Sunday, 20 September 2009
Africa Remix, currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, and due to be seen later at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, is yet another well-intentioned, but in fact doomed, attempt to align contemporary art from Africa with what is happening in the West.
The first major attempt of this kind, which incorporated other regions in addition, was Les Magiciens de la Terre, seen in Paris in 1989. This was widely criticized for presenting non-European artists as irretrievably ‘other’. Jean Hubert Martin, the curator of Magiciens, has also been an adviser for the present show, and uneasily defends his previous effort in one of the catalogue essays.
Les Magiciens swung towards what one might describe as an‘ethnic’ presentation. As its title suggested, it saw non-European artists from undeveloped cultures as essentially shamans, performing hermetic rituals, to which a western audience could be privy only in part. This was the attitude taken up by Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century, when he said that Braque, the co-inventor of Cubism, did not understand l’art nègre “because he was not superstitious”.
As the world of contemporary art has inexorably expanded into the non-European sphere, taking in first of all Latin America, and after that Japan, China and even Iran, curators and critics have struggled to find a solution that would enable them to deal with current African production within the existing western system. The need was the more urgent because African American art had an increasingly important presence in the United States, and there was a similar, though less clamorous, interest in Afro-Caribbean art in Britain.
Africa Remix makes a valiant attempt to represent all tendencies, and includes art from the whole of the continent, including work the Islamic nations north of the Sahara, as well as from the non-Islamic countries to the south.
The results are odd. There are a number of artists who are well established on the international circuit – the South African Marlene Dumas, for example, who now lives and works in Amsterdam. Her work can also be seen at another location on London’s South Bank, in the Saatchi Gallery’s current show devoted to new painting.
Other international names are those of the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, who lives and works in New York, and Yinka Shonibare, of Nigerian origin, but born in London, where he has made a successful career on the BritPop circuit that includes luminaries such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili [another British-domiciled artist of African origin, omitted here].
Yet another familiar personality is the white South African William Kentridge, resident in Johannesburg but seen in recent years in many large-scale international shows, among them the most recent Cassel Documenta. White South Africans are in fact present in force, and their work, like that of Dumas and Kentridge, doesn’t strain the limits of current norms. Which means, among other things, that it doesn’t feel particularly African.
There is also – though with one or two exceptions – not much that seems African about the numerous examples of documentary photography included. Photography of this sort has an essentially neutral gaze, which is one reason why I wonder about its increasingly frequent inclusion in survey exhibitions of this sort. Here the subject matter is African but the sensibility often not conspicuously so.
Somewhat different however, is a series of fantasy self-portraits by Samuel Fosso, born in Cameroon and now working in Bangui, in the Central African Republic. These combine satire with wild fantasy, rather in the manner of the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. It is not surprising that one of these images ‘Le chef – celui qui a vendu l’Afrfique aux colons’- has been chosen for the exhibition poster and also for the catalogue cover.
Satire is in fact one of the strengths of the African art now actually being made in Africa. One of Africa’s best known satirists is the irrepressible Chéri Samba, from Kinshasa. He is joined here by the very similar Chéri Cherin, also from Kinshasa.
Their work has little to do with traditional African art and much to do with local posters and shop-signs, and also with the comic-strips in African newspapers. It is representative of the turbulent life of the great, squalid cities of Africa. Kinshasa is one of the great centres for contemporary African popular music – its influence in this sphere is felt all over the continent. Samba and Cherin are visual equivalents, and their work, like the new African music, has found a secure niche market in the West.
So too have certain other artists from Africa. A number of them were discovered and popularized by the Swiss collector Jean Pigozzi, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. His name, oddly, does not appear in the catalogue bibliography. Two of the artists associated with Pigozzi who now appear regularly in surveys of African art are Cyprien Tokoudagba from Benin and Bodys Isek Kingelez from the Democratic Republic of the Congo – formerly Zaïre. Tokoudagba is the closest the show gets to a traditional African artist. He began by painting murals for traditional voudoun cult buildings and later transferred his efforts to canvas. His paintings are collections of symbols. Westerners probably read them as Surrealist, but in African terms they have precise meanings. They can be compared to the acrylic-on-canvas ‘dreamings’ produced by Australian Aboriginal artists for sale to the western market.
Kingelez is something different altogether. What he makes are table-top models of futuristic cities – visions of a time when, as the artist sees it, Africa a will be a peace and will enjoy all the riches and conveniences of the West. These obsessive constructions have obvious parallels elsewhere – for example, on a larger scale, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
There are a number of other works in the show – and they are amongst the most engaging things it has to offer – that embody this world of obsession and private fantasy. Other examples are the elaborate altars, combining Christian and non-Christian elements – such as a portrait of Che Guevara – made by Paulo Capela from Angola.
The exhibition organizers hint, rather than claim, that they have tried to steer clear of ‘art brut’, but many of the most striking things included seem to fall into this category. Like all art of this type they are items complete in themselves, offering no possibility of further development.
Two further categories of work need to be mentioned. One is a considerable quantity of sculpture made by recycling western industrial detritus. Romuald Hazoumé of Benin turns discarded jerry-cans into African masks; in the hands of Gonçalo Mabunda of Mozambique discarded weapons from Africa’s civil wars become sculptures or items of furniture. This recycling process is familiar from Latin America – recent Cuban art has made much use of it. The effect is ambiguous: it suggests cultural independence on the one hand, but economic dependency on the other.
This is at any rate subtler than some feeble attempts at direct political commentary – an image of Boucher’s Mlle. O’Morphy with the head of Osama Bin-Laden becomes a ‘Great American Nude’; the South African Wim Botha offers installations that highlight the shame of his Boer ancestry. In this context, and in these circumstances, such efforts are otiose – they preach to the already converted, without offering any extra imaginative dimension.
In general the exhibition seeks rather than finds. It looks for art that is genuinely African, but often demonstrates how much and how often this art is compromised by both cultural and economic dependency on the West.
[At the Hayward Gallery, London, until 17th April 2005]
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