While Tony Blair vies with Gordon Brown for the title of saviour of Africa, this exhibition shows us Africa as it really is. It is ‘the largest exhibition of contemporary African art ever seen in Europe’, the guide informs us, and ‘rather than a comprehensive survey, the exhibition is an anthology’.
There are thus both many depictions of the pain and suffering familiar from charity appeals, but also of the will to overcome these and their causes in colonialism and the present-day ravages of neoliberalism. A photograph of a little, shoeless girl in a tattered shirt expresses all this: she looks you in the eyes as if to say, ‘I’m glad to be alive. How about you?’
One reviewer in a hurry writes off all the photos as ‘dreary clichés’. But if the little girl does look familiar, then temporary installations of brooms and shovels by road workers and wayside kitchens of metal sheets and other odds and ends display a freshness and vigour that contrast favourably with the glass and concrete monotony of many western cities.
At the other extreme, African artists living in industrialised countries employ more sophisticated techniques. Sometimes the result is no different from what the natives of these countries produce and seems to me the weakest component of the exhibition.
One item, though, does stand out – a model of a French Mediterranean town in the distant future. It is by Bodys Isek Kingelez, who often visits France, but actually lives in the Congolese capital Kinshasa. Semi-transparent plastic towers, like standing pencils, flank a variety of stepped and terraced buildings, and also two coke cans recycled into an ecological unit. Broad boulevards are lined with cypresses. There’s one thing missing from this dream city though – people.
Other dreams are more human. Barthélémy Toguo draws greenish transparent limbs or body parts, with metal nails protruding here and there, and plants growing from the head or body openings, or in one case liquid spraying out onto a pair of copulating dogs. This is intended to celebrate the human body, but for me it also seemed to evoke mortality, as in the lines: ‘The grass has abandoned the soil and sprouts triumphantly from her very feet… Insects sing in and out of her armpits’ (from Nehanda, by the Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera).
As in much British and Irish folk music, death is never far away. This is seen starkly in a figure that is not only surrounded by guns and bombs, but is itself made of them. A more insidious reminder comes from Ingrid Mwangi’s Down by the River 2001: a screen shows a head bobbing in blood-red water. The floor below is strewn with a rusty powder under a long text in which the words ‘blood’ and ‘river’ frequently occur. This powerfully reminded me of Enoch Powell’s racist ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, a complete mockery of the real situation, as the recent revelations of British atrocities in Kenya in the 1950s have shown once more.
There are several overtly political exhibits, from one that recalls the middle way between capitalism and communism, proposed by the 1955 Bandung conference of neutral countries, to the hugely humorous Great American Nude 2002 by Hassan Musa. A stripey backcloth frames a male nude lying with legs apart and tender buttocks in the air. Below his left leg there’s a big bloody blob. He leans on his elbows over an unstriped cloth with miniature stars and stripes and motorbikes, and we gaze into the eyes of Osama Bin Laden.
Finally, Chéri Samba’s Le Monde Vomissant shows Africa and Europe on an orange globe, from which an African woman’s head projects and vomits guns, a tank and the American continent.
This is only a small personal selection from an inspiring exhibition. I was greatly helped in appreciating it by the many insights of an African comrade, Florence Durrant.
Remaining true to Egypt’s revolution
A photo book that captures a fashion revolution
Shadow of #MeToo hangs over new BBC thriller
A great choreographer who challenged bigotry