Darkness Visible

After decades of isolation, South Africa has emerged as fertile ground for contemporary art, with international stars such as William Kentridge represented at P.S.1 beside a host of relative unknowns. Among several works dealing with the power of the archive (Sue Williamson's wrenching meditation on the pass laws, Gavin Jantjes's coloring books about the government's inane system of racial classification), perhaps the most moving is Santu Mofokeng's "Black Photo Album: Look at Me." This slide show consists of turn-of-the-century photographic portraits depicting black South Africans dressed in their Sunday best—washerwomen, subsistence farmers, violin players, and ministers—interspersed with bits of information culled from Mofokeng's research. Who were these people? Mofokeng asks. And what has become of their aspirations at the end of the 20th century?

It's a question that also haunts the biographies of two patron saints of African liberation, both given starring turns here. Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of Congo, is the subject of both Raoul Peck's evocative film and an elaborate suite of small folk paintings by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu that recount his rise to power and tragic murder in 1961, with the collusion of Belgian and U.S. forces. Franz Fanon, the focus of Isaac Julien and Mark Nash's fascinating experimental documentary, died of leukemia the same year, architect of the Algerian revolution, whose victory he never lived to see. More disturbing still is the fact that some 40 years after liberation, Congo and Algeria both stand on the brink of anarchy.

Jane Alexander's Butcher Boys (1985–86)
photo: Robin Holland
Jane Alexander's Butcher Boys (1985–86)

Details

The Short Century: Independence And Liberation Movements In Africa, 1945-1994
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City
Through May 5

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Enwezor's exhibition ends in 1994, with the first multiracial elections in South Africa. Tempering the general tone of optimism, its chronology also notes the 1994 massacre of 500,000 Tutsi civilians by Hutu militias in Rwanda. Whither Africa? The query is too large (and too important) for any art exhibition to answer. But "The Short Century" gives a powerful sense of where Africa has been.

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