanness” is restrictive for consolidating artists’ efforts to pursue specific professional, social, political, and economic agendas through art. As primary gatekeepers in the development of Contemporary African art genre continue to use “Africanness” as a legitimate way to group artists spanning a wide range of generation, genre, and geography, artists expand their locus of control by curating, teaching, publishing in books and articles and initiating organizations that relate to but demand attention beyond “Africanness” and the art objects they produce.
Keywords: Contemporary African art, Africanness, boundary object, trading chip