Hayward Gallery, London
10 February-17 April 2005
'The Chief' stares from posters advertising
'Africa Remix'. He sits on a cheetah skin upholstered armchair,
in a room decked with garish nature prints, wearing a leopard
skin loincloth and scarf, a jeweller's window of gold chains and
a Mobutu-style conical fur hat. Instead of a royal sceptre, he
holds a bunch of sunflowers and his inevitable celebrity sunglasses
are made of white plastic. He looks like the love child of Dame
Edna Everage and Emperor Bokassa (the psychotic dictator of the
Central African Empire who, in 1977, spent his country's entire
gross national product on his own elaborate coronation).
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
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
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.