Tag Archives: African artists

Claudia Schreuders: In the Bedroom

at Jack Shainman, 513 W. 20th St. (Chelsea), through June 22.

Sorry this is over by the time I got to it, but, too good to forego comments—do look for Schreuders at any opportunity:   

Recent examples of her characteristic (by now) stunted, polychrome wood figures were featured, along with related studies and a series of portrait heads on paper (lithos; ink drawings).  As per the show’s title (above), I read them (collectively) as stand-ins for Freudian exposés, if not explorations, of Eros among prosaic-looking heteros, tangentially reminiscent of Charles Ray’s fiberglass familial figures of the 1990s. Her hand-carved-and-painted technique casts a Pinocchio vibe into her wooden, lightly pasty-white boy-men and girl-women. Yet, static and solemn in bearing and hue they might suggests votives–but then, dedicated to what sort of being, idea or aspiration?  Only slightly Surrealist (some more than others), they point more so the mundane, rote nature of a range of sexual activities (explicit) and casual musings about them than subconscious simmerings.  

Some basics of the artist’s backstory, which adds layers: Schreuders’ acknowledged autobiographical subject matter; her upbringing in Apartheid-era South Africa; her attendance at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (Cape Town), where Jane Alexander has had an influential pedagogical presence for decades and likewise, her inter-species sculptural  creature, in the context of the atrocities of Apartheid (and otherwise), for the international art world. 

A group of washy, simplified portraits on paper were pointedly down-lifting (as my viewing companion put it)—the visages effectively, viscerally, conveying vulnerability and wounded-ness, reminiscent of those of Marlene Dumas, another precursor.

Claudette Schreuders, 2018.

Wedding-Cake Wonderland: Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams,”

Museum of Modern Art, May 26, 2018 – January 1, 2019.

“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14)

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015), the Congolese sculptor of imaginary skyscrapers and cities out of cardboard, pasted papers, and all manner of shiny and colorful, miniaturist flotsam and jetsam.  Antoni Gaudi meets historical Futurism meets the Jetsons.  Meets Hindu gopuram meets Miami Art Deco.  Meets, crucially,  the uncompleted modernization of Kinshasa in the early, hopeful reign of OG Mobutu Sese Seko, when Kingelez arrived there from a small village and settled in for the rest of his life.  Very “global modern”–MoMA is the perfect venue.  More so if you recall the debut (more or less) of African art at MoMA in the infamous 1984 exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, in which African art was presented (without mention of the artists) as static and conceptually limited, and which this oeuvre deconstructs inherently and completely.   

No one could fail to “like” these wedding cake-terraced constructions, dotted with painted details and calligraphic signage.  For Kingelez, they were models for  what–he had faith (literally)–would someday be realized as architecture.   His art journey began after a professed spiritual (Catholic-inflected) vision and attendant desire to address and contribute to new urban environments that would meet all the needs of its inhabitants. Global art world acclaim came with his inclusion in the landmark Paris exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre (1989),  and related support of mega-collector of Jean Pigozzi, after which his material inventory and the physical space of his works expanded.  Overall, however, his vision and approach remained pretty much consistent; likewise, the child-like pleasure of perusing his wonderlands.  Creations range from charming World’s Fair-type national pavilions (e.g.,  Palais de Hirochima; Belle Hollandaise) to kaleidoscope-Coney Island re-dos of corporate and government complexes set amidst painted  parks, thoroughfares and recreational sectors that feature sports arenas named after himself.  More solemn and sterile but equally utopian, Kingelez also gave much attention to hospital and health-related entities, partially drawing on colonial-style facilities in the Congolese capital. 

Besides an extensive retrospective display (the first for Kingelez), MoMA’s exhibition includes a superb virtual reality component that places viewers, via special glasses and video monitors, within one of his more complicated extrêmes maquettes (his term) and allows for bounding around the buildings by shifting focus, .  There are no interiors though, nor even the suggestion of such.  It’s all surface–but what  dazzling and dizzying surface.  Too bad the artist did not live to see this incarnation, so very close to his city dreams. 

Bodys Isek Kingelez, Ville Fantome, 1996 (at MoMA, 2018)
Bodys Isek Kingelez, Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994 (at MoMA, 2018)

Meeting of Traditional African Masks with Contemporary art syncretism

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.

