Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary Diaspora
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the significance and importance of an exhibition is in the eye of the art critic. Clearly, the proposition behind the mega exhibition "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation in Africa, 1945-94'(which showed in New York last year ) that Africa had generated a Modernism of its own, independent of the West, was so radical and new to American thinking, that that show will become the yardstick by which other African shows are judged. Or for a good few years, anyway.
Thus, the influential Holland Cotter, writing in the New York Times of November 21, comments that 'Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora', which opened last month at the Museum for African Art, " arrives just a bit late". A bit late? Late for what? one might ask. Has the success of 'The Short Century' precluded other African group shows with different themes? Have we had our moment in the limelight?
The whole process of introducing contemporary artists who happen to come from Africa to a New York art world in which as Cotter points out, "its main gallery neighbourhoods remain tight enclaves of mostly British-American art" is challenging, to say the least. On one hand, one has the curator. In this case, it is Laurie Ann Farell, an energetic and highly informed young curator with the agenda of pulling her institution, the Museum for African Art into the contemporary art scene. Her function is to conceptualise, raise the funding and bring into being exhibitions which will, through focussing on an aspect of contemporary African art production, allow a selection of good artists to engage with her concept and to produce work which will attract critical acclaim, thereby enhancing the reputation of all concerned. Essential is a catalogue with essays written by experts in the field designed to further the discourse on the subject. The reception of the show by the public will be mediated through the critics. The function of a critic like Cotter is to consider Farrell's conceptual framework, and make judgements on the quality of the work and whether the exhibition advances and illuminates the ideas she has proposed, or not.
In the middle one has the artists, who by and large are very happy to be selected to be on a show at a good institution like the Museum for African Art, particularly when the curator has been able to raise the funding to commission them to produce new work. On the other hand, they are somewhat resistant to being categorised in any way, either by being identified as specifically 'African' or part of the diaspora. In her catalogue introduction, Farrell tells us that some of the artists expressed "a desire to avoid being pigeonholed into a cateory, or cited previous expectations placed on them to bear the burden of representing Africa to the West". In a conversation with Kobena Mercer in the catalogue, when asked by Mercer what the "diaspora" means for him, Moshekwa Langa replies, "Oh, but I didn't know I was in the diaspora. It's very uncomfortable to think of myself in such a setup because "diaspora" is very definite. It makes concrete what I'm afraid to confront in my daily life: for me it means having definitely left the place of origin and being a free floating agent."
So you see the difficulties. Artists' work can rarely be made to fit neatly into the set of propositions demanded by the art world. With 'Looking Both Ways', Farrell's title "refers to the artists' practice of looking at the psychic terrain between Africa and the West, a terrain of shifting physical contexts, emotional geographies and aesthetic ambitions and expressions". In fact, much of the work on this fine show does indeed explore this territory, reflecting the status of the artists as "free floating agents." The artists have risen to the occasion, and many of the new works are major pieces which will play an important part in the ouevre of the artist. The show is a significant achievement for Farrell and for the museum.
Yinka Shonibare's commanding tableau Scramble for Africa features 14 headless representatives of European nations, figures dressed in Shonibare's trademark waxprint period dress, sit around a table marked with a map of Africa, gesturing at the piece of Africa they desire, as happened at the 1874 Berlin Conference. Kendell Geers, constructs a museum of African/Other art within the museum, using steel factory shelving and panels of poured concrete set with shards of broken green glass for his enclosure. His 'exhibits', which range from flea market African artefacts to a Shiva figure to a statuette of Lara Croft are recognisable only by outline - Geers has wrapped them all in his favoured red and white plastic danger tape. The decision to re use existing materials rather than craft something new is what Geers says makes his work 'African'.
A diptych of two mixed media drawings by Wangechi Muta, completed so near to the opening of the show that they did not make the catalogue (though it is another of her drawings which is the cover image) are, frankly, stunning, and her title People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, might read as a witty admonishment to all those who wish to speed search for the 'authentic' in African work. The image on ArtThrob does not do justice to the strength and delicacy of these ironically mythic creatures with their elongated bodies and fantasy surroundings.
Moshekwa Langa presents a series of mixed media work. His Garden of Earthly Delights, a visual version of one of Langa's 'list' works, packs the picture frame with faces, one of them possibly a self portrait, a jet, a village hut, a stray with bared teeth, spiders and webs, a pasted cat - an exile's thoughts of home? Equally, Golden Boy could be read as a self portrait, a brown-skinned boy overlaid with a wash of gold, perhaps a reference to Johannesburg, the city of gold, vomiting up a dark brown spew. Rough as Langa's drawing style is, it is infused with energy and authority.
Allen deSouza, born in Kenya and now resident in the States, has given his attention to the points of entry into the West, with his Threshhold series, photographs of deserted airport areas. Far from presenting these images as large scale and overwhelming, DeSouza makes them tiny, postcard size, a photo of a strange space of desire to be mailed back home to those who have not yet left. Zineb Sedira, too, addresses the journey from one country to another. On a Winters Night a Traveller is an unpretentious piece, seven monitors set side by side reflecting stages of a journey from Sedira's birth country Algeria to London, where she now lives, as filmed through the window of the plane. Its quiet banality leaves space for the ambiguous emotions experienced when this shift is made.
Angolan artist Fernando Alvim fabricates a white on white flag, with stitched stars named for each country in which the United States has participated in wars and Ghada Amer continues to explore the terrain of sexual politics with mixed media works which combine acrylic paint, stitched images, and wallpaper. The smaller ones seem too slight to transcend their decorative qualities.
Also participating are Olad�l� Bamgboyé, Hassan Musa, N'Dilo Mutima, and Ingrid Mwangi. As the show moves on to new venues (see listings) more hanging space will be available, and some of the work which had to be held back in New York will be put on display. As it stands, Farrell's 'Looking Both Ways' is an important show with some great pieces, and an exceptional catalogue. Those whose interest was piqued by 'The Short Century' will find much to reward them for the trip out to Long Island City.
November 13 2003 - March 1 2004
Museum for African Art
36-01 43rd Avenue at 36th Street, Long Island City, NY 11101, USA
Tel: 718. 784 7700
Fax: 718. 7847718
Hours: Mon, Thurs, Fri 10am - 5pm, Sat & Sun 11am - 5pm