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One of William Kentridge's figures in the P.S. 1 stairwell.

Jane Alexander
Butcher Boys
in "The Short Century"

Nkruma Berlin 1885

Jean Rouch
Still from Les Mâítres Fous

Still from Isaac Julien's film
on Franz Fanon

Paintings from the history of Zaire, showing Patrice Lumumba, by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu

Detail from installation
by Georges Adéagbo

Amir Nour
Grazing at Shendi
with works by Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae and Lucas Sithole

Frank Thiel
at Sean Kelly Gallery

Bill Wegman
at Gorney, Bravin & Lee

Museum bags by Jonathan Seliger at Jack Shainman

James Lecce
at Cristinerose

James Lecce
Weekend Update
by Walter Robinson

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.

*         *         *
Call it the engineering esthetic -- young Berlin photographer Frank Thiel brings his huge high-detail color photographs to Sean Kelly Gallery on West 29th Street, Feb. 9-Mar. 30, catching the new German capital's astonishing building frenzy in midstep -- fields of rebar awaiting concrete, huge networks of steel pipe, dense webs of scaffolding, and a giant, four-panel picture of Potsdammer Platz under construction, all under a bright gray sky. The pictures are taken with a 5 x 7 camera mostly on Sunday, or when he can convince the workers to take a lunch break, and mounted on Plexi by the same German lab that does Gursky, Struth, others. Most of the pictures are $11,000-$12,000 in editions of three or four...

Hot Brazilian photog Vik Muniz with new work at Brent Sikkema, amazing black-and-white aerial shots of giant earth drawings made in the sandy desert earth in Brazil, of a wire clothes hangar, a pair of scissors cutting a dotted line, like Pop versions of Nazca pictograms. But is it some kind of trick? Are those tiny dump-trucks only plastic toys? The photos are in editions of 10, at $9,500 each.

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...

Solid replicas of museum-shop bags at Jack Shainman Gallery by Jonathan Seliger, made of canvas and colored with acrylic. "They're paintings!" insists Shainman. They're $5,500 each... Paintings like butterscotch swirl at Cristinerose by East Village artist James Lecce, who once wanted to be a plastic surgeon. "They're the Jessica Rabbit of formalist abstraction," said dealer Mariacristina Parravicini of the pictures. "Sugar is the secret ingredient." Small 20 x 16 in. ones are only $1,000...

"Really tiny paintings by the young Italian artist Jeronimo Elespe, about the size of a mosaic on a pin stuck in the wall, showing a scissors, a face, a couple, a tree, a horizon, at Von Lintel Gallery on West 25th Street in Chelsea. Sold in groups of five for $1,500... Not paintings but big panels of pink insulation at Paula Cooper by Rudolph Stingel, who substituted the audiences "hand" for his own by having people scratch graffiti into the surface. "If these were really art you'd have the public destroy these bullshit paintings," said someone under the sway of the anti-art muse...

Insiders fear Jewish Museum curator Norman Kleeblatt will be fall guy in controversy over "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," opening Mar. 17, six months later than originally planned. Show of 18 works by 13 artists looks at Holocaust in context of commercialized culture... Out at tribute dinner for retiring Dahesh Museum director David Farmer at Waldor-Astoria skylight room -- Audrey Flack, Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert, CUNY art history boss Pat Mainardi, Philip Pearlstein, NYU art historian Robert Rosenblum, Old Master dealer Guy Sainty, Sotheby's 19th-century expert Polly Satori. Farmer says he's goin' fishin' in Maine...

Larry Litt opens "The Blame Show" at White Box on West 26th Street on May 1. There's lots of blame to go around... Mary Boone faxing pitch to prospective client, signs it "love," gets him in dutch with kid, wife... Which supposed art critic was caught shoplifting at National Wholesale Liquidators several years ago? It's not Winona...

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

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