Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories (Florence, Italy, 28-31 May 2015) is the sixth in a series of highly successful conferences staged by New York University (NYU) in collaboration with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research.
“This conference will bring together artists and scholars from an assortment of disciplines and practices… and will offer comparative perspectives on the historical and contemporary role played by photography, art, film, literature, and music in referencing the image of the black body in the West. In this context, “Black Portraitures II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories,” will explore the impulses, ideas, and techniques undergirding the production of self-representation and desire, and the exchange of the gaze from the 19th century to the present day in fashion, film, art, and the archives.
“It is a site of dreams, where dreams encounter each other and become a single body. However, on the level of our own experience of that urban environment, once one plunges into the life of the city and participates in it, it inevitably diversifies and becomes multiple.”
– Extract from an interview with Vincent Lombume Kalimasi (February, 2004). Source: Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (2004: 260)
When Congolese writer Vincent Lombume Kalimasi said these words more than a decade ago he was celebrating the creative vibrancy of city life with specific reference to his place of birth, Kinshasa – a ‘site of dreams’ that has grown in significance over several decades to become one of the most important centres for contemporary visual arts on the African continent, as regularly illustrated in the futuristic cityscapes of Congolese sculptor and installationist Bodys Isek Kingelez.
My awareness and appreciation of Kinshasa’s importance as a hub for creativity and innovation was initially sparked as a result of travelling to Paris in the summer of 2005 to see Simon Njami’s survey exhibition of contemporary African art – Africa Remix. L’art contemporain d’un continent (Centre Georges Pompidou, 2005) – where I noticed that more than 10% of the artists displaying work in Paris at that time had connections (either by birth, family or residence) to the DRC’s capital city.
The most high-profile of the Kinois men and women selected by Njami to present work at the Pompidou that year included the afore-mentioned Bodys Isek Kingelez (shown left), pop artist Chéri Samba (see here) and his fellow visual satirist Joseph Kinkonda (known internationally as Chéri-Cherin).
In addition to these established figures, some emerging new talents from a more recent generation of Kinshasa-born contemporary artists were also given an opportunity to make their mark on this global stage – specifically, the conceptual artist Francis Pume (shown below) and the video installationist, photographer and performance artist Michèle Magema (shown right).
Earlier this year an article by Tom Devriendt was posted to the online discussion forum ‘Africa is a Country’to commemorate the life and work of French filmmaker Alain Resnais (1922-2014), who passed away on 1st March (Devriendt, 2014). The central focus of this piece was to celebrate the achievements of Resnais and his co-director Chris Marker (1921-2012) in creating a ground-breaking film from the early 1950s about African art and French racism, Statues Also Die [Les statues meurent aussi] (Resnais and Marker, 1953) – commissioned and produced by the Parisian-based publishing house Présence Africaine. What is interesting about the film is the way it features a complex mixture of commentary on French museum practices from the 1950s, the history of French colonialism in Africa, and the public’s changing attitudes in the mid-20th century towards African art – referred to throughout the documentary as ‘black art’.
Yinka Shonibare’s Jardin d’amour [Garden of Love] (2007) was the second – and most high-profile thus far – of the single-artist installations staged during the Quai Branly museum’s early programming history. The artwork consisted of a labyrinthine, reconstructed 18th century Rococo-styled ornamental French garden arranged as three secluded enclosures in which different thematic tableaux were staged.
Each of the main display areas were separated by shrub-covered trellis, tightly bound reed-screen fences, privets, climbing plants and artificial rose bushes that served as foliage-covered boundary walls around the entire exhibition. The three interiors comprised groups of Shonibare’s signature life-sized headless mannequins, dressed in Dutch-waxed, patterned cotton textiles, and with beige tinted limbs, perhaps so as to make the ethnic origin of the characters they represented ambiguous and indeterminable: neither African, Asian, European, Australasian nor American in origin, but perhaps instead an intentionally hybrid representation of all humankind. From the titles given to each tableau – « La poursuite » (‘The Pursuit’), « l’amant couronné » (‘The Crowned Lover’) , and « les lettres d’amour » (‘Love Letters’) – the installation echoed and evoked the settings featured in three 18th century oil paintings by the French artist Jean Honoré Fragonard, collectively titled Les Progrès de l’amour [The Progress of Love], and painted between 1771 and 1773 (Müller, 2007b: para. 9).
Anyone who saw the Guardian’s recent Edinburgh Festival review of Brett Bailey’s controversial installation ‘Exhibit B’ – featuring African men and women sitting inside cages, with labels stating “The blacks have been fed”, and others chained to chairs and beds in equally dehumanizing poses (seemingly to challenge audiences to reflect on the brutalities of European racism throughout the colonial era, and to specifically critique the violent practices and enduring legacies of the 19th century “human zoos”) – might be interested in the online petition that has been established to oppose and boycott its forthcoming display at the Barbican Centre in London (23rd – 27th September 2014).