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by Joy Garnett
|One of this season's most striking shows was Xenobia Bailey's solo exhibition, "Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk: Phase II," at Stefan Stux Gallery in Chelsea. Fusing a personal cosmology and supremely funkadelic style, Bailey's labor-intensive, crocheted abstractions pull together seemingly far-flung influences, from Zulu beadwork to Baptist revival, women's work and folk handicraft to a formal send-up of 1960s and '70s psychedelia.
A behind-the-scenes glimpse of Bailey's cottage industry -- a work table overflowing with yarn and other materials, behind which sat the artist -- was installed in the center of the gallery for the duration of the show. Bailey talked with gallery visitors as she worked on of a piece in progress that trailed to the floor like an offbeat wedding train or a section of high-priestess regalia.
Bailey's bright, shrine-like wall hangings are primarily composed of concentric circles, as if they were some kind of through-the-looking-glass Kandinsky. They are anything but "cool" and, in fact, seem "hot" in exactly the sense that Marshall McLuhan meant in the early '60s. Hot media pummels the senses with stimuli, requiring its audience to do little more than sit back and absorb.
Bailey takes the slow, contemplative craft of crochet and pushes it to sensory-packed extremes with great ease and technical control. There are moments of restraint, and moments of concerted, soulful excess.
All of these elements come together in the show's centerpiece, a ten-foot high tent that is hand-crocheted from cotton and acrylic yarns. Entitled Sistah Paradise Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent (1999), it is at once inviting and intimidating, home-spun and monumental.
Bailey has been featured in exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Her work is included in the permanent collection at Harlem's Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. This was her second solo show at Stux.
Found images of African women engaged in domestic work are overlaid with digitally "imported" images of Western tools and utensils -- toasters next to women sifting grain, lawnmowers by grass dwellings. In the spirit of Hannah Hóch, Tuggar's collages are both beautiful and jarring as meditations on the surreal and at times farcical ramifications of global commercialism.
For New Yorkers who missed this screening, a selection of photomontages and sculpture is on view at Greene Naftali in Chelsea till Jan. 6, 2001. Further examples of Tuggar's earlier work as well as recorded excerpts of the artist speaking can be accessed at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, Montreal, where Tuggar took part in a colloquium on African Art and New Technologies in April 1999.
For 35 years Piper has consistently held an artistic stance that is both exploratory and confrontational. Her work is as cool as Xenobia Bailey's is hot. Rather than lavishing viewers with sensual material, Piper expects them to do their part in her examinations of race, gender and class in contemporary society. A working philosopher who was a pioneer in the cerebral, confrontational methods of Conceptual Art, Piper has influenced the work of many artists, black women artists among them, notably Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson.
Despite the disturbing and arousing content of much of these works, the artist's Madonna-like composure coupled with the deadpan drone of her voice might prove to have a soporific effect on even the most engaged of viewers. But there are several exceptions. Memorable for raw charm alone is a video called Funk Lessons: A Collaborative Experiment in Cross-Cultural Transition. This piece, originally presented at New Langton Arts in San Francisco in 1984, was shot in a ballroom full of (mostly) white kids taking instructions from Piper in how to dance to funk music. The video cuts between shots from an interview with Piper about the history and value of funk, and several truly revealing scenes where a sea of kids awkwardly dances itself into a transcendent, collective self-awareness on the ballroom floor.
In addition to the New Museum extravaganza, an exhibition of Piper's most recent photo- and text-based work is on view at the Paula Cooper Gallery annex through Dec. 23, and a survey of her work, titled "Adrian Piper: Colored People and Other Works," opened Dec. 7 at Thomas Erben Gallery.
Highlights include ancestral figures from various Kongo peoples, stone funerary figures from the Solongo and Mbali, and a group of carvings from the Bidjogo peoples that range from delicately finished figural spoons to monumental masks representing sharks, buffaloes and birds. Other objects come from Chokwe, Songo, Yaka, Nkanu, Zombo, Suku, Matapa,and Ngangela peoples, as well as the Dan from Ivory Coast; the Baga from Guinea; and the Fang from Gabon.
The exhibition is scheduled to appear at the Flint (Mich.) Institute of Arts, the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art.
The Kikongo-speaking peoples, the Bakongo, whose homelands lie on either side of the lower reaches of the Congo River, have produced one of the most distinguished bodies of African art. The river itself was named for the capital of a large and well-organized kingdom, whose capital, Mbanza Kongo, located in what is now northern Angola, was first visited by Europeans at the end of the 1400s.
The visitors were Portuguese sailors and missionaries, who introduced Christianity to Kongo. The conversion of the kingdom, consolidated under the great king Alfonso I (reigned 1506-1545), opened the way for a steady stream of visitors whose reports, extending over 400 years, created a historical record unique in sub-Saharan Africa.
-- Wyatt MacGaffey, The Kongo Peoples, in the exhibition catalogue.
JOY GARNETT is a New York artist.