"Shifting Views" is the Baltimore Museum of Art's first exhibition of contemporary African art. Works by Senam Okudzeto, Diane Victor, Julie Mehretu, William Kentridge, Gavin Jantjes, Robin Rhode, and David Goldblatt include photographs, prints, and drawings that center a variety of local and global African diasporic issues: Migration and globalization, apartheid and state-sponsored surveillance, public and private space, segregation and stereotype are all on display here.
Africa is not a country. The 54 independent countries that make up the expansive continent of Africa each grapple with specific issues, but are consistently lumped into one flat categorization. The seven artists included in the exhibition are representative of three countries: South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ghana, though many of the artists currently reside in Europe or the U.S. The show's curators were especially interested in South Africa; five of the seven participating artists hail from the country. Three of those South African artists are white, and one is of mixed race.
That a show titled "Shifting Views: People & Politics in Contemporary African Art"—which implies a change, a reorientation, a new viewpoint across a massive continent containing 54 countries with primarily black inhabitants—continues to privilege a white perspective of a particular nationality is laughable.
In fragments from Senam Okudzeto's series 'All Facts Have Been Changed to Protect the Ignorant,' (2000-2001), five figural inkblots stain pieces of rice paper. Okudzeto (who was born in Chicago, but spends her time between Basel, Switzerland; London; and Accra, Ghana) presents figures that dance and stretch out toward large, gridded, globe-like objects that engulf their bodies and jut out into white space, attached to smaller orbs and other bodies by thin black lines. Some bodies look pained, legs kicked out in awkward angst; one figure's fingers drip and dangle, becoming the neck of another figure below it. On the left, another figure's legs are wide open, and a thin line and orb are close to her crotch. Her head arches backward. She could be birthing the world or preparing to take it into herself. Here, the birth of nations and the impact of globalization are expressed as pained, pleasurable, and solitary experiences.
Only one figure dances at the center with no attachments, no orbs or lines connecting them to the others—it could suggest freedom, or a loss of connection from one's place of origin and community.
Okudzeto's works resolve an unstable fragility of place, space, and time for black people in post-colonial Africa. As so-called "third world" nations attempt to acclimate to late-stage capitalism and the political models of the so-called "first world" nations, traditional political systems rupture. And as these "third world" nations are allowed access to a global market, they become indebted to the first world, especially as their own sovereignty destabilizes. The lines in Okudzeto's works represent that thin connectivity, the tension between tradition and modernity, home and migration—complicating notions of African-ness within and outside the continent. The discordant bodies could be nation states, or Africans who made new homes in the west.
Like Okudzeto, Julie Mehretu reviews the impacts of modernity through geography, the effects of globalization, and the political and environmental displacement on the African diaspora. But Mehretu comes at this through abstraction. Her 'Landscape Allegories' on display include seven prints that use geometry and gestural line to create map-like formations. No print is identical, and each one charts movement through space with a dense repetition of unidentifiable patterns.
These prints showcase a rhythmic, graphic improvisation; whirlwind sweeping lines arc across landscapes, staccato strokes cluster and dissolve, rigid architectural lines slice through the cacophony of indistinguishable surroundings. Circles, cloud-like forms, and spiraling smoke tendrils billow out of the noise. The transnational narrative her abstractions recall depicts environments as meta-dimensional landscapes, inter-dimensional dreamscapes, places in between the known and the imagined. It is easy to lose yourself in the worlds she creates, dense non-places that lean more on the illusory constructs of drafting than concrete representational depictions.
Mehretu's abstraction—her lack of black subjects and clear delineations of place—allow her to move beyond the suffocating categorizations that try to limit other black artists. There's no automatic racial identification of her work as solely black African, so she is generally acknowledged as a contemporary artist, not just a "black" contemporary artist.
The drawings, video installations, and extensive time-based charcoal animations by William Kentridge, a white South African, portray the corrupt, brutal segregationist and classist systems of the apartheid state of South Africa. His roughly inked characters satirize the arrogance and absurd privilege of white South Africans. Here in this BMA show, Kentridge's "Industry & Idleness" series (1986-1987) continues these reflections with eight small, stylized prints that look like political newspaper cartoons. Individually the prints work as vignettes, peep holes into singular stories reflective of white power and privilege, or the alienation and fear of black Africa. Collectively, the prints read like storyboards presenting a greater narrative about the peculiar, political nuance of South Africa. Often they are hilarious: In 'Buying London with the Trust Money (Scene VI),' a pudgy man in a suit and tie stands on a grungy city street sneering aloud, "I'll buy the whole fucking dump."
While Kentridge's contributions caricaturize white elitism, Gavin Jantjes's masterful screen printing techniques illustrate and deconstruct Afrikaaner nationalism and black South African oppression. Included are two works from his "A South African Colouring Book" series: 'The True Colours of the State' and 'Colour this Labour Dirt Cheap.'
