Archive: Issue No. 120, August 2007

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Africa Remix

Africa Remix curator Simon Njami at the exhibition opening

Africa Remix

JAG curator Clive Kelner addresses the crowd

Africa Remix

Members of the crowd helping themselves to reprints of Samuel Fosso's performative self-portraits

Africa Remix at the JAG
by Landi Raubenheimer

This mammoth exhibition which features 85 artists from 25 countries provides a unique perspective on our continent. What struck me as significant is the amount of photographic or lens-based work on show. This is interesting because Africa itself has been the object of so much photography, perhaps this is due to the colonial history of large parts of the continent. In the 20th century alone Africa has been the subject of innumerable international news broadcasts, documenting anything from from starving children to civil wars. Now Africans turn the lens outward. The camera, as it is used by many artists here, becomes humane and intimate as it seldom has in this past. As Clive Kellner writes in the catalogue of the exhibition: an African 'sense of self' is what is given shape in this exhibition.

We are invited into the interior spaces of the continent, and this time the lens comes from within these spaces. It seems uncanny at times to see colonial imagery turned inside out, the familiar becomes strange when it comes from a foreign country. This is effectively addressed in the work of Samuel Fosso whose portraits depict himself as a pirate, drag queen, and sailor among other things. Through these roles of entertainer, Fosso makes fun of the way in which minority groups have been seen through the colonial lens and in the mass media - as exotic, strange or entertaining. Fosso's personae seem flawed, because he is intentionally playing roles that should be performed by an unwitting subject.

Zwelethu Mthethwa's photographs of workers on sugar-cane farms at first glance represent such unself-consciousness. His subjects stand in solitary poses in the fields they work. We have seen such pictures before - images of disadvantaged people staring out bleakly from dire surroundings. These, like Guy Tillim's works, make for lovely coffee-table books. Only when I looked at the exhibition for the second time did I realize that Mthethwa's images were incredibly nuanced. His photographs of workers become portraits of individuals. The subjects are clearly posing but one gets the sense they don't realize what the implications of the act are. This is why photography is so brutal to unself-conscious subjects. Mthethwa manages to subvert this violence, however. The subjects he photographs regard the lens as severely as they would any other event in their lives. They seem to own the land they stand on, although this is unlikely the case. This raises the question: what is the difference between colonial discourse and the discourse of the art gallery or museum? Are the subjects of Mthethwa's work the 'others' or are we?

Many artists from Islamic communities represented on the exhibition deal with the notions of otherness in the dialectics of outsider and insider, or interior and exterior space. The concept of family is important in this regard. Zineb Sedira's Mother, Father and I is especially poignant. The installation of the work itself may cause the viewer to feel like an intruder, but once inside the space, Sedira has arranged the projection unusually. She projects an image of herself on one wall, and images of her mother and father on the opposite wall. We enter into an unreal space and time. If the projection represents real-time, then we are guests, watching her conversation with her parents. This is one way of addressing the tension between outsiders and insiders. Entering into the space of an artwork we are outsiders, but the conventions of the art gallery may turn life outside into the intruder. This analogy can also extend to the continent itself. Who belongs to Africa? Who is inside, and who is outside?

Along with the theme of outsiders and insiders there seems to be a common theme of space throughout the exhibition. Many of the artworks are installations, requiring the construction in the gallery. One of the most powerful of these is by Joel Andrianomearisoa, entitled Paravents. This awkwardly positioned installation of screen-like objects is uneasy, puzzling and seems a little out of place. What is effective in this version of the installed work is how one reacts to it. The space is small, very dark, and filled with strange box-like shapes, all covered in black fabric. Deeper in one encounters a mass of knotted black fabric under a blue light bulb. The textures are suggestive enough to verge on abject and the space is truly illogical. Perhaps this work says something about feeling out of place or foreign. Its awkward position in the exhibition is not as effective as it could be, but it introduces the theme of feeling 'other' that is repeated in Moataz Nasr's installation Tabla.

Similarly here, darkness plays tricks on the eyes. As one enters one expects the collection of tablas or ritual drums to reveal an impossibly hidden crouching person. A video projection depicting white hands playing an ornate tabla against a black background with accompanying sounds is answered in turn by the physical tablas in the space. As in Sedira's installation one feels excluded from the dialogue between the video and the sound projection. Space and video projection here speak about communities and the way in which coherence is achieved between those who lead and those who follow. The relationship between moving image and space is evoked in a similar way to Sedira's work.

'Africa Remix' is expansive and represents many different versions of what it may mean to be African. It offers unexpected perspectives and addresses pluralistic and often contradictory notions of belonging. Far from being an 'ode to Africa' as one might expect, the artworks on exhibition offer glimpses into personal relationships, and ask pointed questions. Who is 'other' in postcolonial terms and how does Africa see itself in the contemporary art world?

For more discussions on such matters please visit our Tokyo Conference review

Opens: June 24
Closes: September 30

Johannesburg Art Gallery King George Street, (between Wolmarans and Noord Streets), Joubert Park, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 725 3130
Hours: Tue - Sun 10am - 5pm