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Session:Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change
High-profile museums and galleries in the West – such as the British Museum in London, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMA in New York – are continuously revising and developing new strategic plans to ensure that their collections, cultural programmes and exhibiting practices are engaging increasingly diverse global audiences. At the heart of these developments are complex issues about the changing nature of acquisitioning, curation, display and interpretation of artworks and cultural objects described as permanent holdings. The policies and practices implemented by these institutions serve as catalysts for generating and sustaining a rich discourse that invites artists, researchers, curators, archivists, educators, scholar activists and other creative practitioners to question their own roles and responsibilities within such dynamic museumscapes.
“Senses of Time” is a series of films and video-based contemporary artworks by six artists from the global African diasporas. In each case the contributors invite their audiences to consider the various tensions, contradictions and ambiguities that can exist between personal and political time, ritual and technological time, and corporeal and mechanical temporalities.
The following six film and video-based installations feature as part of a new touring exhibition, organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC:
Sammy Baloji‘s project “Mémoire” [“Memory”] examines the themes of memory and forgetting and is set within the socio-political context of postcolonial de-industrialisation. For much of the film, a dancer (the renowned Congolese dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula) can be seen dancing amongst ruins. Baloji states that the 5-minute film is meant to symbolise:
“…the story of politicians and the working classes…of those in power and the work of those who are governed. It is also the story of a body that moves among the ruins of what was once the heart of the DR Congo.”
– Sammy Baloji (cited by Milbourne et. al. 2015: 78)
Theo Eshetu‘s film features a kaleidoscopic art installation that examines the convergence of space and time in relation to the past, present and future.
Moataz Nasr’s work “The Water” focuses on identities distorted by the march of time.
Berni Searle‘s artistic ccontribution features ancestral family portraits being blown about in the wind as a way of representing the “slippages and fragility of time” aligned with issues of identity.
The film “Un Ballo in Maschera” by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) features a lavish and ornately decorative ballroom scene with masked dancers dressed in the signature ‘Dutch-wax’ patterned fabrics that have become a major feature of his conceptual and performance-based art installations over several decades.
Sue Williamson‘s artwork – a 36-minute video projection, titled “There’s Something I Must Tell You ” – considers inter-generational dialogues.
As I stood in front of Jelena Bulajic’s large-scale portrait of Alise Lange (2013) mesmerised by the network of fine wrinkles covering her face, my momentary thoughts merged with memories of another contemporary artwork that came back to mind in sharp focus – the image of Lubaina Himid’s topological art map, Thin Black Line(s) (2011).
In Bulajic’s work, her mixed-media artistic cartography of facial lines signified one elderly woman’s life history over several decades, and also served to illustrate the wider curatorial context to the London-based international group show of works by 14 women artists within which it was being shown – Champagne Life(Saatchi Gallery, London, 13 January – 9 March 2016). Although very different in its composition, Lubaina Himid’s artwork also mapped out women’s lives. However, rather than creating a close-up image of one woman to symbolise the complexities of our universal human condition, she chose instead to map diverse cultural and socio-political connections between several black British female artists from the UK’s African and Asian diasporas as a network diagram similar in appearance to Harry Beck’s topological map of the London Underground.
Earlier this month I went to Germany to undertake gallery-based research at the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt and spent time reviewing the temporary exhibition, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics (5 March-10 October, 2015).
This detailed retrospective about the life and work of internationally renowned Senegalese artist-curator and activist El Hadji Sy (b. 1954, Dakar) features a series of thematic assemblages comprising carefully selected historical objects from the Weltkulturen Museum’s extensive ethnographic collections juxtaposed with a range of contemporary paintings and installations created by El Hadji Sy and a number of fellow Senegalese artists dating from the early 1970s through to the present day.
El Hadji Sy’s association with the Weltkulturen Museum can be traced back to 1985 when he was first commissioned by the then director of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), Franz Josef Thiel, to curate a collection of contemporary paintings by Senegalese scholars affiliated to fine arts schools such as the École de Dakar, as well as works by self-taught artists. This curatorial activity was later accompanied by a published anthology of contemporary arts practice in Senegal co-edited with German education scholar and art patron Friedrich Axt (Axt and Sy 1989). Their professional partnership, which began when both lived in Dakar, led to a long friendship, transnational correspondences over many decades and numerous collaborations on international arts initiatives that lasted until Axt’s death in 2010.
Presented in 13 rooms over two floors of display space the exhibition is illustrative of the way El Hadji Sy’s curatorial “alchemy of assemblages” communicate on several discursive levels: as a series of spatial and temporal conversations between the artist and staff at the Weltkulturen Museum; between objects and texts from the past and the present positioned in museum space; between Senegal and Germany at the level of transnational arts policy and exhibiting practices; and between Africa and Europe with regard to globalised, cross-cultural and geopolitical discourses. Continue reading El Hadji Sy’s ‘alchemy of assemblages’ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt
Curator, writer and art critic Simon Njami will be giving a keynote lecture on 17th February 2015 to launch a series of events at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry to accompany his current exhibition WIR SIND ALLE BERLINER: 1884-2014 – A Commemoration of the Berlin Congo Conference (on display at SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin until 28th February 2015).
The content of the exhibition and the focus of its associated programme of talks, workshops, concerts and film screenings features reflections on 130 years since the (so called) “Scramble for Africa” Berlin Conference took place in 1884. The contributing artists and academics seek to facilitate a conversation that provokes audiences to consider the many complex ideological, economic, political, geographical and socio-cultural repercussions of this historical event through their various aesthetic responses.