SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
03.09.2015 – 13.10.2015
On entry into ‘Egungun Masquerades’ held at SMAC Gallery, the viewer is struck by Agbodjelou’s figures. Regal in their facelessness, the Egungun’s appropriation of the lens brings to mind a quote from a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Indeed, their ‘passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but that of a cataclysm in repose.’ With the bright colours of their costumes set against the background of dusty Beninese streets and foliage of a vital, pulsing green, the figures appear as deities in a state of waiting.
The large-scale photographs encourage an upward gaze. The minimal austerity of the white cube encourages the feeling of wonder. Commentary provided by esteemed academic Ruth Simbao provides context and fleshes out the conceptual significance of this show. The ivory tower has spared no expense in providing a well-mannered and tasteful display. Subsequently, the consciences of gallery-goers and art collectors are preemptively placated, and it is here that we start to see that this aggressive political-correctness is a veneer for a corrupted core. On looking at the show beyond the fashionable spectacle of opening night, when the commodious room turns cavernous, the posing spirits appear prostrate. On paper, it would be near-impossible to fault the show by SMAC gallery, but through a critical gaze we begin to see that the road to ‘problematic’ is paved with good intentions.
The rhetoric around this show states the series ‘depict[s] incarnations of the Yoruba tribe’s ancestral forebears, who appear at funerals and annual festivals… Agbodjelou explores the complex role of the Egungun, capturing both their individual personalities and mannerisms, while emphasizing their unequivocal presence as enigmatic spiritual manifestations.’ About the cloth the figures are dressed in, Simbao states, ‘The socioreligious and aesthetic significance of cloth in Yoruba belief, far outweighs its destructibility as a material object.’
From these statements, it cannot be mistaken that the viewer is being granted access to something sacred. The photographs are of entities that go beyond matter. The Egungun figures are individual but they carry collective significance. For Yoruba people, these are heraldic in the community. They mark prosperity, and assist in the interpretation and understanding of tragedy. Regardless of the aesthetic resonance of these portraits, their import must necessarily remain irretrievably mysterious for those outside the community. However, through being radically decontextualized in the gallery space, it appears that they are there for the viewer’s amusement.
Despite the stated goal to show nuance between the figures, they are not given individual names, they are ascribed numbers, reducing their individualism. The show unintentionally encourages a thoughtless exoticism. The viewer is urged to admire the colours and feel a self-congratulatory cultural sensitivity by reading a fully-referenced paper on the figures. Yes, the portraits are about them, but they are more immediately for ‘us.’ It is this ‘us’ that the show is more revealing of; the significance of the show appears to lie less in its meaning, and more in asking for the audience’s approbation.
The sacred has been transformed into an aesthetic and commercial product. In Egungun Masquerades X the figure lifts up its robe to better show off its shoes and leg-coverings. With one foot placed forward and the toe extended, the stance is almost balletic. The wall behind is peeling, showing that it has been constructed of mud or clay. This offsets the vivid blues and reds of the costume while signaling its ‘Africanness’. The portraits adopt a stereotypical visual language to announce themselves, they are forcibly coherent for the viewer. With the huts and the foliage being common in footage of civil wars and pamphlets asking people to donate the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life, the images bring to mind the Conradian notion of ‘the dark continent.’ The lustre of the images becomes something akin to the vacuous glamour of pyrotechnics, vivid but transient.
The term ‘masquerade’ suggests the Egungun are featured as a part of a cultural carnival, they appear to parade their omnipotence for the South African ‘west’, presumably because this power has no jurisdiction here. These superhuman figures are alienated from the source of their significance, the Beninese. Subsequently, their deification in the culture of their origin appears to possess less torque than that of commercial gods they’re now subjected to.This alienation mirrors that of the benevolently intentioned prejudice of ethnographic collections; the viewer is invited to marvel at the portraits, not follow their narrative in an attempt at genuine appreciation. With a well-written essay informing their perception, the viewer gets a pre-packaged opinion. Their task is merely to enjoy.
While all the Ts have been crosses and all the Is dotted, it appears that this has been done out of strategy, not out of sincerity. While the portraits cannot be denied their aesthetic merit, the show becomes the statement of a sophist – verbose and eloquent but empty. The commercial cultural sector has shown itself as insatiable, urging artists to prepare more and more ‘African’ products for it’s consumption. The show thus becomes a statement on the cultural prostitution that ‘high’ Art encourages. From this show, it appears the sacrosanct is really just a price-tag away