'Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes'- the African show at the Venice Biennale
by Sue Williamson
This year, the efforts of the Forum for African Arts to give the artists of this continent a real presence at the Venice Biennale, to move them closer to the centre, succeeded. In one sense, that is. 'Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes',
with its themes of displacement, globalisation and migration, received a prime position near the centre of the Arsenale. In a Venice speckled with shows all over town, this victory of location is not to be underestimated. What a pity that this opportunity to ratchet up the international awareness of contemporary African art was largely wasted by a show that came across as being for the most part insipid.
The Arsenale is traditionally the space for emerging and mid career artists engaged in pushing the boundaries of contemporary art to new limits, so why waste wall space at Venice on small scale photographs of an Egyptian housing project by deceased architect Hassan Fathy? Groundbreaking as the project was in its time, a book would have served the material better. And undeniably beautiful, the mannered photographs of Rotimi Fani;Kayode with their themes of sexuality and ecstasy have been seen in many other forums. In one of the better works on show, the Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr, a prizewinner at last year's Dakar Biennale, showed Tabla a vertically projected image of a drummer beating a ceramic drum, Expertly. Only his hands are seen. In the space in front of the projection a host of small drums occupy the floor. The masses, receiving messages from their leader.
Moshekwa Langa used his space for what seemed to be a mini survey of recent work. Six large scale drawings filled one wall, made in several different styles. Some worked better than others, with a particularly engaging piece utilising black plastic and red, blue and white tape covering the entire surface like a map seen from the air recalling not only his early drawings, but also the installations in which he has used thread, bottles, cars to map his own version of the world. A nine-piece framed work of a woman in a swimming pool filled the adjoining wall. Twelve video monitors, back to back showed Langa's quirky output, including the excellent Where do I begin?, in which a whole world of difficulty and patient waiting is conjured up by a simple framing of feet stepping onto a bus. Entitled Waiting, Langa's dense assemblage with its highs and lows had much to offer, but the statement seemed too diverse for many, who passed with a single glance,
Clifford Charles showed an extended series of ink drawings on paper, better appreciated at close quarters than on the too-large wall spaces on which they were hung. Nonetheless, Elisa Turner of the Miami Herald, had this to say "Highlights (at Venice) were the spare black and white Water Drawings by Clifford Charles. Sometimes dominated by an ovoid pool of black textured with shadowy fingerprints, his images pulled viewers into a fluctuating world and seemed fresh and forthright."
A disappointment for visiting South Africans was that the collaborative work of the other two South African artists listed in the catalogue, Veliswa Gintsa and Pitsa Chinzima, was not to be seen. (See News) Their contribution was apparently unpacked, then returned to its crates and sent away. An email to curator Gilane Tawardros brought this response: "the work was not completed in time and so, sadly, we were unable to show it." Whether it was unfinished, or simply not good enough to exhibit, it's a sad waste of an opportunity for artists from this country to participate in what is still the queen of the international biennales, and reflects badly on both curator and artists.
Of the eight other artists not yet mentioned, American born Laylah Ali showed small gouaches in a series of provocative untitled works showing scenes in which her stylized characters seem caught in some kind of odd and slightly threatening ritual. With their large heads and white eyes, the 'Greenheads' reminded me of those racist postcards and illustrations South Africans hunt down in fleamarkets in Europe - and clearly Ali's purpose is to interrogate the impulse which led to the making of such images.
Zarina Bhimji showed large backlit transparencies of deserted and tainted spaces in Uganda, Kader Attia fitted out a vending machine with American passports and whisky, and Samta Benyahia provided a space of meditation with her serene white structure based on the ornamental motif, rosace. The motif is repeated again in shades of blue on the windows, and in the centre, filled with deep turquoise sequins. Other exhibitors were painter Frank Bowling, Salem Mekuria, Sabah Naim and Wael Shawky.
A saving grave of 'Fault Lines' was the fine catalogue, well designed and written, edited by Gilane Tawardros and Sarah Campbell.