Imagine you’re walking over Millennium Bridge, on your way to Tate Modern. You’re walking along; you go down the ramp at the end of the bridge, dodge the man trying to sell you caramelised peanuts, cross the forecourt, head towards the glass doors, next to the small gift shop… stop right there. Look to your left. There’s a gallery there. It’s called the Level 2 Gallery. It’s small, and interesting, and free. Go inside.
Contested Terrains is the first annual project arising from Guaranty Trust Bank’s new partnership with Tate, and it sets the bar extremely high. The show features a foursome of talented artists working in Africa in variety of media: Kader Attia (slide show installation), Sammy Baloji (photomontage), Michael MacGarry (sculpture) and Adolphus Opara (photography). Jointly curated by Kerryn Greenberg (Tate) and Jude Anogwih (Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos), this is an African group show with a difference – exactly the sort of thing that you’d hope for from Tate Modern. There’s no questionable attempt to edify the audience, no over-excited claim to be introducing us to anything, and, perhaps most importantly, no curatorial waffle about ‘African creativity’ – the intelligent, subtle and challenging works on show here speak for themselves.
Adolphus Opara’s radiant photographic portraits of Yoruba priests and priestesses hang in the first room. To enter this space is to be scrutinised by a succession of intimidatingly wise and self-possessed individuals, all of whom hold religious objects which act as symbols of their elevated status. Occupying the floor at the centre of this spiritually charged gathering is Michael McGarry’s The Ossuary (2009-2010), a museum case containing a selection of small sculpted ivory objects which at first sight appear somewhat less than sacred: a flick knife, a hypodermic needle, a Mercedes Benz hood ornament. On reflection, however, and under the stern gaze of Opara’s custodian of the ‘deity of all good things’, it’s clear that everyday and luxury consumer goods are, for some, a new kind of religion, inspiring dedicated followings and offering the promise of escape and self-improvement, while sweeping away existing systems of economic and/or spiritual survival. There’s an intriguing contrast between Opara’s insistence on the continued relevance of traditional belief systems, on the one hand, and MacGarry’s more pessimistic take on the experience of modernity in Africa, on the other, which draws attention to the complexities of dividing ‘past’ from ‘present’ in many African contexts.
MacGarry’s most unsettling work appears in the next space, as we move from a disturbed archaeology to an even more disturbed natural history. A stuffed vervet monkey stands perched on four spindly stilts, which on closer inspection appear to be made out of bones, bound to its furry legs with cotton. Its face has been replaced (or perhaps hidden) by a lethally sharp crystal, rendering it expressionless. There’s an ambiguity about this monkey that makes it simultaneously repellent, frightening and an object of pity: is it the sad victim of some misguided experiment, or a menacing, self-modifying proto-cyborg? Its entire body seems so alive with intent that it’s easy to imagine it binding the stilts in place itself. In presenting us with this peculiar creature, a sabotaged mirror-image of our human selves, MacGarry raises the issue of personal and collective responsibility in an ever-changing environment, and questions the extent to which we can manage our own attempts at self-control in the face of overwhelming needs or desires.
After another MacGarry sculpture - Fetish VI (2008), an AK-47 transformed into a bristling power object – we come to Kader Attia’s mesmerising slide show installation, Open your Eyes (2010). On adjacent projections, this work juxtaposes close-ups of repairs to African masks and other objects with before and after photographs of First World War survivors, whose facial injuries were patched up using early cosmetic surgical procedures. The visual parallels between the facial deformities suffered by the soldiers and the masks Attia has selected are striking and disconcerting. In between the archival images, phrases such as ‘aesthetics of the repair’ and ‘utopian body’ flash up, as well as photographs of body modification practices; we are left to reflect on the meaning of ‘disfigurement’, as well as the horror of war, wherever and whenever it is fought.
The final room presents the photomontages of Sammy Baloji, together with two final small pieces from MacGarry, whose work runs like a twisted thread through the whole show. Baloji’s subject here is the history of resource exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in particular the decline of the Gécamines mining company, whose presence has shaped his home region of Katanga since 1906. Mémoire (2006) unflinchingly reveals the catastrophic recent fortunes of the company, through a series of desolate panoramas of industrial decline, upon which the artist has superimposed archival images of officials and labourers from more prosperous times. The colonial officials appear oblivious to the state of their new surroundings, blithely peering at dilapidated old sheds and piles of rusty metal, but the Congolese labourers stare straight out at the viewer, photographic ghosts issuing a warning which comes too late.
In a relatively limited space, Contested Terrains manages to pinpoint and open up an extraordinary number of different avenues, and will certainly reward repeat visits. This is to a large extent due to the strength of the work itself, but credit must also go to the curators, who have successfully brought the artists into dialogue, highlighting parallels and points of tension that might otherwise go unnoticed. MacGarry’s preoccupation with bones finds sorrowful echoes in the skeletal remains of the Lubumbashi mines photographed by Baloji, as well as in Attia’s catalogue of damaged faces; in their different ways, all three remind us of our fragility, but perhaps also resilience, in the face of wider political, cultural and economic forces. This kind of deeper thoughtfulness that can emerge from the relationships between works is the whole point of group shows, but rarely do they succeed to this degree; the artists here have distinct voices, each carefully rooted in their own practice, but their shared concerns are also allowed space to breathe and develop. As the accompanying pamphlet suggests, museums and galleries are just as much ‘contested terrain’ as Africa’s past and present. This show makes the most of this opportunity with great sensitivity, and despite its modest size and inconspicuous location, it deserves all the visitors it can get.
If you can’t make it along to Tate Modern, you can check out some pictures of the show from the BBC here. Or, if you’re lucky enough, you can catch it at CCA Lagos, from 21st January – 3rd March next year.
For more information about the curators and their projects, take a look here.