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Photos and videotapes by Ingrid Mwangi at Galerie Peter Herrmann, Berlin

Peter Herrmann and Ingrid Mwangi

Susan Hefuna
Nile Delta

Susan Hefuna

Manuela Sambos 4 Women (left) and Ngingangi (all 1999)

Yenatfenta Abates Dreams watercolors

Yenatfenta Abate

Dreams of Africa
by Kimberly Bradley

Ludwigshafen - Pforzheim - Hamburg - Berlin, May 8-June 5, 2004, part of the African Women Artists series at Galerie Peter Herrmann, Torstrasse 218, 10115 Berlin

I dream of Africa, said Meryl Streep in her role as Karen Blixen in the 1985 flick Out of Africa, and shes not the only one -- Africa haunts the dreams of the West, and has done so for many generations. A new exhibition at Galerie Peter Herrmann in Berlin, featuring artworks of four women artists who originally come from Africa but now live and work in German cities -- Yenatfenta Abate, Susan Hefuna, Ingrid Mwangi and Manuela Sambo -- should help shape those dreams at the beginning of the 21st century in Germany, a country in which the African population has much less of a physical presence than it does in Britain, France or the U.S.

The first eye-catcher upon entering Herrmanns high-ceilinged, apartment-style gallery space is a series of four video stills by Ingrid Mwangi, a Kenyan performance and video artist. Titled Shades of Skin (2001), the photographs show parts of her body -- her face and hands, a scarred back, thighs, then feet dangling above black soil -- darkening in color from left to right.

Next to the photos are two video monitors displaying Cutting the Mask (2003), a video installation in which Mwangi, filmed from the shoulders up, juxtaposes the ideas of baring and masking. On the left screen she stares penetratingly into the camera as she slowly cuts away her dreadlocks with a razor blade. On the right screen, she braids her intact dreadlocks over her face, loosening, manipulating and redoing them as the film runs forward and backward, a little like video scratching. Both silent screens fade to a bleak grey concrete wall before the loops continue.

The stills are stunning if a bit pixel-blurry, the videos are mesmerizing to watch but a bit depressing -- and suggest some kind of statement of Afro-Euro cultural confrontation and issues of identity. Only 29 this year, Mwangi is already developing an international audience. Her work is on view until July 4 in Veni, Vidi, Video II at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and has won scads of film awards throughout Europe.

Through the French doors are photographs by Susan Hefuna, a German-Egyptian multimedia artist who shoots ethereal images of people and public spaces in and around Cairo. She, too, stares hard at the viewer in the left image of Nile Delta (2002-3) -- a horizontal banner featuring three black-and-white photos digitally printed onto a swath of red fabric. Hefunas self-portrait and an image of an unidentified older woman, both in traditionally frontal poses, flank a shot of a lonely palm tree surrounded by low buildings, printed in negative.

In 1999, Hefuna started shooting with a pinhole camera in order, as she says, to include more imperfection, accidents and mistakes, as in real life, and also to better suggest memories of her early childhood in Egypt. Their softness seems simultaneously anonymous and intimate, anachronistic and modern.

Across the room, two paintings by Manuela Sambo gaze out at the viewer with pupil-less, abstract eyes in primitive, mask-like faces. Formalist and well-executed, these female half-nudes -- their various skin colors surrounded by saturated pigments -- are static and iconic, and one wonders what the figures differing hand positions might mean. Sambo, who was born in Angola and relocated to the former German Democratic Republic in 1984, says they are a tender hint of what comes from inside. Hmmm.

Yenatfenta Abate, a native of Ethiopia who now lives in Hamburg, tops off the show with a series called Dream, three whimsical ink and watercolor-on-paper drawings that are far, far too pretty and nave for todays Western audience but, according to Herrmann, are representative of the emphasis on draftsmanship and beauty taught at the Art Academy in Addis Ababa, from which Abate graduated in 1996.

Herrmann should know. Having spent years trekking around Cameroon, Nigeria and beyond, or, more recently, working on German filmmaker Ralf Schmerbergs Hommage à Noir, the Stuttgart native, who opened his Berlin gallery three years ago, dreams of Africa, too. Beyond representing contemporary artists like Chéri Samba, he has amassed an impressive collection of traditional African art kept hidden in the gallerys back room.

Herrmanns goal in mounting his extensive series of exhibitions of female African artists, which kicked off in January with a solo show by London-based sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, is simple -- no ones done this kind of thing in Germany before. Despite the art worlds increasing attention to African works, the quirky gallerists globalism might just be a hint of things to come in Berlins ever-morphing scene.

KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.