On ViewLouis Vuitton Foundation
April 26 – September 4, 2017
Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier at the Louis Vuitton Foundation comes at a time when France is celebrating artists from the African continent on a scale hitherto unknown. On display across several venues in Paris is a diverse array of contemporary African artists.1If African art continues to be woefully under-represented, Art/Afrique in particular offers an impressive (albeit partial) view, including works by more than thirty-five artists from a dozen different countries across the African continent and diaspora, who reclaim the right to tell their own stories. Its strength is the variety of influential and inspiring work from artists who have not received enough exposure or who we haven’t seen at all.
The exhibition, curated by the foundation’s Artistic Director Suzanne Pagé, is divided into three distinct sections. The first, Les Initiés [The Insiders], taking up the entire lower level of the building, features work from fifteen artists from the Jean Pigozzi Collection of contemporary African art. The selection covers multiple cultures and religions across various media. Included are famous artists such as Chéri Samba from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Samba, a former commercial sign painter and comic strip designer, founded the school of Popular Painting in the mid 1970s in Kinshasa, the capital of what was then Zaire. Samba is known for his representative, often-fantastical paintings that combine graphic figures with text and take as their subject matter everyday life, AIDS, social inequity, and corruption in Kinshasa. In his self-portrait J’aime la couleur [I Love Color] (2003), the artist’s warm brown face and torso are set off against a bright blue sky; but the head and shoulders, sliced into a ribbon, float away from the rest of his body, making it possible to see the inside of his skin, a fleshy pink that creates a bold contrast with the sky. He holds a dripping paintbrush garnered with flowers between his teeth as drops of paint fall like blood from his mouth.
Benin-born Romuald Hazoume’s witty, tongue-in-cheek masks made from plastic containers play on the stereotype of African “tribal art” by skillfully imitating the traditional Yoruba masks of Hazoumé’s ancestors. The spouts suggest gaping mouths, the handles turn into noses, and the fat, round containers become unique faces. Curled black wire turns a wide, round container into Citoyenne [Woman Citizen] (1997), while an upside-down watering can becomes Autoportrait [Self-Portrait] (1995). The titles are playful: Bye Bye (2009) accompanies a mask made from a toaster with an old-fashioned black phone receiver for a nose. But these works are hardly light. Hazoume made Bye Bye when George Bush left office and lost his red hotline phone. The use of recycled-plastic gasoline containers calls attention to Beninese men who are forced by the dire economic conditions of their country to smuggle contraband gasoline from Nigeria. Estimates approximate ninety percent of all fuel used in Benin comes from this black-market traffic.
Born in Mali, Seydou Keïta (1921–2001), specialized in black-and-white portraits of people who came to his studio in Bamako to be photographed in the 1940s through 70s. The gelatin prints of individuals, couples, groups of friends, siblings, and families are composed to highlight the subjects’ individuality. The bold designs and vivid prints of the textiles he uses for backdrops accentuate the black skin and bright eyes and teeth of his subjects. This is Keïta’s signature. The photo le père et l’enfant (Father and Infant) depicts a corpulent man dressed in an elegantly embroidered blue brocade boubou smiling at the camera as he holds a chubby baby in the cradle of his arm. The viewer feels his weight, his position in society, and his paternal pride. An untitled work shows a confident young man wearing bold, plastic-frame glasses, which set off his white double-breasted suit and striped tie. Sitting with a confident smile against a flower print cloth backdrop, he holds a single flower. An expensive-looking watch peeks out from his sleeve and he wears a large ring on his other hand. In yet another portrait, the Western viewer might assume that Keïta has set his subject up as a modern day Odalisque, referring to the 19th-century Orientalist painting by Ingres—a Malian woman reclines sideways on a checkered textile, which contrasts with the bold, ornate pattern of the vertical backdrop. This reclining pose recurs in many of Keïta’s works, and is, in fact, quite a common pose for women across West Africa.
One of the strengths of Les Initiés is the inclusion of many lesser-known artists. For example, the Senegalese artist Seni Awa Camara, who’s in her seventies, makes terracotta figures on an open fire kiln. Camara’s art, according to her, is rooted in her status as a Wolof woman living in a rural area near the forests of Casamançe. Her untitled terracotta figures—ranging in size from less than twelve inches high to as high as eight feet—are inspired by the artist’s dreams and musings on the world. One piece depicts forty small monsters clinging to a pregnant mother. Another shows a man with dozens of chameleons marching up his body. The animals look like talismans or totems. In another, a couple stands with children climbing up their bodies, suggesting fecundity is about to smother them. The effect is at once disconcerting and beautiful. These traditional-looking figures contrast with the futuristic buildings made out of cardboard and plastic by the late Bodys Isek Kingelez, who passed away last March. Born in the Belgian Congo, which became Zaire in 1971 and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo after a violent civil war in 1997, Kingelez’s early career was as a restorer of traditional African masks. He was a self-taught designer, architect, builder, and urban planner whose futuristic utopian cityscapes are crafted using paper and found objects. The artist transcends the history of his country’s political brutality through his creation of utopian cities. Kingelez’s detailed miniature buildings reflect the rebirth of African nations in a post-colonial era and are inspired by Afro-Futurism infused with Soviet-style modernism. In the “extrême maquette” [extreme architectural model] titled Kimbelembele Ihunga (1997), we see his first utopian metropolis. In a manifesto on his work, Kingelez wrote, “I created these cities so there would be lasting peace, justice and universal freedom… They will function like small secular states with their political structure, and will not need policemen or an army.” Kingelez’s wish was that the “better becomes the wonderful.”