At the Brooklyn Museum, through September 18, 2016.

Disguise, organized by the Seattle Art Museum, reverberates well in Brooklyn, which boasts ever-expanding networks of transplanted African, as well as American-born and other artists of African descent, including several here.  And that’s a delimitation–that is, all artists included are of African descent, some born and working in Africa, others not, on both counts, or some combination.  So then “global African art” (of the exhibition title) is a provocative umbrella in more ways than one, especially in some cases.  In addition, BM boasts a major collection of and commitment to traditional African art, culled from to contextualize the featured contemporary work.

In general, Western art audiences are a long way from MoMA’s infamous Primitivism (1984) when it comes to African art and aesthetics.  A rising tide of African Diaspora arts in the West that, increasingly, has “looked both ways” within the scope of a growing global contemporary scene, offers firm foundation for the fluid curatorial approach here.*  In New York, a small-scale recent precedent was The Met’s 2011 exhibition, Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three ContinentsWillie Cole, featured there, appears with a single work in Disguise, which was narrowed to focus on ten contemporary artists, supplemented with additions from another dozen (approximately) to suggest an expansive field of possibilities.

There is, throughout, a fundamental blurring of masking and disguise, as well as stated sub-themes that stem from the concept of “becoming.”  Yet, ambiguity between the gathered notions seems apropos, when so much of past African masking traditions have been lost and their continuing evolution is infinitely complex.

Virtually all of the contemporary works are complex and engaging; and the traditional works are interspersed effectively.  For example, a Yoruba pieced-textile egungun masquerade costume (Nigeria) and a Gola carved helmet mask and raffia ensemble (Liberia) are in proximity of a  signature Nick Cave “soundsuit” and a costume-sculpture used in performance by Alejandro Guzman. Cave’s decades-long oeuvre, which includes performance-geared costume-works as well as mannequin-sculptures implying motion and sound such as the one here that sprouted a faux-botanical armature, has evoked the legacy of African masquerade from the start, although not directly; whereas Guzman’s towering, multi-horn-headed construction of natural, industrial, and found African-crafted elements does.  Just running through a few, to give an idea of the visual energy:

Walter Oltmann‘s hobbit-sized, shiny steel “warriors” have a  polished (I want to say “decorative”) manufacture from a distance; however, their real razor and barbed wire edges quickly turn them subversive.  Two documentary photographers, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Jean-Claude Moschetti, contribute gorgeous prints of ritual-ready, traditional egungun maskers, known for costumes (i.e., “masks”) with complete body coverage.  Zino Saro-Wiwa provides unusually intimate photographic glimpses, particularly as a woman photographer, of a relatively recently established, kind of rogue masking society (an offshoot within the Ogboni) and an engrossing triptych video that challenges the overwhelmingly male gendering of traditional masquerade in a moving performance of a private mourning cycle.  Wura-Natasha Ogunji directs female masqueraders in post-industrial hazmat-like apparel through the streets of Lagos, documented in cellphone videos.  Saya Woolfalk fills a darkened gallery with psychedelic video-loop-and-light-based installations that evoke futuristic female fantasies of serene beauty inspired by Mende helmet masks, exceptional for their use by female societies.  Compatriot futurist, Jacolby Satterwhite is represented with characteristic DIY sci-fi videos and a foray into digital painting.  Interspecies origin myths and masking are conjoined in Nandipha Mntambo‘s striking photographic self-portrait with bovine ears and horns, also translated into a bronze bust, recalling the animal-headed humanoids of her teacher, Jane Alexander, as well as the prosthetic-enhanced creatures of Matthew Barney.  A series of digital ink drawings by Brendan Fernandes also imagines cross-breeds—of animals and masks.  Loved his obvious but effective African mask-shaped, blinking neon signs, partly inspired by a stint in NYC’s Chinatown; Jakob Dwight‘s  mask-morphing, digital abstractions on monitors are a higher-tech version.  Repros of African masks and figure paintings by Western “masters” are collaged by William Villalongo to conjure post-colonial takes on Dada and Surrealist precedents.  Paul Anthony Smith amps up the latter in his photographic portrait of a Kuba-masked sitter embellished with “pricked” passages on the surface that appear simultaneously twinkling and furry.  Edson Chagas, who received wide exposure in New York in Ocean of Images, the New Photography  at the Museum of Modern Art (2015) is represented with a series of photo-portraits of a white-collar (literally) “manager” (loosely translated from the Greek series title, Oikonomos) with various mass-produced shopping and travel bags over his head.

