African Art in London

London / Art / Africa


Joseph Bertiers @ Fred [London] Ltd

Cats Painting Center (?) - Joseph Bertiers

After a flurry of Africa-related shows last year, Fred [London] is back on the case, this time with an exhibition from Kenyan painter and sculptor Joseph Bertiers. This is the artist’s first European solo show, and comes just weeks after four of his works found their way – via the Art Basel satellite show Volta 7 – into the renowned (if somewhat controversial) collection of one Jean Pigozzi.

Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection is the largest in the world, and works from his hoard get everywhere – even into Tate Modern – so it’s definitely a coup of sorts for Bertiers, and for Fred. But I’m not quite sure how this tallies with Fred’s goal of developing a platform that is ‘not tailored to the concerns of a Western market, but which focuses on the social and political debates engaging African artists today’…  first, is it too much to hope that the Western market and African socio-political issues might, on occasion, come into alignment? (This is not to credit Pigozzi with socio-political awareness, but to try not to tar all collectors and dealers with the same brush; in some ways, it’s getting more difficult to separate out the ‘African’ and ‘Western’ markets anyhow…) Second, what happens if, having distanced yourself from what you consider to be the Western market, that market’s top buyer (a.k.a. Pigozzi) turns up and declares his intention to buy work from you? ‘A sale’ (or four) is clearly the answer, and understandably so, but where does this leave the gallery’s well-intentioned emphasis on Africa-centred business and curatorial practice? This is not the place to rehearse the well-documented reservations many people have with Pigozzi’s ‘neo-primitivist’ approach, but it’d be interesting to hear the gallery’s response to some of the tensions raised here.

Anyway, art world politics aside, it’s great to see Bertiers making strides after his recent run of bad luck, and I look forward to investigating his Brueghel-esque canvases up at Vyner Street soon.

1st Sept – 9th Oct

Opening hours:
Weds-Sun, 12-6
or by appointment

Fred [London] Ltd
45 Vyner Street, London
E2 9DQ

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From Facebook to Nassbook @ Mica Gallery

(untitled) - Amina El Oteify

What do artists do when there’s a revolution going on? Carry on making art, is the resounding reply from Mica Gallery and the artists in its current show, From Facebook to Nassbook. The exhibition includes contributions from nine contemporary artists working in Egypt, whose practice responds to the dramatic political and social upheavals of the Arab Spring. With a particular focus on Cairo, much of their work emphasises the everyday lived experience of urban political unrest – a welcome and appropriate intervention from street-level at a time when the balance of power is, well, in the balance.

The show was part of the recent Shubbak Festival, and continues until 8th September. You can read more about it here.

Opening hours:
Mon-Fri, 10-6
Sat, 11-6
(by appointment only – call (0)20 7730 1117)

Mica Gallery
Studio 2, 1st floor, 259A Pavilion Road, London


What future for the Africa Centre?

David Adjaye's plan for the Africa Centre

Last Friday, the Guardian reported that the architect David Adjaye has delivered a refurbishment plan for the Africa Centre, aimed at bringing the building back into use. His design comes after a controversial decision from the centre’s Trustees earlier in the year, in which they outlined their intention to sell the leasehold to the current building at 38 King Street in Covent Garden, and relocate to more affordable premises.

Following its heyday as an artistic and social hub in the 1960s and 1970s, when it played host to the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and countless other cultural and political luminaries, the Africa Centre has fallen into a state of disrepair. It’s not only the sorry state of the building that has caused widespread concern; for many people, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Trustees’ decision to sell without adequate public consultation reflects a wider lack of transparency in the governance of the Centre.

A campaign has been set up reinvigorate the Africa Centre in its current premises, including a petition and an opportunity to donate – details here.

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Woyzeck on the Highveld @ Barbican

Woyzeck on the Highveld

South African artist William Kentridge designed and directed the original version of Woyzeck on the Highveld in 1992, and now it’s back, in a new revival version directed by Luc de Wit. The show is based on Georg Büchner’s 19th-century play about a young soldier and his struggles with poverty, exploitation and jealousy, but Kentridge’s adaptation transposes the action to 1950s Johannesburg. The story is told through the masterful puppetry skills of the Handspring Puppet Company (recently seen in London in War Horse and Or You Could Kiss Me), together with Kentridge’s deservedly celebrated animated films.

