Out of Africa
“A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary African Art Abroad”
When you pull up in front of the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, headed for the gallery’s “A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary African Art Abroad” exhibition, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re about to enter a rather frightening comedy club. That’s because of the S_LAUGHTER installation up on the Blaffer wall. A flickering neon “sign” created by South African artist Kendell Geers, the piece consists of a large, upper-case, red-neon depiction of the word SLAUGHTER, but with a flickering “S”, so that the message of the “word” alternates between “slaughter” and “laughter.” If you know S_LAUGHTER serves as a kind of advertisement for an exhibition of contemporary African art, and if you know the exhibition’s purpose is to question whether such a thing as “African Art,” or even African identity, exists, you can begin to ponder the questions raised by Geers’ mischievous “S.”
Is Africa indeed a dark continent, home to disease and rampant slaughter, or is it the land of happy, upbeat music that makes you want to smile, if not laugh? Is the notion that art can somehow be authentically “African” inherently funny for Geers and many of the other artists? After all, Geers is white, as are several of the other artists here. All have left the continent. Geers lives in Belgium; others are scattered across Europe and the United States. So—are they still “African?” In a globalized era, when artists travel like any other corporation, is there any point in insisting on geographic “authenticity?”
These questions don’t apply to everyone. If a French artists move to the United States, no one asks if their art is authentically European. The French artist is recognized as an autonomous individual. But for a Nigerian painter (say), the question often does become, “Yes, but is it African?”
The blinking “S” (and the rest of the exhibition) does inspire these questions and musings, along with other, more critical ones about the quality of the exhibit. Is a malfunctioning sign a good enough joke? Does it “have enough topspin?” as Donald Barthelme used to ask when his one of writing students attempted to commit irony. (The answer was always “no.”)
In fact, this exhibition flickers about as much as the sign. Some pieces raise valid questions. Other installations make points that seem obvious and topspin deficient. The exhibition is long on concept and a bit short on aesthetic pleasure, while the most emotionally engaging seem to have little to do with the rest of the show.
The main gallery downstairs features a mix of the strongest and weakest pieces. Mary Evans was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but now resides in London. (All the artists were born in Africa but now live abroad.) Her kaleidoscope, which isn’t much more than a toy, gets the exhibition off to an underwhelming start. But she shares a gallery with one of show’s most striking installations, the one that makes the most of the exhibition’s questioning of African authenticity. Odili Donald Odita, born in Nigeria, raised in Ohio, and now living in Florida, has a set of sketches and a wall full of paintings that are in dialogue with each other. The sketches are drawings Odita made during a visit to Nigeria. They show street musicians, young students of the Koran, and a masked woman, among other faces. Some women are dressed more or less in Western style. One drawing is a palimpsest. Beneath a drawing of a woman in a business suit, we see the same woman dressed in tribal robes, wearing large, hooped earrings. These depictions capture a complex reality. Africa is tribal. Africa is Muslim. Africa is modern. (Actually, I guess I should say “Nigeria.”)
But the curators have gone one step further by having the large, abstract paintings that Odita made in the United States face the sketches; one set of images challenges the other. The abstracts feature sharp-edged, diagonal, and diamond-shaped figures in a variety of colors, some of which (such as ochre, a color associated with African textiles) seem to evoke Africa. (The catalog says these colors also refer to the “American kitsch” Odita grew up with in Ohio.)
The juxtaposition of Nigerian drawings and modernist abstractions by the same artist provide a dose of visual pleasure and raise the following questions: What part of the art is African, what part is American, and what part is simply Odita? These are questions without answers, of course, and that’s the point.
