“African Art Against the State”: advocacy and agency from prehistory to the present

Williams College Museum of Art’s exhibition explores the various ways in which African art has highlighted the continent’s history of activism and resistance.

“African Art Against the State”, now on display through 28 August 2016, explores a variety of the African continent’s numerous traditions displaying select contemporary and historical works that represent contested social dynamics, confront Western imperialistic structures during and after colonisation and that reflect on the critical, if not dire, environmental issues facing the continent today.

Igbo People, "Helmet Mask", 20th Century, wood, pigment, and cloth. Gift of Robert and Suzanne Bach.

Igbo People, ‘Helmet Mask’, 20th Century, wood, pigment, and cloth. Gift of Robert and Suzanne Bach.

“African Art Against the State” is organised into three thematic areas – The Politics of Existence: Gender, Sexuality and Society; The Politics of Empire: Colonial Mentalities and Subversive Visualities; and The Politics of Environment: Earth, Activism and Eco-vention. Curated by Michelle Apotsos, Assistant Professor of Art at Williams College, this exhibition includes contemporary works by Lalla Essaydi, David Goldblatt, Fathi Hassan, Romuald Hazoumè, Seydou Keïta, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Fabrice Monteiro, Zanele Muholi, George Osodi, Yinka Shonibare and Malick Sidibé. The historical works originate from the Kongo, Teke, Yoruba, Bamana, Igbo and Mende peoples.

Yoruba people, Ogboni Society kneeling figure, female, 19th - 20th Century, bronze. Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, Class of 1952.

Yoruba people, Ogboni Society kneeling figure, female, 19th – 20th Century, bronze. Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb, Class of 1952.

Art Radar highlights four of the contemporary artists in the exhibition: Lalla Essaydi, Fabrice Monteiro, Fathi Hassan and Zanele Muholi.

Lalla Essaydi, "Converging Territories #10", 2003 C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathryn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Converging Territories #10’, 2003, C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathryn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.

1. Lalla Essaydi

Born in Morocco and currently based in New York City, Lalla Essaydi is a multimedia artist who has worked in numerous media including painting, film, video and installation. It is her photography however, for which she is most recognised. As she states on her website,

In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim.  In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.

Lalla A. Essaydi, "Converging Territories, #20", 2003, C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathryn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Converging Territories, #20’, 2003, C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathryn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Essaydi challenges Orientalism by appropriating its imagery as a mechanism to invite her viewers to consider its myths. Much of her work addresses the complexities of Arab female identity while also looking back in history and reminding us that Arab Muslim women, particularly in Essaydi’s native Morocco, did exist on equitable terms with men in artistic and intellectual pursuits. As Fatema Mernissi wrote in her essay titled “Lalla Essaydi: A Spinner of Scenarios More Dangerous than Scheherazade”,

It is this clear cut, egalitarian right to self-expression which explains how from the dawn of Islam, women managed to compete with men as both ‘alimat (scholars), and as skilled calligraphers. In his book, Women in the History of the Western Region of Islam, the Moroccan historian Abdelhadi Tazi identified calligraphy and paper-making as fields where women from Morocco (which the Arabs called Al-Maghrib al-Aqsa, “The Far West), were competing successfully. So Lalla Essaydi is reconnecting with her female ancestors, “from Tunis to Morocco and Andalus, who specialized in manuscript writing as part of their well established reputation for handcrafts.”

Fabrice Monteiro, 'The Prophecy, Untitled #2', 2013, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Fabrice Monteiro, ‘The Prophecy, Untitled #2’, 2013, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

2. Fabrice Monteiro

Born in Benin to a Beninese father and a Belgian mother, Fabrice Monteiro’s dual cultural identity informs his ability to traverse multiple terrains with relative ease. Monteiro’s sight reaches far beyond his obvious technical and aesthetic capabilities. His artistic investigations explore all possibilities, and reach into a multidimensional realm that assesses the present and extrapolates the stark truths that will surely be Africa’s environmental future, unless we heed his call to action. This call to action materialised in 2014 and is known as Prophecy. In this series, Monteiro explores the city of Dakar’s most grave environmental offenses and places them within the larger context of the African continent.