In 'The True Colours of the State,' a dot-matrix gridded backdrop reproduces a muted photograph by Laurie Bloomfield depicting policemen's brutal eviction of black South Africans protesting the racial rezoning policies of territorial apartheid. Jantjes provides a rudimentary palette heavily toned with crimson as a paint guide for the wretchedly violent scene. Handwritten titles "River Bank," "Bridge," "Women & Children," "Black policemen" contextualize the image with lines or arrows that delineate muddied subjects from landmasses. A small typed statement from former Prime Minister B.J. Vorster is paperclipped to the right-hand corner of the print—a dispassionate quote illuminating the apartheid state's stance about violence against black South Africans as not only permissible, but decidedly necessary for sustained "peace and order."
In 'Colour this Labour Dirt Cheap,' a black and white image of a woman scrubbing the floor of a segregated restroom gets duplicated six-fold across the print. A sign hangs above her identifying the restroom as "Slebs Blankes Dames, Whites Only Ladies," triggering a tension between the working woman and the sign's sharp declaration that black presence in that space is only permissible in a laboring capacity—a submissive complicity with the regulations of the apartheid State. Jantjes' black consciousness-pop aesthetic jars more than it entertains, and challenges apathetic bystanders to critically examine the apartheid state.
The Baltimore Museum of Art sourced its own archive for "Shifting Views," though it was still an odd choice to include so many white South African artworks to represent a larger contemporary African art landscape. While the works presented by Robin Rhode, David Goldblatt, and Diane Victor each address some facet of loss, surveillance, or black South African invisibility, both Goldblatt and Victor's selections felt disconnected from the other works in the exhibition. Even Rhode's 'Pan's Opticon Studies,' though compelling, felt similarly distant. Overall, the question of white gaze and the curators' intentions (or lack thereof) become impossible to ignore. It is a poor curatorial choice—as well as a deficient and inaccurate representation of contemporary African art—to emphasize work by white South African artists over the work of black African artists.
To counter that omission, I have included a list of contemporary African artists who have been displayed, collected, archived in internationally recognized institutions and exhibitions. I encourage the Baltimore Museum of Art to consider any of the following contemporary African artists to collect and display in its next contemporary art exhibition: Martin Abossolo, Fatma Abdullah Abubakar, Emmanuel Addo-Osafo, Jacob Afolabi, Taj S.M. Ahmed, Justus D. Akeredolu, Jimo B. Akolo, Peju Alatise, Kofi Antubam, El Anatsui, Yousif Ahmed El Ballaa, Hassan Bedawi, Alexander Boghossian, Rene Bokoko, Nathalie Boutte, Arthur Bucknor, John Barbor Bulu, Mordecai Buluma, Miranda Burney-Nichol, Francis Chingono, R. Chinouya, Peter Clarke, Gebra Kristos Desta, Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, Washington Enwaku, Ben Enwonwu, Lamidi Fakeye, Yusuf Adebayo Grillo, Onyeka Ibe, Hassan El Hadi, Idah, Festus Omo Idehen, Yonansani Kalanzi, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Keita, Mohammed Omer Khalil, Majida Khattari, Lazarus Khumalo, Vincent Kofi, Abdoulaye Konate, Amon Kotei, Anthony Kyemwa, Eli Kyeyune, Amos Langdown, Henry Michael Lumu, Jean Luvwezo, Goncalo Mabunda, Valente G. Malangatana, Betty Manyolo, Amina Menia, James Mitchell, Chika Modum, Mercy Mlahlwa, Aida Muluneh, Pili Pili Mulongoya, Wangechi Mutu, Francis Musango, Selby Mvusi, Clara Ugbodaga Ngu, Elimo P. Njau, Amir Ibrahim Mohed Nour, Sam J. Ntiro, Demas N. Nwoko, Chike Obeagu, Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Rufus Ogundele, C. Uche Okeke, Simon Obiekezie Okeke, Godfrey A. Okiki, Nnenna Okore, Bruce P.O. Onobrakpeya, Oseloka O. Osadebe, Osagie Osifo, Dartey E. Owusu, Amalia Ramanankirahina, R. Vahnjah Richards, Ibrahim El Salahi, Cheri Samba, Kingsley Sambo, Solomon Kgwadi Sedibane, Gerard Sekoto, Ahmed Mohammed Shibrain, Malick Sidibe, Ephrem Solomon, Ransome Stanley, Sayed Suliman, George O. Talabi, Papa Ibra Tall, Henry Nikole Tayali, Mamo Tessema, Uche Uzorka, Solomon Wangboje, and Beatrice Wanjiku.
This kind of omission in "Shifting Views" is long-standing. In a 1988 lecture, Toni Morrison described the lack of African American literature in the American literary canon as a "stressed" absence, a "planned" and "ornate" omission of works by white scholars, curators, and historians. And what we see in "Shifting Views" parallels that thought, suggesting that the BMA's collection of contemporary black African artists is sorely lacking.
Shifting Views: People & Politics in Contemporary African Art is on view at the BMA through June 18, 2017.