Contemporary art of a Continent
10th February to 17th April 2005.
Sunday 26th February my family went to see the exhibition at the Heywards Gallery, part of that mix of grey concrete that is the South Bank Centre. First stop is the foyer with its up-turned empty crates and cushions in African cloth. There is an informal sense of the familiar already. The piped music is African. Chanting, work songs, toyi-toyi liberation music or gospel? Maybe Black Mambazo. It was only half attention I was paying, the music was coming and going in my consciousness. There was a little buzz of anticipation.
In the first hall is a totem pole of plastic gerrycans, cut and woven together, facing you like skulls, or masks or faces (Romuald Hazoume of Benin: Bidon Arme). A machet strapped into the side brings Rwanda to mind. Then there is the stunning kente drape made from bottle tops (El Anatsui of Ghana: Sasa). And the bus stop crowd of scarecrows (Dilomprizulike of Nigeria: Waiting for the bus). You wonder, if each could tell their story, what it would be. Mayibuye, the ANC (SA) cultural group once had a show called ‘Amandhla’. In that is a bus stop scene in the township where, similarly, a group gathers to wait for a bus no one knows when it will come. Each starts to show their moves. The pick pocket moves sleekly through the crowd, collecting. One pulls out his penny whistle and starts to play. The banter of boy meets girl at bus stop. The ubiquitous domestic servant. But for these motionless, faceless drapes of rubbish staring out. Do they speak for me, as an African? Do they speak to me standing in front of them? Think of all the people wandering away from their homes, desperately holding onto theirs and other peoples’ lives to give them meaning. They don’t know what bus they are waiting for, but they hope something will come.
Another exhibit is a very disturbing floor installation (Jane Alexander of South Africa: African Adventure) of what the artist says is about tourists in Africa. That is not the image it conjured up for me. Animals, some dressed, others not, looking to various degrees and behaving like people in a desolate landscape cut /dragged through with sickles, machetes and knives. It feels strange and uncomfortable. This is followed by another South African piece of suspended items in a room (Wim Botha: Commune: Onomatopoeia). Is it suspended, suspense or hanging, hanging on, hung? Then ‘Cairo Noises’ with rolled up newspapers ( Sabah Naim). It made me laugh. Newspapers as noise. Brilliant. Bring me ‘The Herald’.
Then the adjustable size shoe (Congo) on a pedestal.
Very diverse, someone said. It is. Artists exhibiting live in the diaspora, back home and both. Artistes from South Africa to Egypt representing 26 countries different in history, politics, language, religion and artistic traditions all together, a cacophony of images. It does what art should do, which is to challenge. The overall impression, however, is one of contemporary comment on Africa, violence and the general harshness / bleakness of life even when there are expressions of joy and the comic.
Some of the film and video constructions were quite impenetrable. Nevertheless, they were provocative if not satisfying. The blurbs on the cards were not always helpful. The South African cartoon about the struggle against apartheid was very good and accessible (William Kentridge: Ubu tells the truth). The cubicle was full of people most of the time. They were short (about 8 minutes each) both funny and serious and cleverly done, holding the attention of both old and young.
The exhibition was a collaboration between four galleries: Museum Kunst Palast (Dusseldorf: Germany), Hayward Gallery (London: UK), Pompidou Centre (Paris: France) and the Mori Museum (Tokyo: Japan). Africa Remix opened in Dusseldorf in July before coming to London then moves to Paris before going to Japan. Most of the displays were at the Hayward Gallery, but some were at sites outside, such as Africa in Focus, which was a photographic exhibition in Hackney Museum. Sadly, the London part of the exhibition has been scaled down due to lack of space. The only Zimbabwean exhibit at the Hayward (Berry Bickle: swimmer) was a set of pickled elephant foetuses (aka Damian Hurst). Other exhibits were at the British Museum where some Mozambican weld-art was on show. Best was the tree with a monkey sitting on a branch.
The exhibition catalogue explains how David Elliot (Hayward Gallery) and Simon Njani (Editor: Revue Noir in Paris) first discussed the idea of an Africa wide anthology of African art in Senegal in 2000. In London Africa Remix, is part of Africa 05, which is a wider cultural exposition including music, dance, literature and discussions. WEZIMBABWE organised an evening of Zimbabwe music on the 16th April. Diverse aspects of Zimbabwean music were presented but we are failing to be in the mainstream of African music and culture in the diaspora. This is dominated by West Africa and South Africa. When Oliver Mutukudzi performs in UK he does so mostly to Zimbabweans. The profile of Zimbabwean artist in non-Zim fora is low. But the unique voice of Africa on many platforms is becoming ever more present.
published in The Zimbabwean