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by Joy Garnett
|African art and artists are more present in New York museums and galleries than ever before. The increasing globalism of the contemporary art world has brought several African artists to the fore. While the acclaimed animated films of the South African William Kentridge have become a New York staple, South African Zwelethu Mthethwa and Nigerian-born Oladele Bamgboye are relative newcomers here, though their work is well known in international circles. This spring, each had first-time solo shows in New York's Chelsea district, at Jack Shainman Gallery and Thomas Erben Gallery, respectively.
Shainman features several artists of African descent on its roster, including Kerry James Marshall and Radcliffe Bailey. Mthethwa's photos may be familiar to some New Yorkers, as they have been included in many group shows and museum exhibitions over the past few years. Examples of his saturated color portraits are currently on view at the Museum for African Art (see "Insider Art" below).
The Bamgboye show, "Unmasking Part 2," combined photography, a 3D digital lithography, installation and streaming video. This was the first time the London-based Bamgboye has shown his work in New York; images and information are archived on-line.
Also notable this spring was a group exhibition at Apex Art (on Church below Canal) featuring four African artists. "Insertion: Self and Other," curated by cultural theorist Salah Hassan, included works by Berni Searles (South Africa), Hassan Musa (Sudan/France), Zineb Sedira (Algeria/France) and Olu Oguibe (Nigeria/ USA). The artists in this exhibition all live "between cultures." The Apex art website has additional images and excerpts of the curator's statement, and web-browsers can request one of the smartly produced brochures that the Apex Art has become known for.
If you hurry you can visit two important exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that reflect different approaches to exploring and presenting African art. "Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935," curated by Virginia-Lee Webb, is an intelligent reflection upon the historic show at the Museum of Modern Art that turned the tide in attitudes toward African art for the rest of the century. That show was entitled "African Negro Art" and was the first to present African art as objêts d'art.
The organizers of the exhibition knew it was a historic moment, so they commissioned Walker Evans, then 32 years old, to create a photographic portfolio of a selection of works in the show, resulting in some 477 images. "Perfect Documents" displays a selection of these photographs along with related sculptures. A second rotation of photographs was installed in early June and will remain on view through Sept. 3. A catalogue by Webb is available.
The other exhibition of African art at the Met, "Art & Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination," curated by Alisa LaGamma, is itself a groundbreaking event: here is a show where the esthetic value of the objects is considered in terms of their intended use within their original cultural context, rather than exclusively in terms of the Western canon. "Art & Oracle" brings together objects that reflect diverse divination practices across the African continent, that vary in form from monumental sculpture to diminutive carvings.
Divination in Africa is the practice by which divine expertise is engaged by an intermediary to intervene in mundane matters; the subtle relationship of beauty and artisanry to religious efficacy and status is explored deliberately and thoroughly here -- a rare treat, and an informative one. This exhibition runs through July 30, but for those who can't make it an online resource has been developed which features color photographs of the objects, explanatory texts, essays on different aspects of divination in Africa, a glossary of terms and a bibliography. A catalogue has also been published.
Beads and more beads
Another show in town whose subject is divination is "Beads, Body & Soul: Art and Light in the Yorùbá Universe," originating at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and now at the Museum for African Art on Broadway below Houston Street, with an accompanying installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem. A free shuttle runs on Saturdays between the two museums. (For information about the shuttle call 212 966-1313 ext. 3.)
Yorùbá-speaking peoples are among the most numerous in Africa. Their arts and religion have also taken root in Brazil, Cuba and the United States. This exhibition presents the beaded arts among the Yorùbá in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and of the Diaspora, both past and present. It traces the evolution of artistic traditions in Africa and their eventual reclamation throughout the Diaspora, and explores the specific symbolic significance of color and light in the Yorùbá metaphysic.
Intricate and amazing, the beaded objects on view range from ceremonial regalia and crowns -- my favorite is shaped like a British barrister's wig and covered in tiny white seed beads -- to divination implements, to entire thrones commissioned for African royalty. One standout is a "bead card," a brochure with many lines of beads of different colors and sizes.
Glass beads were introduced to the Yorùbá in this manner by European traders in the 18th century as objects for trade, irrevocably expanding and "piginizing" their repertoire of materials. Large color photographs of Yorùbá priests wearing beaded ceremonial garb as well as video footage of ritual dances shot by Henry Drewal form a nice counterpoint to the objects. A scholarly catalogue is available in the museum bookstore.
In the lower galleries at the Museum for African Art is an unusual exhibition of African photography: "Africa by Africans: A Photographic Essay," drawn from the hefty catalogue published by Revue Noire, "Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography". The selection of images, dating from the colonial era to the present, reveals the artistic and documentary sensibilities of sub-Saharan African photographers over several periods of esthetic and political change.
This exhibition distinguishes itself by presenting insider views, personal, artistic and journalistic, and by drawing attention to the fact that the public's ideas of Africa have usually come through outsiders: ethnographers, tourists, and foreign journalists.
The section of "Beads, Body & Soul" that is installed at the Studio Museum in Harlem concentrates on Yorùbá divination arts of the Diaspora. Somewhat less sumptuous than the downtown extravaganza, it is nevertheless engaging and visitors will be struck by the pliability of Yorùbá culture as it is reinvented by descendents living in the Americas.
On view in the upper galleries is the museum's "Artist in Residence" group exhibition. It is the 32nd year of the Studio Museum fellowship program, which supports emerging artists of African descent. Past artists include Xenobia Bailey, Chakaia Booker, Willie Cole, Leonardo Drew, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Alison Saar and Nari Ward.
This year marks a certain departure in terms of presentation. Rather than mount a separate exhibition for each of the three artists as in the past, new Studio Museum curator Thelma Golden has put together a group presentation of their work that stands as a comprehensive whole, while still managing to showcase each individual artist. This works well, as each artist's work is quite distinct in terms of medium, style and intent, and it all reverberates and dispels chances of monotony.
This year's artists are: Nicole Awai, a painter from Trinidad who utilizes multiple idioms in brightly colored layers to tease out complex neo-colonial narratives; Sanford Biggers, whose terrain is Pop iconography and who employs projections and found objects to explore issues of class and race; and Terry Boddie, whose deft compositions combine fragile materials such as photographic emulsion, bark, and thorns with collaged images that hearken to the slave trade, all handled with melancholic economy.
A favorite piece by consensus (my visit coincided with several classes of high school kids) seemed to be Bigger's wall video, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II. A two inch monitor embedded in a rubber tile reminiscent of public school flooring of the '60s, shows an aerial view of breakdancers working hard against a mandala-patterned floor. The subtitle identifies the event -- Battle of the Boroughs, March 18, 2000, Bronx, N.Y.
Recently opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and on view thru Sept. 17 is "Passages: Photographs in Africa," featuring 95 documentary-style color photographs of African rituals by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. The photographers spent 10 years traveling through Africa recording little-known rituals in often remote corners of the continent. The exhibition includes six video monitors showing various rituals as well as objects from the permanent collection.
These images first appeared in Beckwith and Fisher's luxurious two-volume set of highly saturated images "African Ceremonies."
Also at the BMA through Sept.10 is "Masterworks of African Art from the Collection of Beatrice Riese." Riese, a painter and textile designer, has amassed an important collection of masks and figural sculpture from west and central Africa. The exhibition comprises an intended bequest to the museum.
JOY GARNETT is a New York artist.