Fabrice Monteiro, 'The Prophecy, Untitled #1', 2014, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Fabrice Monteiro, ‘The Prophecy, Untitled #1’, 2014, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Prophecy is an ambitious attempt to bridge the gaps in environmental consciousness carrying a direct message for the inhabitants of this land: Mother Earth tires of this abuse and there is a cost that must be paid for this disrespect. Monteiro’s creations reveal the ironies of Senegal’s environmental issues. To that end, Monteiro has created deities, who rise out of the land – these contested sites of decay, dumping and destruction – to relay tragic and beautifully urgent calls to action: Mother Earth can be restored, if action is taken now.

Fabrice Monteiro, 'The Prophecy, Untitled #6', 2014, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Fabrice Monteiro, ‘The Prophecy, Untitled #6’, 2014, Digital Print, 80 × 120 cm. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Prophecy was created in collaboration with local designers in Dakar and Ecofund, an international environmental advocacy organiation, with the specific intent of leveraging local design expertise with an educational message that relates Dakar’s environmental urgency. The images were staged at sites representative of Dakar’s most austere environmental offenses. Monteiro’s methodology is precise. Each photo reveals the extremes to which Mother Earth has been pushed, be it the Atlantic Ocean polluted by oil spills, bushfires that ravish hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, fuel powered vehicles emitting noxious gases and particles, or coastal erosion gone unchecked due to greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of sand from beaches for construction.

Fathi Hassan, "Revolution", 2012, acrylic on paper. © Fathi Hassanm Courtesy of Rose Issa Projects.

Fathi Hassan, “Revolution”, 2012, acrylic on paper. © Fathi Hassan Courtesy of Rose Issa Projects.

3. Fathi Hassan

Fathi Hassan was born in Cairo to Sudanese and Egyptian parents and since 1984 has been living and working in the Italian region of Marche. His works include drawing, painting, sculpture and installation. He is known for his experimentation with language – written and spoken – and is particularly interested in ancient languages that were erased as a result of colonial domination.

In a 2011 exhibition of Hassan’s work at the New York-based Skoto Gallery, Hassan’s work is described as

firmly rooted in a framework of references that reflect his Nubian heritage and willingness to embrace a continuum of cultural precedents and influences. Although the texts in his work have no instantly legible meanings or available definitions, it nevertheless serves as specific link between the ambiguities that exist in the writing of images and the images of writing and aims to give voice to the lost traditions of his homeland. He explores the tension between contained energy and boundless space, though he pays tribute to oral traditions, unwritten history and identity, he still manages to avoid a mere evocation of the past or a lost homeland in his work, the visual resonance is undeniable, attesting to the resilience and undying spirit of a people.

Zanele Muholi, "Mini Mbatha", Durban, Glebelands, Jan. 2010, C-print. © ZANELE MUHOLI. Courtesy of STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Zanele Muholi, ‘Mini Mbatha, Durban, Glebelands, Jan. 2010’, 2010, C-print. © ZANELE MUHOLI. Image courtesy STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg.

4. Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi is a South African artist working in photography, installation and video who leverages her practice towards increased visibility of human rights issues pertaining to black lesbian and transgender communities in South Africa. She co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002, and Inkanyiso in 2006, a forum for queer visual activist media.

Inspired by the American photographer Nan Goldin who took photos of her inner circle of friends in the 1980s, which The New York Times describes as “at turns seedy and vibrant, brushing up against drag, punk and drug subcultures”. Muholi started taking photographs of her close friends too, revealing an intimacy between the women she encountered in Johannesburg. In an October 2015 article in The New York Times, author Jenna Wortham describes this period of Muholi’s creative endeavour in the following manner:

Her work from this time is startling in its intimacy: close-­ups of women kissing, in nude embrace, bathing in colorful tubs in their homes. Her photos often provoked controversy in South Africa when they were displayed. In 2009, a government official, Lulu Xingwana, walked out of a Muholi gallery show, calling it ‘‘immoral.’’ One of Muholi’s most remarkable images from this period is of a woman flattening her breasts with white bandages in order to appear more masculine — perhaps even passing as a man. Another is of a woman’s legs, made extraordinary by the presence of a large scar running down the length of one thigh.

Muholi’s success has seen no bounds. In 2016 she recipient of the Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism. She has shown at numerous museums and galleries in Europe and the United States most recently at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City last autumn. Muholi’s work can be found in a number of private and museum collections among them MoMA, the Nasher Collection at Duke University and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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Related Topics: African artists, Photography, Sculpture, EnvironmentMuseum show, events in the USA

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