It’s pretty screwy that here, now, in the year 2016 many people still have a hard time grasping that Africa is an incredibly diverse continent home to vastly different cultures, languages, landscapes, and art traditions. Thankfully, we have things like the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (held May 6 through 8 at Pioneer Works in Red Hook) at our fingertips to keep us in the know about the incredible (and, ahem, marketable) art work coming out of the 54 countries on the African continent.
It’s an art fair, so ultimately market forces were the deciding factor in what work made it into 1:54 and what didn’t. “Good business is the best art,” or something like that. But unlike at Frieze, I engaged in minimal eye-rolling at 1:54. Instead of meeting my expectations, some of what I saw challenged preconceptions that I didn’t even know I had, while other things impressed on me the new possibilities growing out of rich lineages of artistic and decorative practices. Still other works reaffirmed that artists from all over Africa, like artists all over the world, are engaging in global conversations, and are concerned with issues that map directly on to our North American experiences as well as issues that reflect completely different realities of the developing world and the lingering impact of oppressive systems like colonialism and apartheid.
1. Joël Andrianomearisoa is described by Sabrina Amrani Gallery as an artist for whom “urban space is a primary interest,” something that’s immediately discernible from his work, which is dense and finely detailed. What was on display at this booth captured his tendency to create things that require both an unusually close-up look-see and careful consideration after zooming out.
For “Antananarivo Love Playfield Dead Tree of my Ne Life,” Andrianomearisoaa created an enormous grid from dozens of individual collages and singular images made from found objects, official documents, and everyday paper items. All were acquired in his hometown of Antananarivo in the highlands of Madagascar, a city that was built around a bright blue lake and acquired a pink Baroque palace in the French colonial era. There were only bits of a larger piece on display at 1:54, but their fine detail and precision spoke to the complexity of the project. “He’s a collector,” the booth attendant explained, which makes perfect sense for someone who works in an ecstatic way. As Andrianomearisoaa explains in his artist statement: “When I set up an installation, I do not imagine its finality.”
2. Senegalese artist Omar Ba‘s work was on display at the booth dedicated to Art Bartschi & Cie. The gallery is based in Switzerland, where the artist moved from Dakar to attend art school and has lived ever since. His paintings, mostly done on cardboard, are composed of the same sort of decorative dots and powdery consistency found in various kinds of tribal body painting where the canvas, the starting point, is dark and what you add on is lighter. But Ba’s works are far from typical tribal-inspired fare, and instead have at once a loneliness to them and a celebratory burst of energy. The human heart is central to Ba’s works at 1:54, and in “Out of Time I” (2016; oil, pencil, acrylic, gouache on corrugated cardboard) the heart is consuming one man’s head as he crawls around on all fours, seemingly lost in a snow bank that’s blossoming with European architectural forms as fireworks rain down overhead.
My guess is that Ba, who is from Dakar, Senegal– a large urban area in Francophone Africa– is playing with Western ideas about “African art” such as tribal motifs and rudimentary materials, while making these things his own. I mean, c’mon Heart of Darkness anyone? Instead of thwarting these traditions, he’s embracing them, and refusing to turn on the white lights, celebrating blackness– both literal and figurative blackness.
3. “Statecraft- Invitation to Exile,” 2015 from Athi-Patra Ruga, a South African artist working in multiple mediums including video, photography, performance, and textiles. It’s no wonder this tapestry is so stylish– a lot of Ruga’s work is inspired by the implacable attitude and enigmatic coolness of fashion, which is where he began his career before converting to fine art after he realized that the fashion world isn’t exactly the best place for someone so politically minded. I wanted to avoid using this word, but pretty much all of Ruga’s stuff is fierce, in both style and substance. This tapestry, for example, is part of the Exile series, in which Ruga imagines what a return to the fictional land of Azania, “the apartheid era’s […] Southern African decolonialised arcadia,” would look like.
Of course, Ruga reimagines Azania as less utopian and more, well, flawed in dreaming up a place of “sin, of decadence and current politics.” He rejects this idealized future, a sort of kingdom-of-heaven-on-earth type of deal which, as he points out, hasn’t resulted in the best outcomes anyway (see: Palestine). So what’s with the tapestries? Well, that’s just Ruga’s brilliant play on Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti’s embroidered maps and the ideas of the nation state as a manufactured construct. (And I wouldn’t put it past Ruga that the Italian tapestry tradition is a nod to Italy being maybe the perfect example to invoke when trying to explain to someone that the concept of nationalism didn’t really exist prior to the 19th century, when Italy was unified).
