Thursday, January 24, 2008

Archive Fever at the ICP, New York

Okwui Enwezor, center right; Francesco Bonami, right; at the
Patrons' opening of Archive Fever (Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, Okwui Enwezor's latest exhibition at the International Photography Center, New York is one quietly powerful show, its unique installation darkly elegant. You descend the stairway into the show and is confronted with a sight that stokes your curiosity: the gallery is covered with raw plywood, of the type used for crating stuff, and your left is Andy Warhol's silk-screened Race Riot from the early 1960s and right in front is Robert Morris' also silk-screened, even more disturbing image of a dead woman in a state of undress, framed with a black baroque frame. And then the show draws you in through its labyrinthine course, the walls changing from the plywood orchre to dark grey, framing an assortment of work, from Lorna Simpson to Sherrie Levine, to Fazal Sheikh's "Victor Weeps: Afghanistan photographs (the next day, my 29 month-old son, Arinze, on seeing the NY Times review image of the iconic Sheikh photo of a wrinkled hand with slender hands in which is placed an old passport photo of a turbaned old, possibly blind, man, screamed "museum!").

Okwui with State College (PA) artist Christopher Campbell; on the floor,
Felix Gonzalez-Torres' printed photos of Americans killed by gun violence (for takeaway)
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

The largest installation is perhaps Hans-Peter Feldman's room filled with front pages of newspapers from around the world reporting the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Naturally, I scanned the room immediately for African representation! Well, there on the back central wall is the page of The Guardian of Lagos. This show, like so many of Okwui's projects makes you wonder why, despite the profound presence of archival material in the work of contemporary artists, no one thought of this show before now. Archive Fever is a strangely intimate show. The relatively small scale of the works gives it the feel of a rigorously organized university museum show, the kind of show that you rarely see in the "big" venues these days.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Anatsui's Zebra Crossing at Jack Shainman

El Anatsui, Bleeding Takari Shirt II, 2007
(Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Last Thursday, I visited El Anatsui's exhibition, Zebra Crossing at Jack Shainman in Chelsea, NY, and it became very clear to me that the journey he began several years ago in Nsukka, working in the margins of contemporary art, can no more be ignored by the so-called mainstream (his appearance in the 52nd Venice Biennale and the epochal acquisition of his 2006 work Between Earth and Heavan by the Metropolitan Museum, NY further attest to this). Which is why I completely agree with Ken Johnson's characterization of Anatsui, in the NY Times review of Zebra Crossing, as "an international art star." The significance of Anatsui's work lies in its multivalence, its simultaneous evocation of traditions of African visual cultures--Bleeding Batakari Shirt II, for instance references the ritually potent, protective shirts worn by hunters and warriors, but which now bleeds on account of fatal breach of its security--and its announcement of his invention of particularly new, visually compelling and conceptually polysemous sculptural idiom. He brings to full circle Uche Okeke's proclamation in 1959 of the idea of Natural Synthesis as a critical strategy for contemporary African art. The recent metal sculptures developed from his earlier wood panels in which painterly concerns--whether from the colored tropical woods he worked with, or from the acrylics and tempera he applied to the panels--and interest in texture, mass and volume (from the violent rips of the powersaw, or determined marking of the bandsaw, router or carver's gouge) are seamlessly fused. While in the wood sculptures he breaks with the tradition of African sculpture confined to the vertical orientation of the tree trunk, in the metal pieces he freezes, through a different kind of stitching and weaving, the fluid form of the cloth fabric, thus conflating the rigidity of metal with the dynamic formlessness of cloth. The NY Times reviewer rightly wonders what happens when the novelty of Anatsui's medium and technique wears off, but I think that this question is not Anatsui's alone, but instead is the same problem that has confronted artists since the beginning of the 20th century, from Braque to Pollock, from Judd to Keifer, from Sherman to Shonibare. One thing is sure though; anyone who has followed Anatsui's work, from the carved circular wood panels of the 1970s, to the mysterious pottery of the late 70s and early 80s, from the 3-D wood sculptures and relief wood panels worked with powertools, to the more recent work in various kinds of metals (printer's plates, milkcans, and the better-known bottletops), the question of post-novelty anxiety seems quite irrelevant. For those who know the artist only from his recent metal sculpture, this might be an issue, but that is the critic's problem! Between 1988 and 1991 when I worked with Anatsui as a studio assistant (and yes he was my esteemed teacher in art school and later my colleague at my alma mater, Nsukka), I bore witness to his incredible, restless, imagination; as a critic and enduring student of his work I always wondered when the artworld outside Nigeria would pay serious attention to his work. Finally, the world is listening.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Julie Mehretu's "City Sitings" at The DIA

