After reading Sean O’Hagan’s thought-provoking preview of the ‘Return of the Rudeboy’exhibition at Somerset House in London – titled, ‘Rude Boys: Shanty Town to SavileRow’ (The Guardian/Observer, 24th May 2014) – I placed this event quite high on my list of top 10 “must see” summer showcases, and managed to get along to view it several months later at the start of its closing week on 18th August.
O’Hagan’s article led me to assume the exhibition would be a largely superficial photographic and soundtrack-based audio-visual presentation about the cultural aesthetics of ‘Rudeboy’ (or ‘Rudie’) fashion. It gave the impression that Return of the Rudeboy would be rich in contemporary illustrative content about people whose fashion today echoes the types of clothing trends and styling associated with the ska music genre in Britain from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. But at the same time (reading through the lines) it also implied that the exhibition would be quite limited in its documented historical and socio-cultural contextualisation about the Caribbean origins, hybridisation and changing identity politics of ska, ‘Rudie’ and ‘2-Tone’ subcultures spanning those decades.
In reality, however, the exhibition proved to be much more complex, layered and rounded than had been described in the Guardian/Observer piece – for several reasons:
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).
The triptych, Quel Avenir Pour Notre Art?[What Future for Our Art?] (1997) by Congolese pop artist Chéri Samba (b. 1956) presents visual and textual representations of three significant stages in the artist’s life and career. Painted in acrylics in Samba’s characteristic comic strip style he combines self-portraiture, symbolic imagery and textual narratives to pose questions and offer personal perspectives about the history and politics of African art. This work is highly significant in terms of its content and its provenance because the scenes serve as a visual metaphor for the themes that lie at the heart of my doctoral research relating to the ‘othering’ of Africa within Western museums and galleries.
In the first painting Samba depicts himself and Pablo Picasso seated at separate tables, with the latter positioned in the foreground holding a pencil in his right hand next to an empty table covered with a geometrically patterned blue cloth, and the artist seated at the rear table which has four objects assembled on its florally decorated yellow cloth: two masks, a log of wood and a terracotta pot. The white text written above the scene questions the future of ‘our art’ in a world where artists are oppressed and also where, in order to gain international recognition in the art world, they (presumably Samba’s fellow Congolese artists, if not all artists of African descent, or from other areas of the francophone Global South) first have to be accepted in France. The statement closes with the question, ‘Isn’t the museum of modern art racist???’