4. Is this supposed to look like a uterus? I sure hope so. If so, Benin-born artist Dominique Zinkpe‘s painting is an imaginative rendering of the female anatomy in a world full of dull nudes and porn. Hell, he could maybe even win an honorary spot at the next Female Gaze on the Nude show. I’ll at least give him a gold star for accuracy in rendering the birthplace of hysteria as a place where monsters and parasites dwell. As an artists who portrays “a world of ghosts” I think he really, really gets it.
5. Maybe it was the potential for a really dirty joke that made us enjoy this pair of photos by Edson Chagas at the A Palazzo booth. The Angolan photographer was included in the 2015 iteration of MoMA’s New Photography exhibition series, Ocean of Images. The counterpoint to the bag-head series is Tipo Passe, a similar series in which Chagas had his models wear African masks paired with suits, button-downs, and trench coats, which brings up an interesting point about Western cultural signifiers. Instead of thousands of years of history and elegantly carved artworks, we have reusable shopping bags. The truth hurts, y’all.
6. Everything about this photo rules– the bellbottoms; the way this guy’s standing, hand on hip, guitar tossed over his shoulder so as not to obscure his sick belt buckle; his cool-guy sunglasses; and the fake palm tree background. It makes you wonder what sort of music this guy was playing, where he hung out, and if he still lived with his parents or was, like, a successful rock n’ roll music star.
It’s also just a perfectly shot photo. Turns out this was Hamidou Maiga‘s thing as a budding artist in the early ’60s when– after returning from a two-year jaunt down the Niger river where he met and photographed countless people in makeshift outdoor studios– he’d returned to Timbuktu to open up his own more permanent studio. Everyone was welcome in front of Maiga’s lens, and looking back on his photographs from this era (a time of post-colonial transition) is sort of an amazing window into Mali’s past and present.
7. This Seattle-based gallery run by Mariane Ibrahim had an eye-popping set-up with collage work by Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze (a Nigerian artist based in NYC) and large, leafy portraits printed on textiles by Zohra Opoku (a Ghana-based artist who combines textile work with video, photography, and other mediums).
8. I regret telling another fairgoer at the LES-based gallery Richard Taittinger’s booth that I believed the last word on the top right-hand seat-back was, “witness.” I mean, clearly it says “wetness.” But it’s the imperfections of South-African artist Frances Goodman‘s car seat embroidered with rhinestones that make it so charming. The scrawl almost looks like quickly-rendered graffiti, which is the only way to tell a story about someone losing their virginity in the back of a car.
9. Aida Muluneh‘s resume as a citizen of the world is intimidating– she was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Yemen and Canada, went to boarding school in Cyprus, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has won awards from all over the world. If that doesn’t lead to a wide variety of experiences, then I don’t know what does. Muluneh’s work (which you might remember from this Lower East Side exhibition last summer) is equal parts Bjork-style fashion and colorful symbolic storytelling through body painting.
10. South-African artist Diane Victor is maybe the only artist ever to do productive things with smoke and ash. I’m really hoping this technique came out of some hilarious accident. I can imagine Victor puffing at a cigarette, thinking about where to go next with this blank canvas in front of her when, suddenly, she sneezes and scatters ash all over the canvas, and while attempting to rub it off, she accidentally burns the canvas in the process. (Hey– they don’t call me Sherlock for nothin’.)
11. At left are the collages of Yashua Klos. Get ready to have your mind blown– those cut-out bits aren’t photographs of stones or even paintings or anything like that. In fact, they’re woodblock prints. And if you look closely, they almost have the appearance of petrified wood. At right, painting by Angolan-born French artist Franck Lundangi.
12. What’s more hideous than a minion? You’re looking at it. Steve Bandoma truly earned the distinction of most retina-destroying work at 1:54. I’m lovin’ it.
13. As a resident of the Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo which makes New York City look like Oklahoma with its population of 11 million souls, Kura Shomali sees some truly weird stuff. By communicating in the same vein of the city’s visual culture– advertisements, newspapers, magazines, flyers– Shomali offers a window into the pulse of Kinshasa life.
14. I see something of Kehinde Wiley in JP Mika, but also his complete opposite. While Wiley’s work dwells in the realm of kings, gods, and heroes, Mika embraces populist poses and party scenes. Instead of an invitation to look upon the divine in all their stoic grandness, we’re offered a Facebook invite to the backyard barbecue.
15. Nathalie Boutté‘s magic eye collages seem to contain secret messages. The little blue-and-white tabs that make up portraits of historical figures are printed with what appear to be historical accounts of what exactly, I’m unsure. Even without completely understanding the context, Boutté’s works are simply just fun to look at.
16. Lawrence Lemaoana‘s political rebellions and social critique are contained in these painstakingly embroidered tapestries bearing harsh declarations like “Rat King.” Clearly, he’s suspicious of the systems he’s been handed in South Africa and slipping messages like these ones into such a traditional format is the equivalent of shaking his viewers awake.