City Sitings co-curator Becky Hart and Julie
photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Yesterday I had the opportunity of visiting Julie Mehretu's show, City Sitings, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and it was a memorable experience for two reasons. First, the show is simply awesome, with 13 paintings including the splendid Stadia I, II, III (2004), and the stunning 10'x16' 2007 version of her signal work, Black City (she created four new works for the DIA show, which travels to the Williams College Museum of Art this spring and to North Carolina Museum of Art in the fall). Her mastery of the monumental scale in the tradition of modernist work, and her insinuation of perspectival space through multilayering of shapes of color and architectonic lines, her facility with combining gestural drawings that sometimes remind you of the sketches of Leonardo and hard mechanical lines that could have come straight from the Engineer's draftsbook, as well as her incredible synthesis of abstract non-objective imagery and iconic signs make the encounter with her work a breathtaking experience. The viewer becomes like a fazed archaeologist visually peeling through layers of time, marks and symbolisms. Add to that; it is not often these days that you see a painting and wonder about the facture, "how the hell did she do that?"

Second, the fact that you enter the City Sitings galleries through the court where Diego Rivera painted what must rank among the greatest murals ever painted (Detroit Industry, 1932-33), forces you to compare the powerful illustrativity of Rivera, and the poetic abstractions of Mehretu's monumental paintings, and I must say that the younger artist comes out looking really good whereas most contemporary artists' work would have been mauled, squashed, asphyxiated by proximity to the muscular power of Rivera mural. As a young artist in Nigeria years ago, I admired Rivera's mural (which I had seen only in reproduction) and even was influenced by it when I was commissioned to paint a mural at the Science and Technology Center at the University of Nigeria. To finally see the real thing was almost like a religious experience. And to step from the Rivera Court into Mehretu's show was, how shall I put it, pure phenomenological drama.

Khartoum Joint Art Workshop

A Joint Art Workshop on video and multi-media art organized by Together Art Center, Khartoum, and Salah Hassan, Professor and Director of Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center takes place January 8-12 at the Art Center. Led by rising Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy and the well-known Ethiopian film maker and media artist Salem Mekuria, participants will include 15 young Sudanese artists selected from respondents to an open call. Established in 2005, Together Art Center, directed by the ceramist and graphic designer Wisal Dia El Din, fosters artistic exchange between local Sudanese artists and the global art world.

This workshop is indicative of the possibilities of collaborative work between individuals and organizations inside and outside the African continent. Until recently only the foreign cultural centers--like the German Cultural Center that has for instance sponsored workshops by the Germany-based artists Emeka Udemba in Nigeria, and Ingrid Mwangi in Nairobi--sponsored these kinds of programs, apart from the influential Triangle Workshops, while state owned institutions remain uninterested in or incapable of engaging in or supporting such events. One of the many tragedies of postcolonial Africa has been the criminal indifference of the state in fostering growth of a dynamic contemporary art and culture through establishment and support of basic institutions and infrastructures of contemporary art, and this is majorly responsible for the morbid insularity of discourse and practice of contemporary art in many parts of the continent. Which is why recent private initiatives, such as Abdellah Haroum's L'Appartement 22 in Rabat, Bisi Silva's new Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, and Wisal Dia El Din's Together Art Center, and the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo among others hold the best prospects for providing contemporary artists in the continent the much needed opportunities to network and interact with their counterparts from elsewhere and to keep in touch with developments in contemporary art. My hope though is that this collaboration between Together Art Center and Salah Hassan is not a one-time affair, but instead one that will continue into the future, hopefully--here I am just dreaming while awake--when Hassan's Center for Comparative Modernities takes off fully at Cornell.