The exhibition’s blend of vibrancy, erudition, and hodgepodge is compelling and will surely be of as much interest in retrospect (through the slim  catalogue emphasizing artists’ statements), as it is in capturing a moment in the evolution of art related to African cultural origins through time and around the world.

***

*I’m thinking, of the exhibition/catalogue, Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, ed. Laurie Ann Farrell; 2003.

Psychedelic Superstars, Pan-African Paradises: Chris Ofili at the New Museum

“Chris Ofili: Night and Day, ” NMCA, NYC through 1/25/15.

“The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) is to Chris Ofili as “Piss Christ” (1987) is to Andres Serrano– namely, a catapult to the head of the culture wars played out in the contemporary art world in the late 20th-century. (I’m still peeved that tax $ went to then mayor Giuliani’s self-serving, failed legal bid to close the 1999 “Sensation” exhibit of YBA’s at the Brooklyn Museum’s, for which Ofili’s painting became poster child, with threats of pulled city funding to the institution).  If you haven’t seen this mixed-media mother deity painting in person, don’t miss the chance. Repros barely capture a trace of its gleaming, slightly goofy yet aloof and slyly eroticized aura, in which the figure gazes out over viewers. (What does come through in repros, unlike the tiny applied images of female genitalia floating around her, is her black “skin,” likely the insidious underpinnings, conscious or not, of the right-wing hoopla in the context of said Catholic saint.)  She presides in a gallery of ‘90s works likewise bedecked in sequin-y ‘70s splendor, further ornamented with dots of collaged magazine pics and the artist’s signature shellacked elephant dung (were the tests ever in on that?); overall, formally stunning and rich with collective content, including (not at all limited to): art historical nods and allusions, Black Power  versus mass media visual politics in the U.S., and Nigerian and other African material culture and spirituality, which he absorbed from home-base in London, with intermittent travels to Africa (b. 1968; Royal College of Art, MFA, 1993; currently lives and works mainly in Trinidad).

More recent work includes an installation of dark-bluish paintings in a barely lit room, creating a black-light ambiance and Rothko Chapel environment, or postmodern Ad Reinhardt effect, as Roberta Smith aptly put it in her NYT review.*  As viewers approach the texturally nuanced surfaces of the canvases from different angles, shadowy images, some highly disturbing, appear like ghosts haunting dense jungles–majestic dystopian takes on the faded out-of-Africa scenarios in the murals of Aaron Douglas.  Similar settings take a paradisiacal turn elsewhere  throughout the show, with voluptuous Eves and a few Adams luxuriating before sharply patterned foliage and pan-African-chromed (black, red,  green) Op Art backdrops. Examples from the artist’s extensive, ongoing series of idealized watercolor portraits shimmer across on long wall, and a few syncretistic sculptures pull his mash-up Diasporic reality together.

Thematic and aesthetic overlaps between Ofili and concurrently emerging African American artists on the global scene c. 1990 have been pointed out.  In terms of this season in NYC, Nick Cave’s recent shows at Jack Shainman offered some thematic and aesthetic cross-over (see post).

*R. Smith, “Medium and Message, Both Unsettling: ‘Chris Ofili: Night and Day,’ a Survey at the New Museum,” New York Times, 10/30/14 (online); 10/31/14 (print).

At the New Museum's "Chris Ofili" exhibition, 11/2/14
At the New Museum’s “Chris Ofili” exhibition, 11/2/14

"Chris Ofili" at the New Museum, NYC (11/2/14)
“Chris Ofili” at the New Museum, NYC (11/2/14)

At the Chris Ofili exhibition, New Museum, NYC (11/2/14) (wood sculpture with nails -- e.g., a postmodern "nkondi / nkisi"
“Chris Ofili,” New Museum, NYC (11/2/14) [wood sculpture with nails ; a “new world” nnkisi nkondi]