Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

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An exterior view of the venue for Episode 1 of “Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas,” exhibited at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 23 March – 28 May 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The curatorial challenge Simon Njami set for himself when conceptualizing the exhibition “Afriques Capitales“[“Capital Africas”] was to provide a discursive, dialogical space where contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the wider global African diaspora(s) could come together to “invent the city of all cities: a city that belongs to no one but in which everyone can find their own personal bearings” (Njami, 2017: 19).

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“The Minaret, I Am Free” (2012) by Egyptian artist and arts activist Moataz Nasr. This illuminated sculptural installation was displayed on the ground floor of the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The results of this creative, cross-cultural and pluralist dialogue manifested in the form of  a large-scale, international group show of contemporary visual art presented in two episodes (or “chapters”) across expansive exhibition spaces in Paris and Lille:

  1. The first phase (or “Chapter 1”) comprised more than 100 works by 50 artists at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris – sub-themed “Afriques Capitales, Métropolis: C’est beau une ville la nuit” and  “Intermezzo: un projet stéréophonique, ” 23 March – 28 May 2017 (discussed in further detail, below).
  2. The second episode (or “Chapter 2”) – titled, “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance” / “Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope” – displayed work by a further 20 artists, combined with additional works by 12 of the same participants from the Paris strand of the exhibition, presented at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille (discussed and illustrated online at: http://www.lille3000.eu/gare-saint-sauveur/2017/), 6 April – 3 September 2017.
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Detail from the vivid red wall hanging “Alep Calao” (2016) by Malian textile sculptor and painter Abdoulaye Konaté, displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017).

“Referring to Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 billion poems, Roland Barthes reminds us of that essential truth: there is never one city, but always several cities in one – a multiplicity of possible combinations.

[“Roland Barthes, en évoquant les 100 000 milliards de poèmes de Raymond Queneau, nous rappelle cette vérité essentielle: il n’y a jamais une ville, mais des villes.”]

Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, 2017)

Continue reading Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation

PRELUDE:

Reflections from Stuart Hall about the history and significance of the British ‘Black Art’ movement during the 1980s:

“This new ‘horizon’ produced a polemical and politicised art: a highly graphic, iconographic art of line and montage, cut-out and collage, image and slogan: the ‘message’ often appearing too pressing, too immediate, too literal, to brook formal delay and, instead, breaking into ‘writing.’ The black body – stretched, threatened, distorted, degraded, imprisoned, beaten and resisting – became an iconic recurring motif”

Stuart Hall (2006) “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,’ History Workshop Journal (HWJ), Vol. 61(1), p. 17 (cited by Eddie Chambers in Roots and Culture, 2017, p. 201)

Introduction

I was very pleased to view the exhibition The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017) during its closing weeks, and spend time engaging with a diverse range of ‘politically aesthetic’ works by artists and collectives prominent in the British Black Art movement of the 1980s.

Curated by Nick Aikens and Sam Thorne, in collaboration with Nicola Guy and a number of consultant artists who were central to the period in focus, the exhibition provided a rare opportunity to see c. 100 artworks covering a range of genres, media and artistic practices by 30 of the most celebrated artists from the UK’s African, Caribbean and South Asian diaspora communities assembled together in one space.

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Poster advertising the Radical Black Art “Working Convention,” held at the Ukaidi Centre in Nottingham, 28 March 1984. Photo: Carol Dixon

Taking as its intellectual departure point the discussions held during the inaugural gathering of the First National Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton (1982), and a second “working convention” held in Nottingham in 1984, the curators and contributing artists presented an art-historical and art-political ‘montage’ of works that exemplified how contemporary visual artists, academics, arts activists, cultural commentators, and other critical thinkers were responding to questions about the role of “Black Art” – or the “Black Art Movement” (as it later came to be known) – in the late-20th century. In particular, this question was being posed as a way of catalysing and bringing to prominence a powerful, highly visible reaction to the many challenging social, political, economic and cultural issues facing ‘people of colour’ in Britain at that time.

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Archival documents and art-political posters displayed at Nottingham Contemporary to contextualize the artworks from the 1980s shown in the exhibition “The Place is Here.” Photo: Carol Dixon

What was immediately clear from the inclusion of a significant selection of archival materials, political posters, documentary films, campaign literature, and other publications representing the work of grassroots anti-racist and social justice organisations active during that decade, was that the British Black Art movement – like the individual artists themselves – did not ever function solely within the (physical or imagined) borders of the United Kingdom as a nation-state.  On the contrary, this movement was always conceived by participants active in these struggles as operating within a much broader, more porous, international and diasporic framework of global(ised) activisms, equalities agendas and human rights campaigns. The wider foci for demonstrating solidarity with other Black activists as part of a transnational struggle included: the Civil Rights movement, trades-union activism in the Caribbean region, the collective fight against apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of radical Black feminist/womanist movements worldwide, LGBTQ rights activism, and ongoing efforts to collectivize against and ‘dismantle’ the many remaining structures and systems of colonial oppression dating back to the period of Western European nations’ occidental expansionism and exploitation of the recently independent nations located throughout the Global South(s).

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My walk through the four large display galleries is recreated in this blog post (see below) in the form of a photographic tour, spotlighting a small selection of the contemporary artworks and document assemblages that I considered highly significant and central to the success of this exhibition.
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Women, Feminism, Art and Aesthetic Liberation: Innovative Pedagogies and Practices

Earlier this year as part of my visit to the USA to present at the College Art Association (CAA) annual conference in New York I was pleased to attend the CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts panel session themed around “Feminist Pedagogy through Activist Arts Practices” (New York Hilton, Manhattan, 17 February 2017). During this 90-minute session four arts scholars presented papers examining different manifestations and articulations of feminist liberatory discourse through contemporary visual arts practices. A brief outline of each paper is summarised below, with links to further information about the featured artists, their projects and their portfolios of work, past and present.