The foundation’s second section, Être là (Being There), complements the geographic and national diversity of the first by focusing on sixteen contemporary artists from South Africa whose work grapples with the legacy of the long and violent Apartheid era. Être là shows the work of multiple generations of artists, including the work of leading Apartheid generation figures such as William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Sue Williamson, and Jane Alexander. The latter’s haunting Infantry with Beast (2008) fills an entire room of painted black walls. The sculptural installation is made up of twenty-seven hybrid male figures, part human and part wild dog, marching on a red carpet with a female dog-like creature turned to face them. They are naked, except for standard issue army boots. It is arresting and disturbing in how it makes the viewer wonder about humanity’s direction.
Être là also includes work by “middle generation” artists born in the 1970s, such as photographer Zanele Muholi, whose extensive photographic studies of the country’s lesbian and trans communities, and her ornately coiffed self-portraits challenge stereotypical images of black women. Her series “Faces and Phases,” which she worked on from 2006 to 2016 comprises 300 portraits. She photographed each subject at different stages of their life. The project began as a reaction to an escalation of homophobic hate crimes and murders in South Africa. While South Africa’s constitution includes a section prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, violence against black lesbians and transgender men mostly goes unpunished.
Works by younger artists born in the post-Apartheid 1980s are also on view. Relatively free from the legally codified segregation of the past, “born free” artists participate in a new form of activism, one that affirms and openly explores the presence of multiple black South African identities, even while structural and societal racism remain. These include Kristin-Lee Moolman, who photographs people with complicated gender and sexual identities who choose their own definitions of masculinity and femininity. In one image, a man stands defiantly in the middle of the street wearing a pink cowboy hat covered in pink feathers. His torso is naked, and the legs of his bell-bottom jeans are shredded to reveal long legs and knee-high sports socks rolled down over black boots. In another picture, two men gaze through their curls at the camera from beneath the rims of their black hats. They wear gold-buttoned blazers with the sleeves cut off at the shoulder, showing off elbow-high white gloves, which match the boxers emerging from their baggy jeans. Moolman shoots her subjects in bright sunshine contrasted by dull, everyday locations. The effect sheds light on each individual’s self-representation.
The third section in the tripartite exhibition is entitled L’Afrique et ses cultures [Africa and Its Cultures] and includes work from the foundation’s collection by artists with higher international profiles and artists who have emigrated abroad, including to America. These works reveal a conscious effort to account for the diversity of African identities while playing with Western stereotypes of “African” identity. For example, The End of Carrying, a three-screen diorama short film by Wangechi Mutu, who divides her time between Nairobi and New York, dramatizes the reality of what it is to be a bi-continental black woman. The character in the film carries an unwieldy bundle, sometimes on her back and other times on her head, making her way through a post-apocalyptic African savannah as she repeatedly bends to pick up falling objects. She struggles to make progress up a hill against the wind. More objects appear and add to her burden until, eventually, the woman is carrying a city on her back, symbolized by a satellite dish, two skyscrapers, and a bicycle wheel. In the end, her burden is too great. She falls and turns into a creature, before completely disappearing into the landscape.
South African artist William Kentridge’s eleven-minute video, Notes Towards a Model Opera, first shown at his retrospective in Beijing in June 2015, is an example of the effects of globalization on Africa. The title is a reference to Madame Mao’s opera for the people. It incorporates historical photographs of China, Africa, France, and pages from the artist’s notebooks. Created from research into the intellectual, political, and social history of modern China, Notes Towards a Model Opera is a three-channel projection. It covers the history of dance, starting from its origins in Paris, extending across the globe. Contexts as far apart as Moscow, Shanghai, and Johannesburg are juxtaposed. The dance of 1950s colonial South Africa mixes with the ballet of China’s Revolutionary operas as the “Internationale,” a song that came out of the 1871 Paris Commune, plays in the background. Ballet, originating in the 17th-century French court, is placed at the center of the video, but the dancer—Dada Masilo, one of South Africa’s most renowned dancers and choreographers—subtly incorporates African dance movements. She dances, sometimes barefoot, sometimes in pointe shoes, in front of projected images of old maps of France, China, and South Africa, as if she were leaping through the pages of an atlas. The artist’s black ink sketches, reminiscent of Chinese free-hand drawing, dart across the screens. The video can be seen as a working-through of the reality of globalization and China’s rising influence, reflecting Kentridge’s comment, “China certainly hovers over us like a huge zeppelin. The scale of it, the scale of its hunger for resources, the scale of everything. China in Africa today, a sense of a series of questions rather than any answers. Are we here the tethered goat waiting for the tiger? Easy pickings?”2 Such a message is representative of Art/Afrique: in a world that is truly global, contemporary African art comes out of a rich history of resistance and engagement. The exhibition is cohesive and representative, and is careful not to reduce Africa or African art to a single reality. To see the works of so many contemporary African and diaspora artists exhibited together with such depth is to appreciate the myriad of identities that co-exist, confront, collide, absorb, and ultimately influence our understanding of the contributions of Africa on the world.
- While some venues have included North African artists, others, including Art/Afrique, focus on Subsaharan Africa and the diaspora, an indication of the subtle ways that colonialism’s complicated legacy still arbitrarily shapes the African continent.
- William Kentridge, “Peripheral Thinking” in William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera (Cologne: UCCA/Koenig Books/Marta and Cosentino, 2017), p.100.
Eliza Nichols specializes in Francophone Africa and Cultural Studies and teaches at Columbia College in Chicago