BY Sean O’Toole in Reviews | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116


Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, USA

BY Sean O’Toole in Reviews | 06 JUN 08

Otobong Nkanga, Alterscape Stories: Spilling Waste (detail, 2006)

Entering ‘Flow’, the Studio Museum’s latest survey exhibition dedicated to emerging artists from Africa under the age of forty, you pass a map of the world. Placed adjacent to a substantial wall text, the map is overlaid with a graphic that records what Paul Gilroy once described as the ‘patterns of flow and itinerancy that characterize outer-national adventure and cross-cultural creativity’. In simpler terms, the graphic records the ‘where from’ and ‘where now’ of the show’s 20 artists, four of whom still live on the continent, while the rest live and work beyond Africa’s ‘salt borders’, to borrow from Wole Soyinka.

Neatly executed, the map/graphic ably illustrates the show’s conceptual premiss. Not only does it suggest the complex ‘ecologies of belonging’, as Gilroy phrases it in his landmark book The Black Atlantic (1993), but it also reveals ‘the opposition between geography and genealogy’. The net result is an expansive, evolutionary statement about contemporary African art, one that necessarily acknowledges ‘the multiple ways people, resources, cultures and ideas move’, to quote the exhibition’s curator, Christine Y. Kim. Fittingly, the ideological lobbying ends here.

Installed across two floors, ‘Flow’ introduces itself with a set of fences used in horse jumping. While Mounir Fatmi’s Obstacles (2007) don’t exactly trip you up, the curatorial intention is clear: these objects, painted in bright stripes, are meant to interrupt the viewer’s flow from outside in. The implied metaphor – of impasse and arrest – although achingly self-conscious, is easy to grasp, which may explain why Simon Njami used the work to introduce the final, Johannesburg version of his sprawling group exhibition ‘Africa Remix’, which, despite extensive travelling, never made it to the USA.

‘Flow’ includes four artists spotlighted by ‘Africa Remix’: Fatmi, Moshekwa Langa, Otobong Nkanga and Michele Magema. The South African-born Langa’s work is thoughtfully hung near the entrance – thoughtful because Langa has long worked with free-association maps, which range from cryptic diagrams and quasi-cartographic renderings to allusive visual taxonomies. Unfortunately the selection here isn’t always very good, with Langa’s three works offering poor rehearsals of earlier ideas and moods.

Like Langa, Nkanga lives between Amsterdam and Paris and also works across a range of media. In Alterscape Stories: Spilling Waste and Uprooting the Past (both 2006), a photographic diptych and triptych, the artist looms, silhouetted and god-like, over a mountainous diorama, its bare rocky topography and spare urbanism echoing scenes from Nkanga’s birthplace in northern Nigeria. Similar to Stripped Bare (2003), an investigative series of photographs shown in ‘Africa Remix’, depicting single homesteads in lush vegetation, Nkanga’s performative photography is less captivating, though, than her acrylic, ink and watercolour works on paper (five of which are shown), that state her interests in architecture and topography with greater poise.

For a show with continental ambitions it is unsurprising that ‘Flow’ the narrative threads are often strained. Paradoxically, this – and the speculative conversations it prompts – is also the show’s strength. One such exchange happens between the Nigerian Olalekan B. Jeyifous, whose architectural models are more Buckminster Fuller than Bodys Isek Kingelez, and the Eritrean Dawit L. Petros, in whose photograph a handful of snow is offered as a mountain. Installed in close proximity on the mezzanine level, the two Brooklyn residents proffer imaginative possibilities.

A similar reliance on imagination marks the portraiture. Eschewing physiognomy, Thierry Fontaine hides his face behind shells, cracked mirrored glass and a wet mask of white clay. The Réunion-born photographer’s refusal to be fixed by the lens recalls Morocco’s Hicham Benohoud, whose Version Soft (2003) series of portraits, shown in ‘Africa Remix’, similarly masked subjectivity with surreal props. In a similar vein, Grace Ndiritu’s slow building but fun DVD projection The Nightingale (2003) shows the London-based artist manically wrapping and rewrapping her head to a pop soundtrack by Baaba Maal. By contrast, Mustafa Maluka’s sitters are visible and distinct. His large-scale acrylic and oil portraits of hipsters, however, teeter on the edge of kitsch. (Perhaps this is where they find their momentum.) Kehinde Wiley is an obvious reference, as is late Andy Warhol, whose rudimentary technique Maluka’s generic archive echoes.

Given the revisionist agenda underpinning the display of contemporary African art in the decades since ‘Primitivism in 20th-Century Art’ (1984) and ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ (Magicians of the Earth, 1989), ‘Flow’ cannot claim to be groundbreaking. In this sense the show functions like the auxiliary of the sanitation trucks that flash past Latifa Echakhch’s motionless camera as it records the mop-up activities following a street demonstration in Marseille. The frenzied action having passed, it is now time to tidy up, consolidate and take stock. ‘Flow’ achieves this admirably, without hectoring or fuss.

Sean O’Toole is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. He edits Art South Africa.