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The College Art Association 2017 annual conference panel session organised by the Committee on Women in the Arts and featuring contributions from (L to R): Laura Elizabeth Sapelley and Jennifer Rissler (co-chairs); Aranke Sampada; Ann Fessler; Jessica Cochran; and Samantha Hill. Photo: Carol Dixon

(1) “The Kinship Project: Manifesting Connections to History through African-American Family Narratives” – This illustrated talk was presented by artist, anthropologist and archivist Samantha Hill who discussed an innovative archives-based research project she first developed in the early 2010s and has been touring to selected communities within the USA since that time to specifically empower African-American families to share photographs from their private and personal archives so as to provide fresh insights on what it was like to live in the United States and challenge racisms during the post-enslavement, pre-civil rights period from the mid-to-late-19th century through to the 1950s-60s (see: https://samanthahill.net/kinship-project/).

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Artist, anthropologist and archivist Samantha Hill presenting photographic stills from “The Kinship Project” to delegates at the College Art Association annual conference in New York (17 February, 2017). Photo: Carol Dixon

Continue reading Women, Feminism, Art and Aesthetic Liberation: Innovative Pedagogies and Practices

Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

My recent visit to view the expansive art collections at Brooklyn Museum, located in the Prospect Park area of New York City, provided an interesting  opportunity to peruse and critique a series of complex and engaging artistic and curatorial juxtapositions. On every level of this five storey building the vast collections of exhibits and their interpretation narratives were assembled to encourage dialogues between historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, established and experimental museographic techniques, and also conventional versus innovative perspectives on curation, all coupled together within close proximity throughout the display spaces.

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Detail from the artwork “Skipping Girl” (2009) by Royal Academician Yinka Shonibare MBE, comprising a life-size, headless fibreglass mannequin, dressed in Dutch wax-printed cotton textiles. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

The African Collections on Level 1

Nowhere were these artistic and curatorial binaries more starkly evidenced than in the furthest corner of the Level 1 galleries where two, black walled rooms presented the Museum’s permanent holdings of African art objects as the temporary installation “Double Take: African Innovations.

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Title panel for the temporary, two-room installation, “Double Take” displayed at the entrance to the African galleries in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

Whilst it was wonderful browsing these two, tightly filled galleries, packed almost to bursting point with a diverse array of artworks sourced from several African nations, the thematic nature of curator Kevin Dumouchelle’s presentation – contrasting historical sculptural pieces with a range of more recent, multi-media contemporary art exhibits  – was actually rendered quite problematic by the Museum’s decision to retain the old-fashioned convention of showcasing African collections within dimly lit, darkly painted interior settings, designed to communicate (wittingly, or unwittingly) the tired 19th century tropes about Africa being perceived in the West as a culturally mysterious ‘Dark Continent’ (see, for example, Hutcheon 1995: 11-13 and Elliott 2007: 32).
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Circa 1970, and beyond, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York)

One of the places designated as a ‘must see!’ during my recent trip to the United States was the Studio Museum in Harlem: a site first established in the iconic New York district  in 1968 as a space for ‘artists of colour’ from the USA, the global African diasporas and Latinx heritage communities to (in the words of the current Creative Director and Chief Curator, Thelma Golden)  “share their gifts of provocation and insight.”

At the time of my visit in mid-February 2017 the Studio Museum’s main galleries featured the following four temporary displays and exhibits, arranged on three levels:

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Exhibition view at the entrance to ‘Circa 1970’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Carol Dixon (17 February 2017)

(1) Circa 1970 (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – a wide-ranging display of paintings, photographs and sculptures from the Studio Museum’s permanent collections illustrating the changing expression of African-American and wider African diasporan consciousness and socio-political activism by established and emerging artists during  the years 1970 to 1979. As this period represents significant transitions in black and brown American lived experiences and agency following the civil rights era in the USA, the scope and subject-matter of the artworks was highly reflective of an increasing sense of confidence and assertiveness that came through in sublime portraiture and figurative work by artists such as Beauford Delaney and Romare Bearden, but was equally also revealed in more overtly political works about the history of the Black Panthers, the rise of Black feminism/womanism, and the art-political activism of AfriCOBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). This radical history was depicted in works by a diverse selection of artists: from Elizabeth Catlett-Mora (1915-2012)  and Norman Lewis (1909-1979), whose portfolios commenced during the Harlem Renaissance and concluded in the 1970s; through to former Studio Museum ‘artist-in-residence’ LeRoy Clarke (b. 1938, originally from Trinidad and Tobago), and Chicago-born feminist artist Senga Nengudi (b. 1943) – two avant-gardists who both initiated their most innovative work in the latter years of that pivotal decade.

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Portrait of a Musician (1970) by Beauford Delaney (b. 1901-1979). Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon (February 2017)

(2) The Window and the Breaking of the Window (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – an exhibition of hard-hitting typographic paintings, street photography and photo-portraiture documenting the history of public protests within African-American communities. The texts and images presented in the gallery reflected decades of documentation about how black communities in the USA, and African diasporans in the wider West, have risen up and spoken out with a strong collective voice against long-standing racialised injustices, acts of discrimination and cycles of violence meted out by police and other public officials whose unjust and biased policies and practices have blighted black lives throughout the African diaspora(s) for generations. Acts of protest and statements of resistance and resilience presented in works by (among others) Chris Ofili, Deborah Grant, Rudy Shepherd and Kerry James Marshall were some of the most powerful and provocative pieces in this bold, forthright and affirming display. Continue reading Circa 1970, and beyond, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York)