A traveling exhibit gives the lie to 'primitive' Africa
African art historically has been allowed only two passports for travel to the West. Either it came as 'primitive,' with masks, stools, and cult statues torn from the context of daily use and lighted to look like Brancusi sculptures, or it was 'naive,' like Congolese historical paintings that got the facts wrong, but in an oh-so-charming way.
Africa Remix, billed as the largest exhibit of contemporary African art ever seen in Europe, makes a strong bid to shed these limiting categories, bringing work by almost 80 artists that is varied, sophisticated, and right up to date. The works were chosen by Simon Njami, a Cameroonian novelist, art critic, and founding editor of the bilingual art journal Revue Noire. Most of them have been produced since the year 2000, and the earliest piece in the show is only 14 years old.
The exhibit is so big it's almost impossible to generalize about it. But that's the point: One reviewer noted that 'the show is shockingly huge,' but then, so is Africa. Grouped under three categories, 'Identity & History,' 'Body & Soul,' and 'City & Land,' the exhibit presents work ranging from Zoulikha Bouabdellah's video installation of Algerian belly dancers shaking it to the sounds of the French national anthem, to Angolan Antonio Ole's Townshipwall No. 10, built from scrounged material, to Beninese Romuald Hazoume's African masks painted on plastic jerrycans, using the handle for a nose and the opening for a mouth. Hazoume proposes sending these to European museums, so 'we can keep our own masks here.'
Burundian Aime Ntakiyica's hilarious photos pose his African self in Tyrolean lederhosen, Spanish toreador pants, and a Scottish kilt, upsetting ethnic boundaries and reminding viewers of a 'Western primitive' that defines Europe's nationalisms. Bodys Isek Kingelez lifts the imagination of what is possible in Africa with his stunning urban model for Kinshasa in the third millennium.
It's difficult to pick standouts, but I won't forget Cheri Samba's Le Monde Vomissant, which shows the world as a round man with a stretched belly vomiting out North America along with assorted guns and a tank, or South African Jane Alexander's freaky humanoid figures with animal heads. Kenyan Wangechi Mutu's drawing/collages on Mylar of grotesque but sensual figures (In Killing Fields, Sweet Butterfly Ascend and A Passing Thought Such a Frightening Ape) have an uncanny beauty and psychological depth. Probably the single most striking image in the show is the one chosen for the cover of both the catalog and the CD, Samuel Fosso's flowery self-portrait titled The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonialists.
Africa Remix opened at the Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf, was at the Hayward Gallery in London last spring, and at the Pompidou in Paris during the summer. It will move to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in spring 2006, and Njami would dearly love to take it to Johannesburg after that; there are, strangely, no plans for it to come to North America, but the catalog alone is a worthy investment.
As if the exhibit were not big enough, each venue has added concerts, dance performances, and critical discussions. In London, at least 15 major African musicians played in conjunction with the show, and Senegalese singer Baaba Maal offered his interpretation of the exhibit. At the Pompidou, there were daily events streamed live on the Internet, including a prescient discussion between Stuart Hall and Achille Mbembe about why France is so slow in coming to terms with race and racism.
Afropop music is perhaps the continent's most successful form of cultural expression, and the African Music Bar exhibit, a full-room installation, includes a jukebox with 60 songs, all recorded in the 21st century. A CD called Africa Remix, available from Milan Records, is a collection of 16 of them.
The catalog, published in English by Hatje Cantz and distributed in North America by Distributed Art Publishers (www.artbook.com), has great reproductions, but if you can read French, the Pompidou catalog, published by the museum, has more text, including a miniencyclopedia of African art figures and institutions. There's also a shorter, less expensive bilingual guide to the exhibit published by the Pompidou.