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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Environment and Object: Recent African Art at the Tang Teaching Museum

Yinka Shonibare - Black Gold I
It can be easy to do if you live nearby, but please don't take Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum for granted. While other local museums regularly present wonderful exhibitions of art we love, shows at the Tang often take it a step further - challenging us to think about art in new ways and helping us to see a bigger picture of the world than we are accustomed to seeing.

While this process at times can be unpleasant, a current Tang exhibition titled Environment and Object: Recent African Art makes the most of the visual joys of a group of well-established African-identified artists (not all of whom live on the continent or were born there) to expose and explore some very difficult issues that Africa currently faces. Curators Lisa Aronson and John Weber have chosen well, highlighting the process, the politics, and the pictorial results in equal measure to create a show that is as enjoyable as it is disturbing, with art that feels both relevant and exotic.

Romuald Hazoumé -
Claudia Maigre
Though many name artists are included, this selection of 16 has a pair of stars around which the rest seem to revolve - the internationally renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui and his Nigerian student Bright Ugochukwu Eke each re-use discarded material to make vast tapestries of form and color (analagous to the vast continent itself). Eke's two site-specific constructions of plastic drink bottles (some of them still a bit sticky) and charred slices of fallen timber were made with the help of a legion of Skidmore students, an ideal application of the "teaching museum" concept, and they look great in the space (to watch videos about the process, click here).

Anatsui's wall-hung piece titled Some Still Come Back appears woven but is made of many thousands of aluminum liquor bottle caps and bands, flattened and sewn together with wire into a flowing, vibrant sheet of color and pattern 10 feet across. It is so impressive as a physical work of folkcraft that it can be easy to forget one of its implications: that inebriation in massive quantity has serious costs.

The social costs of our appetites is a large subtext of Environment and Object as a whole. The artists Viyé Diba and Nnenna Okore address the mass consumption of the marketplace in their works, the former by re-creating the appalling crowdedness of his native city of Dakar, Senegal, in a lyrical and charming room-sized installation, and the latter through a sinister-looking net made of plastic shopping bags.

Zwelethu Mthethwa - Untitled (from the Coal Miner Series)
Things get even darker in an "oil room" that has been set aside for three artists who are responding to the ravages caused to the environment and economy of African countries by our thirst for that fuel. Here, in photos by George Osodi and sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp, human beings are more directly represented as desperate victims of circumstance; while that grim feeling is abated by a ravishing wall piece by Yinka Shonibare (shown at the top of this post), the damage, as it were, has already been done - we are no longer having so much fun at the museum.

Nearby, that theme continues, but with more subtlety, in the form of two huge photo-portraits by South African Zwelethu Mthethwa of a coal miner and a garbage scavenger. In these images, the dignity of the subject outweighs his circumstances - but does it really? Certainly not in the thoughtfully arranged works of Congolese photo-collagist Sammy Baloji, which aim at the heart of industrialization and its negative effects on the African colonies even decades after they have regained independence.

Barthélémy Toguo -
Stupid African President 2
A lighter note is achieved in photographs by the Cameroonian performance artist Barthélémy Toguo, who sends up foolish and dangerous post-colonial African leaders, and in ingenious and humorous masks by the Benin-born Romuald Hazoumé, which update old traditions of using the materials at hand, in this case empty plastic jugs and phone wires rather than carved wood and iron nails.

Environment and Object: Recent African Art also includes photographs by Garth Meyer, Georgia Papageorge, and Lara Baladi, and paintings by Jerry Buhari and Chéri Samba, and is augmented by a great deal of technological wizardry, including a "web feature" and a cellphone tour. The show opened in February, and continues through July 31, after which it is expected to travel throughout the Northeast.

Rating: Must See

El Anatsui - Some Still Come Back

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