Looking Both Ways
Museum for African Art
Within this contemporary climate of ubiquitous international biennials, Artforum roundtables on the concept of artworld "globalism," and even a new required reading critical theory text addressing the slippery topic of 21st century global socio-political thought— Hardt and Negri’s Empire— the Museum for African Art’s "Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora" couldn’t be more timely. It reminds New York of a couple things. One, New York can no longer be considered the legitimate artworld "center." Television, the Internet, and corporate expansion have whittled real and imaginary boundaries enough that the new artworld is amorphous and sprawling, existing as much in Tirana and Havana as New York or London. That said, "Looking Both Ways" is also a wake-up call to the reality that there is no one African experience, Africa is not a homogeneous continent, and its artists are very capable of sophisticated work.
"Looking Both Ways" is a group show, curated by Laurie Ann Farrell, allotting each of the twelve artists ample space to show several works or a large installation. All artists are from Africa and now living in a variety of Western nations. Some works were pre-existing, but many were commissioned specifically for the show. There are some familiar names (Ghada Amer, Yinka Shonibare) and some not-so familiar ones, but Farrell has assembled an obviously disparate group of artists into something that comments elegantly, if inconclusively, on African social and cultural exchange with the West and vice versa. While many of the works address this in terms of personal identity, the scope of global politics never leaves these artists’ vision. In stark contrast to the vast majority of major shows U.S. audiences are exposed to here, the political reigns supreme in "Looking Both Ways."
Also in contrast to the often unwieldy biennials or large group shows, "Looking Both Ways" is tight, focused, and admirable in that the contribution of just about every artist is worthy of serious consideration. Of the group, Wangeshi Mutu’s and Ingrid Mwangi’s work is the most involved with African-Western identity formation in the face of a gluttonous flow of modern fashion and advertising imagery. Mutu’s grotesquely psychedelic collages of half-naked women with cut-out body parts from fashion magazines are a disconcerting fantasia of fungi, butterflies, red splatters that look like blood, and puddles of fluid on the ground. The women have no clear race, but are obviously sexualized and objectified— their bound and tortured bodies are there to be looked at. But not necessarily enjoyed. The omnipresent blood, phallic fungi, and gnarled bodies conjure the inescapable specter of AIDS in Africa and the horrifying images of it broadcasted for all to see on CNN. The resultant discomfiture from this realization, and thus approaching Mutu’s work not as a warped version of a Bjork album cover but as reality masquerading as psychedelia, keys the work’s effectiveness. Mwangi’s most powerful work in the show, made in collaboration with her German husband Robert Hutter, similarly confronts popular Western perceptions of the African Other. "If" (2003) is an image from a German magazine, digitally transformed by Mwangi to include her face and that of her husband. Hutter, sporting a Hitleresque pencil moustache, is surrounded by 23 women, all of whom have Mwangi’s face superimposed on them. Without drawing any neat conclusions, Mwangi confronts her interracial marriage, notorious harems of the political elite, sexualization of "pure" or "primitive" women, and the fetish of the rich Westerner.
Hassan Musa and Yinka Shonibare offer postmodern versions of history painting, undermining and mocking Eurocentric notions of history that have been canonized as reality. Musa’s tour de force here is "L’Arte de l’art (avec Hokusai)" (2000), a textile ink on cloth painting that combines imagery from Ingres’ "Turkish Bath," Mantegna’s "Dead Christ," and a Hokusai self-portrait with the title emblazoned across the top in distinctly Johnsian stencil letters. Juxtaposed with two paintings of Josephine Baker and the Hottentot Venus (Saartje Baartman)— two women famed in America and England, respectively, for their sexual appeal— "L’Arte de l’art" is an angry condemnation of the historical tendency to admire the sexuality of Africanness, not its cultural history. Shonibare’s "Scramble for Africa" (2000) is more revisionist history, revisiting the Berlin Conference in 1884-5, where the "heads" of the fourteen most powerful nations in the world met to divide Africa amongst them. There’s an obvious irony in referring to these titans of men as "heads" since Shonibare depicts them headless. "Scramble for Africa" is fourteen full-sized, headless mannequins, dressed (incongruously) in full 19th century African garb seated around a large wooden table decorated with an old map of Africa. The conversation is obviously animated— some point angrily, some calm others, some cross their arms impatiently. One head of the table points in accusation at the other, who is rising angrily from his seat, only to be restrained by the headless head of state to his right. This is a rare convergence of concept with beauty, from an artist who has said, "Beauty is one of the most radically subversive strategies to counter a Eurocentric hegemony on the use of beauty."
Perhaps the most pointed commentary on the concept of "globalism" (whatever you take that to mean) comes from Kendell Geers and Allan deSouza. Geers’s huge installation "Kode-X" (2003) is a shelf-like aluminum structure housing (among other things) objects bought at a Brussels flea market, then subsequently wrapped in red tape. The message of the African sculptures, the globes, the human skeleton, and the life-sized female mannequin pointing a gun right at you is diluted by the homogenizing tape. "Are you really still looking at African sculptures because Picasso did?" Geers seems to be asking. deSouza weighs in with two series of photos: "Threshold Series" (1996-8) and "The Searchers" (2003)." Threshold Series" is all empty terminals, depressing lighting, and uncomfortable plastic furniture. These are spaces with no nationalities, the in-between spaces of international travel. "The Searchers" is a humorous contrast. The title of the series alludes to a 1956 John Wayne movie where a group of white Americans attempt to "rescue" a white woman who was raised by local tribes. The photos are dull shots of birdwatchers in Kenya, many of them white and obvious tourists. While the solitary airport terminal may symbolize the African gateway to the West, deSouza seems to imply that this is the typical white-person’s experience in Africa, with a tour guide to lead them to the site and organize their lunch.
Okwui Enwezor, speaking in the aforementioned Artforum roundtable, claimed that the political is taboo in contemporary art. Judging from recent American trends, you’d tend to agree. Weirdly brainless pseudo-psychedelia or dense personal narrative continues to dominate. Young American artists working in this period of intensely important global conflict should take note of "Looking Both Ways," which proves that issues related to personal identity can be conflated with politically conscious art. For how much longer can American artists (as well as curators and gallerists who act as artworld gatekeepers) ignore the new global order?