Throughout the spring, New York's galleries and museums have been positively brimming with African and African American art. The sheer variety of media, viewpoints and traditions has made for a dazzling season.
Chakaia Booker at Marlborough
A forceful combination of elements was at play in sculptor Chakaia Booker's February exhibition at Marlborough Gallery Chelsea. Booker's work at once recalls the monumental abstractions of Louise Nevelson, and a funky-folk brand of urban assemblage. Booker slices and dices, twists and rivets rubber car and truck tires into forms that are evocative yet standoffish.
While this is clearly stuff of the inner city, these pieces also evoke the forms of "minkisi" or traditional Kongo power figures, as well as the butch, black leather accoutrements of the Zulu people (see Axis Gallery below), studded with metal rivets. Booker has taken on the mantle of artist-as-warrior and shaman, and set it at a most aggressive, urban pitch.
Claudette Shreuders at Jack Shainman
South African sculptor Claudette Shreuders' New York solo debut opened at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea in March. "Burnt by the Sun" featured several charcoal drawings and eight freestanding sculptural groups hewn out of solid blocks of wood. Reminiscent of African folk traditions, these figures touch deeply upon South African subjects and symbolism, while maintaining a strong self-reflexive element.
In one particularly touching piece, a blond woman in a summer shift stands looking down at her hands. Sunburn lines demarcate her white arms, the burnt skin painted a bubblegum pink. In another grouping, the figure of a nkisi-like dog, bristling with nails, evokes themes of torture and resurrection. Shreuders work had been on view in New York once before as part of the "Liberated Voices" exhibition at the Museum for African Art in SoHo; see "Into Africa," Dec. 29, 1999.
Bouabre, Bordas at Brent Sikkema
Small individually framed tarot-like drawings by septuagenarian Ivory Coast artist Frederic Bruly Bouabre lined the walls of Brent Sikkema Gallery during the month of April. Entitled "Connaissance du Monde," or Knowledge of the World, these 100 drawings were produced between 1989 and 1996. Executed in crayon and ink on cardboard, and encircled by hand-written captions in French and in the Ivorian language of Ega (Kwa/Kru), these cards represent a personal mythical dictionary of quotidian objects, animals, plants and earthly phenomena.
Bouabre is a self-described philosopher, poet and visionary who sees his mission as one of bringing the richness of African culture to the world. His interpretations have traveled far and wide, including biennials in Johannesburg, Kwangju and Sao Paolo, and to the Dia Center in New York. Small, raw and intense, Bouabre's drawings are attractive for their simple yet fantastical depictions of otherwise mundane objects. Alongside these drawings are rich black and white photographs by the young photographer Philippe Bordas, some of which depict Bouabre at work.
William Kentridge at the New Museum
Co-organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, this is the first U.S. career survey of South Africa's most internationally acclaimed artist. In addition to his numerous and amazing animated films, a substantial number of working drawings from which the animations were shot are on view. While one might suspect that the drawings would detract from the theatrical experience by revealing its method, in fact they prove to be something of a revelation. Their muddy erasures and traces present an archaeology of animation, unexpected movement and sweeping changes. Kentridges's narratives are nothing if not unpredictable.
There are a number of screening rooms where one can immerse oneself in Kentridge's transformative world: bloody puddles in plowed fields sprout towering oil derricks, rooms become flooded by tears that flow from the pockets of a business man's suit, and corpses rent apart by makeshift bombs are transformed into stars that dot the sky. The uncanny morphing of imagery and narrative, their capacities to transcend a particular time and place to locate universal themes, make this an emotionally charged exhibition. Happily, a well-illustrated catalogue is available to take home.
Read the in-depth review of the Kentridge exhibition that appeared in these pages some weeks earlier.
"Freestyle" at The Studio Museum in Harlem
Curator Thelma Golden's spring survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem opens a new chapter in appreciation of the work of emerging African American artists. This younger generation of artists, nursed on the tough-love ethos of political African American art of the '90s, handles political and esthetic concerns with confidence, striking a balance that is personal as it is varied. There is an overall feeling of freshness, and of skilled risk-taking. The show spans different media and approaches: video, floor pieces, installation and assemblage, painting, photography, and drawing.
It is hard to pick a favorite artist from this group, but if marooned on a desert island I would be content to stare endlessly at the luminous landscapes constructed from pony beads and hair extensions by Kori Newkirk. A subtle political subtext glitters from the two pieces here, one depicting a suburban house in silhouette against a sunset sky, the other a silhouette of dark trees at twilight. These might be scenes from a backyard in Oakland or a view from an American highway, sublime and iconic.
Watch for John Bankston's painted riffs on children's fables -- the Brothers Grimm meet Kara Walker. Julie Mehretu's deft spatial investigations in ink on paper explode like navigation charts gone haywire. Louis Cameron's candy-colored floor pieces evoke the geometry of virtual worlds and yet are deliciously tactile and imprecise.
In Kira Lynn Harris' haunting photographs of a brick wall in an abandoned spice factory, fleeting elements of light and shadow reveal a metaphysical world in an unlikely setting. Dave McKenzie's extraordinary lyrical video of a young man dancing in front of a supermarket at night borders on some kind of Pop Sufi experience.
