African Art in London

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Fatoumata Kandé Senghor @ South London Gallery

Fatoumata Kandé Senghor

Coming up this Wednesday is the next installment of South London Gallery’s ‘Contemporary Africa on Screen‘ season – they’re screening Man Kenenki (Me, The Other), by Senegalese artist and feminist activist Fatoumata Kandé Senghor. The film explores ideas of belonging, identity and community, through the story of two brothers who travel between Senegal and America, and is followed by a discussion with the artist.

Wednesday 2nd March, 7pm, FREE

South London Gallery
65 Peckham Road, London

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Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc / Sarah Maldoror @ Gasworks

Still from the film shoot of Guns for Banta (1970) - Sarah Maldoror

Foreword to Guns for Banta is an exhibition in London by an artist from French Guiana who lives in Paris about a film set in Guinea-Bissau by a French filmmaker originally from Guadeloupe who studied in the Soviet Union that never got made. Right.

Tempting though it might be to give up when confronted with such a tangle, it’s worth persevering a bit, if only because the show promises to explore the ‘afterlife of the militant image’, which sounds interesting. What kinds of images are militant? Do we need militant images these days, and if so, where? How can they have afterlives? Can they be stolen, or borrowed, or re-purposed?

The project really falls into two parts. The first part is a film by Guadeloupean filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, Guns for Banta (1970), which never made it out of the editing suite. Maldoror studied film in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and on her return to Africa, spent much of the 1960s living in Algeria and working on films like Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and her own Monangambee (1970). Shortly afterwards, she received funding from the Algerian government to make Guns for Banta, and shot footage in Guinea-Bissau, in the midst of the independence struggle against the Portuguese authorities. But when Maldoror demanded full control over the editing, support was withdrawn and the film reels confiscated. They have never been recovered, and all that remains of the film are photographs taken on the shoot, and the memories of the director.

Which leads us to the second part of the story –  French-Guianese artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, and his show Foreword to Guns for Banta (2010), which opens at Gasworks on Friday. Through a combination of archival research, interviews with Maldoror, a diaporama, public screenings and events, Abonnenc revisits the story of Guns for Banta, unearthing the convoluted history of anti-colonial struggles in West Africa that inspired Maldoror’s film and ultimately brought about its demise. The artist’s aim is to think about how we can reanimate the spirit of the 60’s liberation movements in Africa – a timely goal, given recent and current events.

As always at Gasworks, there’s a programme of accompanying events, which provide an opportunity to see some of Maldoror’s completed films on the big screen and ask her questions at the following Q&A, as well as a chance to find out more about Maldoror and her African filmmaking peers in the Soviet Union. More info can be found here.

The show continues until 17th April.

Opening hours:
Wed-Sun, 12-6

155 Vauxhall Street, London
SE11 5RH


Frédéric Bruly Bouabré @ Tate Modern

From the series 'Signes relevés sur des oranges' or 'Readings from Signs Observed in Oranges' (1991) - Frédéric Bruly Bouabré

It takes someone quite particular to make 48 near-identical ballpoint pen drawings of ‘divine signs’ found on pieces of orange peel. When you consider that the same artist has also made 70 drawings of signs revealed by cola nuts, and a similar series about clouds, you could be forgiven for worrying a little. In fact, these works, currently on view in Tate Modern’s ‘Poetry and Dream’ section, are just the tip of the iceberg. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s oeuvre also includes a ‘museum’ of 162 African faces, 448 pictograms setting out an alphabet for recording his native Bété and other languages, a fantastic series depicting diplomats from every one of the world’s 193 countries, and ‘Publicités’, which covers such items as Ralph Lauren shoes and Starbucks coffee. Put together, these and other works form the impressively titled ‘Connaissance du Monde’ (‘Knowledge of the World’), the artist’s collected creative output, which he has been working on since 1977. Some might be intimidated by the scale of this project, but not Bouabré, who doggedly continues to jot things down that interest and amuse him, and all in an exceedingly orderly fashion. Presumably he will continue until he decides that he knows everything (or at least everything worth drawing about), or fate decides that he knows enough – whichever comes first.

Bouabré was born in the village of Zéprégüé, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1923, and worked as a civil servant for the French colonial authorities, later the Republic of Ivory Coast. His life was transformed on 11th March, 1948, when he had a transcendental experience: “From the moment when the heavens opened to my eyes and seven coloured suns drew a circle of beauty around their mother sun, I became Cheik Nadro, the man who never forgets…” This inability or refusal to forget anything has informed his artistic practice ever since, and his work reflects a need to catalogue objects, people, places, images, messages and even sounds, all using the same ballpoint pen/coloured pencil, postcard-sized format. It could appear obsessive, but there is something both enchanting and calming about Bouabré’s methodical yet utterly eccentric approach. As an artist, poet, philosopher and folklorist, he explores his immediate surroundings and the wider world with seemingly inexhaustible curiosity and often wry humour, offering up his findings as he goes along.

These days the artist lives and works in Abidjan, the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world, but most of his work has found its way out of Côte d’Ivoire and into the Geneva-based private collection of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi. Bouabré’s rise to international fame came largely thanks to his inclusion in the high-profile 1989 show Magiciens de la Terre at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which sparked solo and group exhibitions around the world for many of the featured artists. The kinds of criticisms levelled at that show – that it exoticised the artists and their work through a kind of neo-primitivist fixation with ‘authenticity’ and ‘mystical’ qualities – could equally be applied to some more recent displays featuring Bouabré’s work, and the Pigozzi collection more generally. According to art historian Olu Oguibe, artists like Bouabré are only popular in the West because ‘they satisfy the longing for fantasies, fetishes and shamanism.’ (If you’re happy to admit that that is indeed what you’re after, there’s still time to go and see this, which includes another Magiciens alumnus, Cyprien Tokoudagba).

