Inventory: New Works and Conversations around African Art

Posted on December 07, 2015 by Web Services Editor

An Exhibition of Contemporary African Art from the Hood's Permanent Collection

Hood Quarterly, winter 2016
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Curator of African Art

The Hood Museum of Art’s compelling new African art exhibition features impressive works by Ibrahim El Salahi, Lamidi Fakeye, Akin Fakeye, Owusu-Ankomah, Victor Ekpuk, Chike Obeagu, Candice Breitz, Nomusa Makhubu, Julien Sinzogan, Aida Muluneh, Halida Boughriet, Mario Macilau, Eric van Hove, Khulumeleni Magwaza, and Nidhal Chamekh. Acquired in the last two years, these thirty-one objects demonstrate a renewed focus on modern and contemporary art in the African collection. Previous African art curators sought to develop for Dartmouth a holistic representation of the arts of Africa and emphasized things like masks and other kinds of ritual objects and works of material culture. While Hood curators continue to collect tradition-based art forms today, we have also begun to conceive our collecting practice more broadly, so as to encompass artistic production by African artists, in and beyond the continent, as well as non-African artists who address Africa in their work. This new approach signals the museum’s intention to robustly engage with emerging discourses and narratives of the “global modern” and “global contemporary” in academia. Ultimately, we seek to advance a richer understanding of Africa and its arts—historical, modern, and contemporary—across campus and the wider community.

The present exhibition therefore includes an array of paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, and mixed media. Shown together for the first time, they offer varied yet compelling insights on modern and contemporary African art from the 1960s to the present. Midcentury Africa represented a moment of high artistic modernism that coincided with, and was accelerated by, the emergence of political independence in many African countries from the 1960s onward. In addition to providing an important art historical anchor, works in Inventory explore wide-ranging issues and engender critical conversations about Africa and the world we live in. They are organized around four broad themes: “Tradition and Modern/Modernist Traditions,” “Contemporary Visions of a Continent,” “Historical Returns,” and “Diasporic Imagination.”

Lamidi Fakeye’s door (1963) and Yoruba kneeling female figure holding a bowl (about early 1960s) and Akin Fakeye’s veranda post (about early 1960s) are the earliest examples of modern African art in the exhibition. The Fakeyes, uncle and nephew, are fifthand sixth-generation members of the illustrious Fakeye wood carving family of Ila Orangun in Osun State, southwestern Nigeria. The works reflect the two artists’ immersion in Yoruba oral traditions, history, myths, folklores, and vernacular palace art. Their stylized depictions of figural and zoomorphic forms represent a modernist approach—or neo-tradition—in Yoruba woodcarving practice. Likewise, South African Khulumeleni Magawaza belongs to a prominent Zulu family of potters who live on the bank of the Nsuze River in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. Her ceramic vessel (2010) demonstrates how longstanding artistic traditions can continue to thrive alongside the demands of modern life.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2013, is part of a prominent cadre of pioneering African modernists who came of age during the midcentury twilight of colonialism. Anticipating the necessity of cultural decolonization in the postcolonial climate, El-Salahi developed a new artistic vocabulary that merged Sudanese, African, Islamic, and European forms and techniques. Untitled (1969), one of El-Salahi’s early experiments with colored inks, highlights his measured use of positive and negative space, limited palette of earthy colors, Sudanese ornamental forms, Islamic scripts, and secularized calligraphy.

The strategic appropriation and creative hybridism that marked artistic practices in Africa during the early postcolonial period has since become entrenched by succeeding generations of modern artists. This is evident in the paintings of Owusu-Ankomah and Victor Ekpuk, who explore the autochthonous forms of their respective native countries of Ghana and Nigeria. Owusu-Ankomah’s Starkid (2007, acrylic on canvas) is executed in his signature interplay of a monochromatic color scheme and Adinkra symbols (a graphic communication system among the Akan of Ghana), idealized male forms (reflecting his longstanding interest in Renaissance art), and his own motifs. Similarly, Victor Ekpuk’s abstract triptych titled Three Wise Men (1996, acrylic on panel) shows his indebtedness to Nsibidi, the body of symbols used in visual and gestured communication by the Ekpe secret society in southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, which he combines with his own invented glyphs, as well as other forms from elsewhere. Similarly, Eric van Hove’s technology-inspired V-12 Laraki (2013), an exact replica of the Mercedes Benz V-12 engine, brings together Western industrial tradition, represented in the car engine, and a thousand-year heritage of craftsmanship from the Maghreb region in Africa. Though of Belgian nationality, van Hove was born in Guelma, Algeria, raised in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and currently works out of Marrakech, Morocco.

Paris-based Beninese Julien Sinzogan addresses the trans-Atlantic slave trade, seeking new ways to commemorate the memory of this terrible historical event in the colored pen-and-ink drawings titled Désenchaînement II (2013) and Land Ho (2011). In Self-Portrait (2003–13), a series of thirteen photographs, Cape Town–based artist and art historian Nomusa Makhubu explores the ways in which colonial photography advanced scientific racism by reducing African bodies to phenotypes, infantilizing African subjects, or consigning them to nature. French-Algerian Halida Boughriet’s Diner des anonymes and Les enfants de la République (2014, both from the acclaimed Pandora photographic series) present remarkable insights into the plight of African and Islamic immigrants and their first-generation French children who have faced the challenges of belonging in contemporary Europe in the wake of escalating far-right nationalism. These works and others in the exhibition help to fill some of the crucial gaps in the African collection.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund.

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Written December 07, 2015 by Web Services Editor