Woyzeck on the Highveld is on at the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican Centre from 6th-10th September, and tickets cost from £18-£22 – further details here. After London, the show tours to various other theatres around the UK – details here.


Review: Contested Terrains @ Tate Modern

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.

Orisa Egbe Deity of Destiny (Mrs Osun Yita) from 'Emissaries of an Iconic Religion' (2009) - Adolphus Opara

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.

Untitled 17 (2006) - Sammy Baloji

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.


Review: Queer Africa @ South London Gallery

There are many great things about living in south-east London: the delicious and affordable neighbourhood cafés and restaurants; the thriving art scene; the comparatively calm atmosphere. Combining all of these virtues with aplomb is Peckham’s finest, the South London Gallery. I’ll happily admit that the first time I went there, I didn’t look at any art at all. I was too busy looking at (and then eating) the kind of lunch you always hope for but don’t often find: tasty home-made soup and fresh bread followed by a succulent raspberry frangipane tart, the latter a happy accident that the chef had concocted from ‘stuff he had lying around’. The coffee’s great too, and as for the cake…

Anyway. Last Friday night saw me back there (the gallery, not the café) for Queer Africa, the last instalment of a series entitled Contemporary Africa on Screen. Having sadly missed some of the previous interesting events in the programme, I was pleased to make it along for this one, which featured a double bill of documentaries, from Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo and from South African visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi. Held in the Clore Studio and introduced by art critic and doctoral student Natasha Bissonauth of Cornell University, this intimate screening was never going to attract a huge audience – putting something queer and African together with a vaguely academic context on a Friday night is brave to say the least – but this is London, after all, and a healthy number of viewers gradually trickled in.

Up first, Esiebo’s short film Living Queer African (Paris, 2007) was a touching portrait of Rene, a young Cameroonian studying in France, and trying to reconcile his life as a gay man with the hostile reaction of his family and others to his sexuality. Esiebo carefully navigates the murky area between personal experience and cultural trends; the voiceover is all directly from Rene himself, focusing on his own story, and the film steers clear of making broader claims. But it does touch on some controversial and important subjects, such as the relationship between sexuality and religious belief, and the notion that homosexuality is ‘un-African’. You can watch the film and find out more about the artist here.

Zinzi and Tozama (2010) - Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi’s fantastic film Difficult Love (2010) opens up many of the same issues in more depth, but with the extra emotional impact that a longer and more complex picture can achieve. Cutting between critical commentators, the frank and intelligent artist, and her photographic subjects (or, as she might prefer to call them, collaborators), Difficult Love explores the many challenges of being a black lesbian in South Africa today. In a cultural context where gay black women are often seen as needing ‘correction’, it’s not surprising that there are many shocking and brutal moments. The first-hand account given by a woman who was raped because of her sexuality, her face still horribly bruised and swollen, is especially heartbreaking. The film is not wholly depressing, however; there are flashes of determination and even humour, and what really comes across is the tenderness between couples who find love and laughter together even in seemingly impossible circumstances. It’s tough viewing, but I can’t recommend Difficult Love highly enough – you can watch it here.

Finally – a word on the Q&A. After a short response to the films from Bissonauth, there was a brief discussion, mostly about the need for more opportunities to view these films and others like them, the difficulties of getting the word out to appropriate audiences, and indeed, what makes an appropriate audience. From a quick survey of the people who turned up, as well as from their questions, it seemed to be the ‘queer’ part of the event title that had really drawn them in, perhaps more so than the ‘Africa’ part. One man raised the possibility of promoting and even screening the films in venues popular with black gay people, who were, in his view, the audience who most needed to see the films.

His point is an important one – alternative, targeted screening venues could be a great way of getting the films more exposure among specific communities who might not ordinarily visit somewhere like the SLG. But for me, this means that the films also really need to reach people who aren’t necessarily active in LGBT circles. After all, even though these works may well act as a support and an inspiration for queer Africans, it’s not queer Africans who have the problem; it’s the people they encounter in their everyday lives who refuse to accept them. Preaching to the converted is always going to be a difficulty for events like these, and it’s hard to know how to broaden their appeal, but it’s something to think about for places like the SLG, where this kind of ambitious programming is an ongoing challenge and an opportunity. It’d be nice to see bigger and more diverse audiences coming together to appreciate films like this for what they are – brilliant work, with vital messages for us all.