Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Exhibition view of the metalwork installation “Forgotten’s Tears” (2013), by the Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba (b. Kinshasa, DRC, 1967). Photo: Carol Dixon

During mid-August 2017 I was very pleased to visit the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille to view curator Simon Njami’s thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, paintings, films, sculptures and architectural installations by 30 contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the African diasporas. This spectacular and wide-ranging group show – Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope] (Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, France, 6th April – 3rd September, 2017) – was conceptualised and presented as the second chapter (or, ‘Episode Two’) of a curatorial project that began at the Grande Halle de la Villette in east Paris, and was later transposed and repurposed to fit this alternative setting of a disused freight goods railway terminal on the outskirts of Lille.

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The introductory information panel for the exhibition Afriques Capitales [Capital Africas], curated by Simon Njami, displayed at the entrance to Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille. Photo: Carol Dixon (August 2017)
At its heart, Afriques Capitales presented a series of inter-connected art-political, historical and geographical narratives about the push and pull of migration, the precariousness of trans-national journey-making, and people’s hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges as they strive to secure a better existence and improved life chances for themselves and their loved ones as a result of moving to different locations – and, potentially also, alternative environments assumed to provide increased safety, security, sanctuary and/or new opportunities.

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Detail from the architectural installation “I am Free” / The Minaret (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Since first becoming aware of Simon Njami’s writing and critical analysis of modern and contemporary African art, his editorship of the celebrated art magazine Revue Noire, and his extensive international curatorial practice over the past two decades, I have subsequently followed his progress with keen interest – making regular visits to different exhibition spaces and institutional settings to immerse myself in the stories and assemblages he and his contributing artists generate to provoke new discussions and dialogues about aspects of the universal human condition. All these observations and experiences are, of course, considered and refracted through the complex prism (or ‘optic‘) of colonialism, and its enduring legacies in the present day – reflected upon at the site of the individual (as regards my personal, affective/emotional responses to each artwork); at the level of the nation-state; as a trans-continental conversation between Europe as the site of display, and Africa (including its diasporas) as the creative locus and originating point of departure for these featured exhibits; and also in terms of global discourses about travelling and journey-making to the many elsewheres represented in the featured displays – both near and far; real and imagined.

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“I am Free”/ The Minaret (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

As soon as I walked through the entrance gates at Gare Saint Sauveur and saw the large-scale architectural structure of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s  installation, “I am Free” (2012), I knew I was entering a creative space where the curator had encouraged all the participating visual artists to be bold and expressive on a monumental scale: in other words, giving all the artists and collectives complete licence to think creatively without limits and, in turn, exhort and inspire visiting audiences walking through the exhibition space to respond in kind. In consequence, I required no prompting to run to the top of the temporary staircase erected at both ends of the white-walled, Minaret-like construction to stand on its central platform with my arms outstretched, enacting the declarative statement “I’m Free!” In doing so,  I was also able to imagine that I had become one with the vast, black painted bird’s wings, beautifully and fluidly drawn at either side of the neon lighting, and taken flight into a different realm.

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Calao (2016), by the Malian textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté. The Calao represents a mythical and protective bird that, within the Bambara cultural and spiritual traditions of the past, is believed to carry dead souls to the afterlife. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

I am seldom more satisfied with a gallery visit than on the occasions when you walk into an exhibition space intending to view one thing, and then stumble on something quite unexpected that turns out to be far more interesting than the artwork or display you originally planned to see. The 3rd August 2017 turned out to be one of those days, when my attention and intentions were solely focused on a long-awaited and much-anticipated trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the stunning tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2017).

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Tapestry-based artwork “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014-2017) by Chris Ofili CBE, hand-woven to the artist’s specifications by textile artists from Dovecot Tapestry Studio. The three-panelled artwork was on display at the National Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” curated by Minna Moore Ede (displayed until 28/08/2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The tapestry was based on an original watercolour painted by Chris Ofili CBE, and hand-woven in partnership with a team of textile artists from Dovecot Studios. The resulting panels were then displayed as part of the celebrated exhibition, “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” (Sunley Room, National Gallery, London, 26 April – 28 August 2017).

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Three-panelled watercolour “The Caged Bird’s Song” (2014) by Turner Prize-winning British artist Chris Ofili CBE. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The three-panelled tapestry was, of course, as awe-inspiring as the attached pictures suggest. However, the large number of visitors milling in and out of the Sunley Room precluded any opportunity to spend a long period of time quietly contemplating the  scale, splendour and intricacy of this vibrantly colourful piece at my own leisure.

 

Consequently, I changed tack and headed away to make an impromptu visit to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to spend time browsing new works in the contemporary galleries and the exhibition for the 2017 BP Portrait Award.

2017 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG, London

Among the many beautifully rendered portraits featured in this year’s selection of 53 entries displayed to represent the best of the c. 2,580 entries submitted by artists from 87 countries, the five works that (for different reasons) captured and held my attention were (in no particular order): (1) Corinne, by Anastasia Pollard; (2) Society, by Khushna Sulaman-Butt; (3) Portrait of the artist Jerome Witkin, by David Stanger; (4) Lemn Sissay, by Fiona Graham-Mackay; and (5) Another Fine Day on Elysian Fields Avenue, NOLA, by Eva Csanyi-Hurskin.

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“Corinne”, by Anastasia Pollard. Oil on Board. 255 x 205mm. This painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of the 2017 BP Portrait Award. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The striking portrait of “Corinne” by Anastasia Pollard is actually quite tiny, measuring just 255 x 205mm. However, the captivating beauty of the sitter and the overall balance of the composition made it one of the most arresting images in the entire exhibition. It was also not surprising that “Corinne” was chosen by the NPG as one of the featured images used for a substantial element of the marketing and publicity for this year’s award – featuring on the cover of the catalogue, as well as on one of five large-scale promotional posters for the exhibition. Continue reading Picturing Diversity – The Power of Portraiture

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

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)