Art: South of the Sahara

A new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum rediscovers the African continent.

December 8, 2016 18:14
3 minute read.
Ibrahim Mahama

Fracture - a large-scale installation by Ibrahim Mahama. (photo credit: PR)


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Africa, the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, is burned into the Western collective memory as a continent steeped in agony, tragedy and the blood of its people. But when visitors at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art step into the large and opulent hall that houses the exhibition “Regarding Africa: Contemporary Art and Afro- Futurism,” they are not immediately greeted by an intense impression of pain. Instead, they are met by the broad smiles and shining faces of bare-chested African men posing against floral backdrops, holding bouquets of flowers, wearing sunglasses and traditional African garb.

The photos, which were taken by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, soften the guttural reaction that will almost certainly follow visitors later and hint at the blend of imagery and symbols that characterize the entire exhibition: a display of brutality and chaos alongside development, stunning beauty and elation.

This unusual curatorial choice (kudos to the museum’s seasoned and talented curator, Ruth Direktor) serves as a humorous kickoff to a journey within the Africa we have known, fantasized about and feared.

All works showcased in this group exhibition are contemporary and were created from within the continent or with the continent in mind. They were all crafted in/about post-colonial Africa (the earliest works are from the 1960s and 1970s) and inspired by Afro-Futurism (a term that originally referred to music that developed in the 1960s among Afro-Americans and applies today to a wide range of art that reflects an African version of futurism).

The generous space of the exhibition stimulates the senses, holding together a variety of artworks – from paintings and photographs to video art. They all dissect, assess, discuss and provoke the concept of identity in general and African identity in particular.

One of the works that draw the most attention is Amazing Grace, a short film by Kenya-born, New Yorkbased artist Wangechi Mutu. Dressed in white and walking into the water in what appears like a redemptive and puristic act of baptism, the artist sings the famous Christian hymn in her mother tongue, Kikuyu, thus rendering and amplifying its symbiotic as well as historic meaning. Mutu’s work casts a spell on the viewer, embodying a frail but unwavering image of femininity bathing in tradition and sorrow.

Other notable works are South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s series “The Hyena and Other People,” depicting a group of “hyena handlers” who hold performances like a traveling circus; artist Chéri Samba’s figurative, story-like paintings showing the complex and multifaceted reality of life in the Congo; and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa’s series “The Brave Ones,” depicting youths from the Nazareth Baptist Church captured in the countryside, where they undergo their month-long initiation rite.

The exhibition’s largest work, though, is located outside the hall. To the unsuspecting viewer, it might seem as though a part of the new museum wing were undergoing renovation, when in fact it is “Fracture,” Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s ambitious creation that was commissioned as a site-specific work for the Lightfall atrium of the Herta and Paul Amir Building.

Mahama covered the site with immense jute sacks that he sews together by himself. The sacks are used for the transportation of cocoa, coffee and coal and originate in India or Bangladesh. They are later stamped “Produce of Ghana.” Mahama acquires new ones for his craft, to trade in for used sacks.

“It’s important for me to make the physical exchange and acquire the original material, as my entire occupation is with the different meanings that materials can receive each time they are used,” he explains.

The 29-year-old artist, who is considered the most successful contemporary Ghanaian artist, worked on this project for two years and has been replicating it in several other locations around the world, from museums to marketplaces and railway stations.

Words can hardly convey the intimate and intense layers that Mahama manages to add to the spaces he works in and with, creating a womb-like, warm experience in an industrial space.

“The paradox of it was that the people [using this material] were working so hard and yet they were segregated from their workplaces, and that disenfranchisement creates such tension. It’s the tension I’m interested in,” he says.

The exhibition is on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until April 22.

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