BY Sean Cubitt in Reviews | 06 NOV 94
Featured in
Issue 19


BY Sean Cubitt in Reviews | 06 NOV 94

Curated by Olu Oguibe, this show of five African artists working in the UK coincided with the Liverpool Tate's hosting of 'Africa Explores'. The latter exhibition, on loan from New York's Museum of African Art, was criticised for its predominantly anthropological approach. 'Seen/ Unseen' draws on a fundamentally different conception of Africa, pointing towards the weakness of the attempt to define a field of practices by some mythologised geography of the imagination.

Lubaina Himid continues the work she began in the mid-80s based on the ritual figures of mirror, cloth and bowl, with an installation of homages to creators in the African diaspora and specifically to her grandmother. The piece builds an alternative art history to the post-Cézanne or post-Duchamp traditions of the curatorial schools: in its ritualisation of history as memory, it constructs another mode of history, a different way for the past to inform the present.

Yinka Shonibare's installation double dutch (1994), a pink wall covered with 49 small paintings and prints, starts from a more commercial world. In place of canvas, Shonibare has been painting onto 'African' prints bought at Brixton Market, the kind that here signify African nationalism. But the prints are of Dutch and British manufacture and design, made up for the export market, and re-imported to the UK. Some of the cloths are scarcely altered. Others are drenched in vivid acrylics with sensuous brushwork - the guarantee of artistic integrity and authenticity. The piece asks us to work through permutations of seduction and expression, where Brixton has made African again what was fobbed off onto it by cotton magnates (or has it?). As you seek out the double picture plane in the printed and painted edges of individual elements, the work also becomes a beautiful visual puzzle game.

Oguibe's own pieces, three small installations, are less impressive than his curation and excellent catalogue essay. His gilt mirror asks about a tradition of portraiture and a concept of identity, both exclusive to the African artist. A toilet with union jack at least has the advantage over Duchamp's Fountain of being less gender-specific. The slide portrait-poem of his muse is charming, but slight compared to the paintings shown last year at the Savannah Gallery in London.

In her complicated installation, Folake Shoga succeeds in combining documentary and art activities. Her video work is a performance of methodical doubt over identity, ringing both with the ghost of artistic authority and the soundtrack of discussions between the women of mixed descent who participated in the work. The movements between public and private, gallery and domestic space, integrate the disparate elements into a single dialectic, confused as only reality can be.

The oldest of the artists in the show by more than 20 years, Uzo Egonu, is the one most at home in his art. The new paintings belie one's first impression that they are works of pure design. Their textured and inventive repertoire of colour effects give a different kind of depth; not perspectival but in the worked surface itself. The four large canvases in the series 'Past and Present in the Diaspora', representing the artist, the sculptor, the writer and the musician, are immensely decorative, in the same way Matisse's North African canvases are, and Egonu works with the decorative tradition in Africa with as much complexity as did the European vanguard of the 20th century. What appears at first a muted palette, is a composite effect of powerful colour contrasts mixing optically, deploying the immediate pre-avant-garde techniques of Pissarro and Seurat in their investigation of the roots of European modernism in the arts of Africa. Such work carries both the conviction of an intensely personal engagement and the intellectual passion of an international artist seeking ways to paint without postmodern quotation marks.

As a whole, the show worries away at moments of art practice abandoned too readily in the rush for irony: at the quest for an art that is politically meaningful but autonomous; at the status of the artist's identity after the death of the author; and at the question of beauty in a world without truth. As Oguibe indicates in his essay, this is political art only in the sense of the negotiation of intensely personal involvement in great social trends. You could add that the working and reworking of more than one tradition request, with all the politeness that anger can muster, a more demanding attention.