The best thing about the new exhibition at P.S. 1 in Queens, "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994," Feb. 10-May 5, 2002, may be its title. A history of modern Africa would be fascinating. What we have here, in works by 55 artists spread through the ramshackle ex-school's four stories, is an imposing if fragmented survey: documentary photos of African independence, African modernist art, and contemporary works with sociological themes.
The organizing institutions (the show has appeared in Munich, Berlin and Chicago) and the curator, Okwui Enwezor, deserve our thanks for their pioneering efforts. And the artists deserve our attention, and a cordial welcome to New York.
The show opens with works by African players in the global art market, artists who have given African coloring to the international avant-garde. The stairways are filled with silhouetted figures on the march by William Kentridge, and his animations play in a prime space off the entrance lobby. A large sculpture of three horned, white-skinned alien creatures by the South African Jane Alexander, called Butcher Boys (1985-86), which uses horror-movie conventions to express political violence (much like Leon Golub), is placed in the first of a series of ground-floor galleries.
Another long gallery on the ground floor contains several large Neo-Ex-style paintings, including two by Ouattara, who was born in the Ivory Coast and now lives in New York (and who is included in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial). His mix of earthy materials and Afrocentric symbolism -- one work has "Nkruma Berlin 1885," the year and place of the European partition of the continent, written on it in Ethiopian -- is especially authentic in this context.
The section of political posters, and news photos of things like Nelson Mandela's 1958 treason trial or the 1955 meeting of the African National Congress, also have a special punch. This kind of power, with an added artistic eye, invests the dignified color portraits by the South African Zwelethu Mthethwa, which show people sitting in their humble but immaculate, highly decorated homes, and the documentary photos of African architecture, from churches to shantytowns, by David Goldblatt.
Also good are films like Les Mâítres Fous by the Frenchman Jean Rouch, a 1954 documentary of a Hauka cult in Accra, Ghana, who enacted a ritual in which they frothed at the mouth and became the British officers who colonized them. This movie -- does anyone remember The Sky Above, the Mud Below? -- was banned by the British for its mockery, and was controversial among Africanists for its picture of native savagery and animal sacrifice.
Isaac Julien's film on Franz Fanon and the ethnocentric gaze, shown in P.S.1's informal but comfortable basement theater, mixes newsreel footage, interviews and art-film recreations. Another gallery is devoted to Patrice Lumumba, and includes a cycle of naïve paintings of the history of Zaire, including scenes from the life of the charismatic leader, done ca. 1973-74 by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. Still another sociological esthetic is represented by the gallery-sized "atlas" by Georges Adéagbo (b. 1942), called La Socialismo Africain (2001), which papers the walls with notes, records, naïve paintings, sculpture and all kinds of artifacts.
Other, large-scale installation pieces seem almost to be physical relics of African life, swept up from the native streets and sent on a Western museum tour, like a latter-day Natural History exhibit. The Angolan Antonio Olé's huge Township Wall (1994-95) patches together corrugated sheet tin, scrap wood and other scavenged building materials into a kind of giant geometric abstraction, while South African Kay Hassan's Flight (1995) includes several battered bicycles, along with what looks like a large scrap of a mural of Africans in migration.
The classic African modernism is upstairs, and looks earnest, if not earth-shaking. This material includes a series of Ab-Ex style works on paper by Cecil Skotnes (South African, b. 1926), an Adolph Gottlieb-style pictograph from the early '60s by Ahmed Cherkaoui (Morocco, 1934-67) and wonderfully haunted Dubuffetesque prints from 1968 by Kamala Ishaq (Sudan, b. 1939). The most modern piece in these galleries -- sleek, machine-made -- is a Minimalist steel floor sculpture by Amir Nour (Sudanese, b. 1939), Grazing at Shendi (1969), that the artist relates to seeing sheep on a hillside.
The show is accompanied by a hefty, 400-page catalogue ($75, $52.50 on Amazon) that combines critical essays with source materials, plus a chronology of the continent and detailed biographical sketches of cultural figures. This book provides the historical and theoretical annotation that the works need to speak in fullness.
Remember back when video art was grainy black-and-white, tendentious, hard work to watch? Good lookin' guy Bill Wegman reprises videotapes from the early 1970s, short bits and the first fun-to-watch video ever, introducing his wonderdog Man Ray, at Gorney Bravin & Lee. Early drawings, too, plus new drawings, tapes...