Senam Okudzeto has painted Nancy Spero-like wrestling figures in watery tones on his accumulation of British Telecom receipts, drawing us into the strange, protracted relationship between long-distance callers and the telco billing departments that wield a terrible power over their overdue accounts. "Freestyle" closed on June 24, 2001, but a fully illustrated catalogue is available.
Zulu beads at the Axis Gallery
One of the most interesting spaces to open recently is the South African-run Axis Gallery, located on the top floor of a tiny walk-up at 453 West 17th Street in Chelsea. Its art-historian directors, Gary van Wyk and Lisa Brittan, have consistently offered up mini museum-like exhibitions that are exquisitely hung and historically informative; they also introduce a lot of South African artists to the New York market.
The current show entitled "Zulu Beads" offers an astonishing array of objects and artworks, from traditional marriage capes, ceremonial spoons, beer pots, dolls, gauntlets and headrests to studio photographs and a contemporary wall piece in ochre and black burlap by Thabiso Phokompe, a young Zulu artist who made his New York debut in the "Liberated Voices" exhibition at the Museum for African Art in 1999.
In this is a beautifully thought-out installation, associations hum between many of the works. Beaded dolls, hairpieces and other garments hang near a selection of contemporary color photographs, portraits made at the celebrated Bobson Studios in Durban by photographer Sudeko Bobson Mohanlall (b. 1928).
The subjects in these photographs make use of costumes and props available in the studio, and similar accessories hang on the walls beside them. The subjects pose themselves in ways that are thoroughly eccentric while very much in keeping with the well-established tradition of African studio photography. Several similar photographs by Mohanlall are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Recent Acquisitions exhibition (see below).
Resonant elements aside, there are also some interesting contrasts: pink and turquoise layered marriage capes, whose white beaded tassels proclaim a bride's virginity, hang not far away from metal-spiked wrist gauntlets worthy of Japanese anime's fiercest robot-demons.
A man's black leather backshirt, replete with brass studs, is likewise redolent with unequivocal machismo -- fleeting images of pit bull collars and other S&M paraphernalia flit across one's mind.
Recent Acquisitions at the Met
"African, Oceanic and Ancient American Art: Recent Acquisitions," is on view in the Metropolitan Museum's African Galleries until Oct. 28, 2001. Distinguished by its cultural range and sheer beauty, this small show of acquisitions made over the past five years by the museum's Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas offers a substantial African quotient.
A monumental bead and cowry-adorned tent flap from Sudan arches high overhead in the gallery. Below, terracotta beer-brewing vessels from the Ivory Coast, round as the bellies of pregnant women, are actually crafted by female potters who have passed their patterns and techniques down through generations.
There are examples from Ethiopian culture, which can be traced to the 6th century BC, and draws from Byzantium, Egypt, Arabia and Palestine. Christian Ethiopia is well represented: a 16th century processional cross from the Tigray region, spectacularly engraved; a partially unfurled vellum scroll, written in Amharic and illuminated with interlacing and scenes from the Old testament; a 17th century personal icon of brightly painted wood has small doors that open into diptychs. They depict Our Lady, St. George, the Crucifixion. It is to be worn around the neck suspended on a cord.
On a more contemporary note is the wonderful studio portrait photography by Sudeko Bobson Mohanlall, ca. 1960-70. These bright colorful portraits show subjects who have come into the studio with something in mind, and given props have devised their own costumes and poses to hilarious kitsch effect. Mohanlall founded the Bobson Studio in Durban, South Africa, in 1961. It is still open for business, and managed by his son, Vicky, who is also a photographer. Nearby, more traditional, black and white studio photography by an unknown Ivory Coast photographer (ca. 1900-50) offers a somewhat more sober comparison.
Perhaps the most extraordinary photograph of all is a tiny and exceedingly rare Albumen print, a landscape taken in the mid 1860s in Madagascar by the missionary William Ellis. Though situated a mere 250 miles off the southeast
coast of Africa, Madagascar is inhabited by a predominantly Asian people, their language, Malagasy, belonging to the Indonesian branch of Malayo-Polynesian languages.
Early settlers of Madagascar included Malay, Maori, Indians, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Phoenicians, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Europeans and Africans. In Ellis's photograph, European-influenced pointy-roofed buildings sit high upon a hill, below which a blurred multitude of robed figures moves, as though in some strange dream.
Other objects include more than a dozen 16th-19th century crosses from the Kongo, in brass wood and ivory; Kuba textiles; a leper mask from Burkina Faso; a dance mask from Gabon and a 20th century marionette from the Ibibio peoples of Nigeria.
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Last but not least, the oldest North American collection of African art -- the earliest acquisitions date from 1900 -- which resides in the Brooklyn Museum of Art galleries, has been reinstalled to dramatic effect. Organized by the museum's curator for African art, William C. Siegman, the new design incorporates mural size color photography of Africa by Carol Beckith and Angela Fisher, as well as documentary films. There are objects on view that have never been exhibited before.