For me, though, the presentation at Tate Modern speaks less of these sorts of stereotypes and more of a truly visionary individual, whose way of dealing with the world can intrigue and inspire regardless of the artist’s background or the viewer’s preconceptions. In the context of the wider ‘Poetry and Dream’ collection, sandwiched in between works from big-shot European Surrealists, Pigozzi’s loan takes on a whole new aspect. And lest the visitor nonetheless fall into a neo-primitivist trap, curator Kerryn Greenberg has also included a short film in a nearby cubbyhole, which includes interviews with the man himself and gives an insight into his creative process and universalist outlook, as well as his savvy attitude to the business of being an artist. Asked whether anybody can do it, Bouabré replies: “Yes, but you have to not be ashamed. Even if people laugh, you have to keep on dancing, and people will applaud you at the end.”

The show continues until 27th March.

Opening hours:
Sun–Thurs, 10-6
Fri-Sat, 10–10

Poetry and Dream, Room 4, Level Three, Tate Modern
Bankside, London


Elsbeth Court @ British Museum

Drop in to the British Museum tomorrow for a short talk by Elsbeth Court (SOAS) on ‘The African Galleries: A Decade of Progress’. The BM’s Sainsbury galleries contain all kinds of objects, from archaeological finds to contemporary sculpture and textiles, and it’s interesting to see these juxtaposed in one space. Elsbeth’s talk should illuminate some of the thinking behind this decision which sets the Sainsbury galleries apart from the rest of the BM.

Saturday 12th February, 13.15

Room 25
British Museum

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Charles Sekano: The House of Women @ Ed Cross

Charles Sekano (2009)

In a new show opening tomorrow night at Ed Cross, South African painter and musician Charles Sekano continues his exploration of loss and womanhood with a series of canvases entitled ‘House of Women’.

Exiled from his native South Africa in his early twenties as a result of apartheid, Sekano lived and painted in Nairobi until his return to a newly liberated SA in 1997. Reflecting on his years in exile and the artistic practice they inspired, Sekano once said, “This Woman theme is my landscape. The only piece of property I own. Woman is the only country I have.”

Private View: 10th February, 6.30-9.30

Opening hours:
11-18 Feb
Mon-Sat, 11-5

and then by appointment until 31st March.

Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd
5 Talbot Road, Notting Hill, London
W2 5JE

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Christian Lutz: Tropical Gift @ HOST Gallery

Christian Lutz (2010)


What does oil wealth look like?

That’s the question Christian Lutz sets out to answer in Tropical Gift, the latest exhibition at the excellent HOST Gallery near Old Street. Following three visits to Nigeria in 2009 and 2010, the Swiss photographer has put together a striking collection of images documenting the obscene contradictions lying at the heart of the Nigerian oil industry. Moving between worlds, Lutz captures luxurious private beach clubs, business meetings and swanky SUVs, while simultaneously confronting us with the impoverished communities, skeletal trees and viscous, polluted waters that are their direct consequence. Prosperity and hardship here are two sides of the same slippery coin; oil seeps into people’s everyday lives, leaving a dark stain across the Niger Delta.

Lutz’s pictures construct a powerful internal dialogue which flits from image to image, weaving half-finished stories and strange juxtapositions into a compelling whole. Large, shiny vehicles glide between frames, while sombre suited businessmen at the Nigerian National Petroleum Company sit fingering their papers and staring into space. At the Lagos Yacht Club, Europeans in evening attire stand amid the debris of their lavish New Year’s Eve celebrations, happily waving sparklers, several dozen tiny flashes in the semi-darkness. Meanwhile, a giant gas flare lights up a thunderous sky over the delta. There are black, glistening pools, fringed by dead or dying vegetation, and crystal-clear private swimming pools, fringed by barbed wire to keep out intruders. For one horrible moment, what looks like a corpse trails awkwardly across some paving stones; closer inspection shows it to be a fallen statue, broken off at the knees, face down, uselessly clutching a sword, the victim of a Joint Task Forces attack on the Gbaramatu Kingdom Palace in 2009.

It’s not hard to think highly of these pictures; with their sinister, muted colours and often unsettling composition, they are a grim report from a grim situation, and create a sense of detached foreboding that probably quite accurately reflects the reaction many viewers will have to the subject matter. This detachment is troubling – it’s far easier to gaze with horrified fascination at snapshots of complacent affluence, environmental destruction and human rights abuses several thousand miles away, than to actually do something about them. Even so, I would not underestimate the significance of a small gallery space showcasing critical work that tackles the intricacies and evils of the oil industry. At a time when larger institutions such as Tate continue to apply a veneer of social acceptability to oil companies by accepting and even celebrating their sponsorship, Lutz’s photographs at HOST offer a glimpse of how things might be done differently.

HOST’s show is supported by Amnesty International, and flyers about their campaign to stop gas flaring can be picked up from the gallery.

You can find out more about Tropical Gift and see images from the series on Lutz’s website, where you can also buy the images in book form.

There are some interesting articles and resources on art and oil at PLATFORM’s website. For info on the Tate sponsorship controversy, see the liberatetate campaign and art not oil, plus interesting debate here and here.

The show continues until 1st March.

Opening hours:
Mon-Fri, 10-6
Sat, 11-4

HOST Gallery
1-5 Honduras Street, London