Contemporary African art in Barcelona (2001)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 3 January 2010
This review was previously published in Sculpture magazine in May 2002, 21(4), page 76.

Contemporary African art in Barcelona

Curated by Pep Subiros, the goal of Africas: The artist and the city at The Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona was “to highlight the vitality and wealth of contemporary African art and its close inter-relation with the ever-increasing rate of urbanization on the continent.” Presenting a selection of almost 200 works (including painting, sculpture, photography, cinema, video, and installation) by 24 artists, the show concentrated on selected urban centers on the continent—Dakar, Abidjan, Lagos, Harare, Johannesburg, and Cape Town— and African presences in Paris and London.

In order to provide a contextual framework for those viewers with limited knowledge of contemporary African art, Pep Subiros divided the exhibition into three sections. The first addressed relations between Africa and the rest of the world, including economic and political dependence, as well as migration. The second section organized eight city-areas into three sections— Francophone, Anglophone, and South African. The final section centered on the “new forms of individuality and subjectivity” emerging in contemporary Africa, particularly urban lifestyles. Within this context, several sculptures and installations offered a unique window onto selected art practices.

In the introductory space, Ghanaian El Anatsui exhibited Visa Queue (1992), a small-scale work in the form of a long, winding mass of nondescript bodies, which raised issues similar to those in Sorious Samura’s documentary of West African economic emigrants bound for Europe. In striking contrast to Visa, El Anatsui’s Crumbling Wall (2000) rose to the ceiling, its rusting, perforated-metal form seemingly impenetrable, yet beginning to collapse.

In the central space, the eight art-city areas included not only art but also a reference section— with photography, literature, press information, educational materials, and music— that offered viewers the opportunity to learn more. From Paris, Patrice Felix Tchicaya’s video installation The Seventh Cycle. Icosonographies (2000–2001) questioned representation and its meaning via alternatively projected portraits and first names of (African) men and women. Sokari Douglas Camp (born in Nigeria and residing in London) exhibited Freud White Sacrifice (1998), in which the analyst is depicted in a stiff formal position aside a female figure with arms crossed and breasts exposed. The artist put the sculpture in motion, with Freud spinning, perhaps questioning the interaction and representation— a serious and humorous social commentary.

Willie Bester, who resides in Cape Town, presented Dog of War (2000), which looked like a futuristic terror-machine from a Terminator film. With a sinister machine gun-like form strapped to its waist, the assembled techno-dog refers to conflicts both on the continent and beyond, and more abstractly, to change in general. Jane Alexander, also from Cape Town, exhibited Bom Boys (1998), an installation in which nine small male figures with animal appendages such as rabbit ears and a beak were arranged in contrasting, isolated groups to pose questions about identity and society.

In the final section, landscapes predominated. Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Project for Kinshasa for the Third Millennium (1997), which portrayed a glittering skyline for the Congolese capital, recalls grand schemes for new cities around the globe. At the same time, the work’s emptiness and references to dysfunctional consumerism question such plans, raising issues of inclusion / exclusion. Lastly, Moshekwa Langa, born in South Africa and resident in Amsterdam, exhibited Temporal Distance (with a criminal intent) you will find us in the best places (1997). Also a landscape in miniature, this work depicts a more abstract scene— with threads, wool, and yarn mostly on spools and randomly placed bottles— laid out across the floor. In contrast to Kingelez’s more “rational” design, Langa’s is intentionally chaotic. For the artist, this piece gives “a physical form to an imaginary space, perhaps harking back to a more romantic childlike, or even childish vision of the world, but through knowing eyes.”

“Africas” formed part of the first Barcelona Art Report 2001 triennial “Experiences,” which highlighted Barcelona’s diverse art production and examined the contemporary city and socially critical art.