'Africaine' at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
by Laurie Ann Farrell
'Africaine' is French for African - and the title of a recent exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. Comprising photographs, collages, digital montages and videos, 'Africaine' explored representations of the female body through works by four African-born female artists: Candice Breitz, Wangechi Mutu, Tracey Rose and Fatimah Tuggar.
Entering the Studio Museum from street level, visitors had to traverse a remarkable collection of works by Yinka Shonibare in order to reach 'Africaine' on the mezzanine level. The two exhibitions worked well together as both showcased works that blur cultural boundaries between the West and Africa.
Shonibare mixes Western and non-Western elements in installations that recall images like Fragonard's Swing and continue into photographs that subvert and play with Hogarth's moralising images of a Victorian dandy. Borrowing and blending known images from the Western art historical cannon as well as literary icons (such as Dickens and the Bronte sisters for his 19th Century Kid series), Shonibare's constructions contextualise discussions of cultural hybridity within highly referential frameworks.
Upstairs in the mezzanine galleries, 'Africaine' consisted of two rooms and one corridor of photographs and a small DVD installation gallery. Curator Christine Kim selected the four artists based on studio visits, submissions for the highly coveted Studio residencies, and inclusion in previous exhibitions and biennales.
'Africaine' showcased works exploring the composite nature of merging cultures (Mutu and Tuggar), as well as photographic and video works addressing issues of sexuality, race and gender (Rose) and the currency of manipulating eroticised postcard images (Breitz). These works were grouped thematically under the curatorial umbrella of investigations of the third world female body.
In conversation, curator Christine Kim said the South Africans Breitz and Rose offered critical deconstructions of images, types, myths and icons that are multiplied and perpetuated to produce cultural stereotypes of the female in the Western imagination. One doesn't have to be familiar with Malek Alloula's seminal text The Colonial Harem, or have digested the dialogues in the 1999 collection of essays Grey Areas to understand the point behind Breitz's Ghost Series. This body of work whites-out the fetishised images of African women in found postcard images. Working with images of women conducting domestic tasks in traditional African village settings, the erasure of their bodies through the use of Tippex highlights the problematic stereotypes these postcards perpetuate.
The posed photographs of Rose employ similarly problematic images of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Lolita, and "Maisie" (derived from "girl" in Afrikaans) to collapse oversimplified narratives on race, gender and sexuality. Rose's photographs recalled the posed self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, as both artists use and manipulate their own identities in carefully constructed settings. One could argue that Rose and Breitz deflect the "gaze" and consumption of these known icons and types in an effort to question the role of the viewer in identity construction.
A highlight of 'Africaine' was Tuggar's computer montage print Bedroom (2001). This image recreates a traditional African domestic interior - with, at its centre, a large-screen monitor that displays a Western bedroom complete with a catalogue image of a four-poster bed. Her juxtaposition of African and Western contexts suggests a playful re-situation of images that construct cultural identities.
Also on view were a series of pin-ups created by Mutu that blend body features found in various magazine ads and popular culture to assemble female bodies. According to Kim, Mutu's collages are informed by surrealist images and have their roots in Kenyan storytelling.
While 'Africaine' doesn't attempt to be a comprehensive presentation of issues germane to cultural representations of the female body, it does effectively show four artists who use the female body as a vehicle of manipulation and departure. Combining new and older works in intimate exhibitions like 'Africaine' offers viewers an opportunity to sample a range of perspectives on modes and conventions for representing and investigating the female body.
Laurie Ann Farrell is associate curator at the Museum for African Art, NYC
January 24 - March 31 2002
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York