None of the other artists takes on the issues the exhibition wants to raise quite so directly. Instead, some of the artists toy with prefab notions of what it means to be “African.” Moshekwa Langa, from South Africa and Amsterdam, has created a series of large-scale paintings that tell a fictional “origin of man” story, which plays off of the idea that Africa is indeed the mother continent of us all. Langa’s figures are flat and aboriginal looking, but have a bemused modernity to them. The male figure in “Lame Lamb,” which shows Langa’s version of Adam and Eve, has a sort of cockeyed look to him, as if he’s asking himself. “How the heck did I wind up in an ‘origin of man’ story?”
Siemon Allen, a South African now living in Virginia, raises the question of how much attention the West really pays to his home country. He fills a wall with pages from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that include references to South Africa that are highlighted. At first his idea seems glib. How much copy should the St. Louis Post-Dispatch devote to South Africa? It’s a big world. But examining the features that made the paper opened my eyes. A disproportionate number deal with the takeover of Miller Beer by a South African brewer. (St. Louis is the home of Anheuser-Busch Cos. The show was created by Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.) Several stories are about South African athletes. Many are about South African whites. (In fact, Allen is white.) The most wrenching is about the return of the remains of Saarti Baartman from Paris to South Africa. Known in Europe as the “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman was a black South African woman who was regarded as a freak by early 19th century Paris. She was put on display, and customers paid to check out her buttocks. When she died, her remains were put on view in a Paris museum, where they remained until the 1970s.
An assemblage of photos by Godfried Donkor (Ghana and London) has its own story to tell, but again it’s one that doesn’t jump off the wall. Donkor has put together a collection of black and white photos taken in Kumsai, Ghana, London, and St. Louis. At first glance they read like a typical photo album, tinged with nostalgia. Then you realize that Donkor has woven together images from all three cities, and it’s not so easy to figure out which image comes from which country. Donkur makes a good point about the rigid ideas of how different life must be in three such different places.
The rest of the didactic pieces don’t work as well. Meschac Gaba (Benin and the Netherlands) has a superficially witty piece that pokes fun at archeological practices in Africa, and also at the idea that only antique art is truly “African.” He bought some everyday items at flea markets, then buried them in the St. Louis museum’s construction site. During construction, his artifacts were “discovered.” He presents them here as artistic treasures and asks us to imagine how accurate a picture an archeologist would get of our society by studying our garbage. I got the point, but again, there’s not enough topspin.
The installation I struggled most with was that of Ingrid Mwangi, an African-German. Mwangi appears in a video that is projected onto robes hanging from the gallery walls. She is pregnant and naked from the waist up, talking very seriously about her powers as a woman, which she attempts to illustrate by making a series of ritual-like moves and sounds. According to the catalog, with this display of power she’s critiquing the western image of the African female as a helpless victim. But for me she played nicely into other conventions about the “African earth mother.” Mwangi presents herself as a stereotypical African, colorful and mysteriously powerful.
It’s Zineb Sedira’s video and photography installation that I will remember the longest and think about most. I was about to point out the irony of Sedira’s presence in the show; she is Algerian, and her video examines how her family dealt with the hardships of living in France. My first thought was that this installation would make more sense in a show about the Middle East, because it deals with what I think of as “Middle Eastern” tensions. But, of course, Algeria is in Africa, after all. The artist’s point is that “Africa” is, in fact, a rather imprecise word.
In any case, I was haunted by Sedira’s video, which projects three separate images, of her mother, her father, and herself. The father speaks in French about his travails as an Algerian worker in France, and predicts war between the French and the Arabs “in 40 years, maybe 100.” Her mother speaks in Arabic about the obstacles she faced as a mother and an Algerian woman in an openly racist society. The third image is projected so that Sedira is facing her parents, listening intently as they recount their sufferings. She is dressed in a cosmopolitan, “post-ethnic” style. Because of her parents’ sacrifices, she’s crossed over into the brave new world of flexible borders and recognition as an individual, rather than member of a race.
I’m not sure if Sedira’s work has broadened my mind regarding African identity, but the poignancy of the work makes quite a statement about racism, identity, and immigration.
David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges. He lives in Houston.