Real-time 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.

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