Hayward Gallery, London
10 February-17 April 2005
Bodys Isek Kingelez (DR Congo), La ville de Sète en 3009, 2000. Paper, cardboard, paint, sequins, glue; covered by polyester in wooden frame 210 x 300 x 89 cm. Collection Musée International des Arts Modestes, Sète, France
Samuel Fosso's self-portrait 'Le Chef' (2003) is mordantly subversive of both Western and African self-delusion: presidents who affect the costume of tribal chiefs; foreign leaders misty-eyed at grateful, dancing natives in colourful ethnic dress; European art critics full of patronising enthusiasm for their 'native primitivism'. Fosso mocks the complicity of Sorbonne and Oxbridge educated dictators who strip Paris boutiques to their bare walls, visiting dignitaries who are actually part of an arms sales delegation and dancing natives who are really students, moonlighting in fancy dress for beer money. At 'Africa Remix', native, primitive artisans are thinner on the ground than doctorates in fine arts.
A visitor to the Hayward Gallery might assume that contemporary Africa has a hotline to British art. There are rows of anonymous faces, reminiscent of Anthony Gormley, and Chapman-esque chimeras - animal heads on human bodies. There are also photographs of pickled elephant foetuses, beach huts, video self-portraits of intensely personal revelations, printing on every conceivable surface, computer image manipulation and even painting (which seems to be acceptable again). However, if you look at the dates of the works, it becomes clear that Africans have not been slavishly following the winds of change emanating from London, Paris and New York. In Africa, 'high concept' art has taken its own direction and matured into a potent force. So much of our home-grown conceptualism engenders banality, trivial issues, incomprehensible responses and overblown rhetoric - obscurity as an end in itself. In Africa, artists still believe they can change the world.
To a contemporary London audience, automatic weapons welded into chairs and a four metre model of the Eiffel Tower may seem unsophisticated. However, when the artist - in this case Goncalo Mabunda - lives and works in Mozambique, the machine guns are not metaphors but an emblem of failure involving domestic leaders, aid agencies and Western governments.
For me, the assemblages at 'Africa Remix' are the most moving and significant pieces. In the USA and Europe, the creation of art from found objects is an amusing commentary on our disposable society. In most of Africa, junk is valuable. Broken appliances that are thrown away in Britain are shipped to Ghana in vast quantities. Thriving businesses repair and resell refrigerators, washing machines, radios and mobile phones. A sheet of tin is not rubbish, but the wall of a house. Beninese artist, Romuald Hazoume, has made a tower of some 70 large oil cans, each painted with a name or unique, identifying symbol and formerly a valued possession. One of the cans is cut open and has a passport inside. Far from being useless objects, oil cans containing water symbolise life - but in being carried by women for miles, they also signify inferior status.
Congolese artist, Jean-Baptiste Bodys Isek Kingelez and Kenyan-born Allan deSouza exhibit thematically similar pieces. With his 'Projet pour le Kinshasa du troisième millénnaire' (1997), Kingelez has produced an architectural model of a fantasy new cityscape in the year 3009: brightly-coloured skyscrapers, immaculate, broad boulevards, clean rivers and centres of culture and sport. The contrast with the reality of Kinshasa is shocking, as is the way in which development plans for the city have been abandoned over the years. The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has been devastated by Belgium, former presidents Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila and two decades of civil war, but there is still a wonderful feeling of optimism about the work.
Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui builds huge 'blankets' (10-29 square metres) from flattened bottle tops and cans. When draped over trees and geological features (similar to a Christo installation but more personalised), they are like a delicate new life form. With very welcome foresight, the British Museum has now also acquired one of these works.
South African artist, Willie Bester has constructed a truly menacing, muzzled doberman from recycled car parts. The 'dog' conveys all the terror and violence of apartheid; but the man who holds its chain is not white - he is an army officer with African features, surrounded by missiles, mines and grenades. One oppressor simply replaces another.
Arabic-speaking North Africa - racially and culturally distinct to the rest of the continent - is represented principally by photography and video installations. Political art thrives in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, and the artists are courageous in their choice of subjects, which range from the oppression of women, to torture and state violence, to revealing scenes of domesticity. When the rest of the world sees in Africa only disaster and disease, we can forget that real artists continue to make art as a positive part of their everyday lives.
The first Oxford African Encyclopaedia, published in 1974, dedicated six paragraphs to African art and ten to Western art. The continent's influence may be recognised, but rarely is African art considered seriously on its own merits. When art historians try to look at Africa, they cannot see past the Benin bronzes - for them, African art stopped in the 15th century.
'Africa Remix' is an important attempt to correct the idea that African art has been dead for over 500 years. This is the largest exhibition of contemporary African art ever to visit Britain (via Dusseldorf and on the way to Paris and Tokyo). It is also over 15 years since the 'Magiciens de la Terre' exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris alerted the European cultural elite to the fact that the continent had long ago advanved beyond tribal art, such as wooden masks, votive figures and fertility gods. The only note of regret is that the London version of the exhibition is rather small and that due to a lack of space, several objects have been omitted - although the exhibition does at least feature photographs of these works.
Robin Rhode. Who Saw Who and Through the Gate
Robin Rhode is charting new ground as a talented, mixed-race South African artist, who pushes the boundaries of drawing in spontaneous and interactive performances, which are recorded by photography and film.
Pipilotti Rist – Eyeball Massage
Once upon a time there was a girl called Elisabeth Charlotte Rist who was born in the Alps of Switzerland. While growing up she realised that she saw the world through different lenses from the majority of people. Years later, when older, she renamed herself Pippiloti Rist
A View of Africa, From the Inside Out
Africa is a vast region that now comprises more than 50 nations. Created through a long history of ethnic and cultural alchemy, Africa and the people who live there defy easy categorisation. Faced with the complexity of defining what is 'African', the media has tended to use a shorthand that reduces the African people to a few well-known images: poverty, civil war, political corruption and disease. The photographers and multimedia artists featured in 'Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography', which opened in March 2006 at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City, resist prevailing views of their country, their history and their identities as 'African' artists.
Jacques Henri Lartigue
There is an innocent quality about the photographs of Jacque Henri Lartigue, an honesty and openness - but not the studied faux naivety that is so popular now and certainly no amateurishness. He took his first photograph at the age of six, in Paris, in 1900 - the year Picasso made his first visit to the city.
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
Ed Ruscha’s oeuvre has been canonised as the output of a modern American master, but it shrugs off the labels that usually accompany such elevation: certain works or sequences are aligned with pop or conceptual art, but the majority resist such designation. Another apparent incongruity concerns form and content: Ruscha is often invoked in the same breath as Los Angeles, the city which been his home since 1956 – yet his most enduring concern has been not with places but with words, and the ways in which their meaning can be attenuated, inverted or reinforced by their material form