The Afrobeat Generation

Finding Inspiration in an African Pop Icon

Certainly Afrobeat—the way that Fela fused American and African pop influences without diluting his sources or compromising his message—is a precursor of many of the strategies used by contemporary artists who are themselves trying to find the right vocabulary to reach global audiences. African American artists, even those as astute as Fred Wilson and Kara Walker, can only refer to an Africa created by American museums, though Wilson's singing pottery, Because Why O?, and Walker's jewel-like renditions of imaginary shackles (Golddigger, created in collaboration with Klaus Bürgel) can also be read as incisive critiques of these institutions. But the African artists bring a fresher perspective, often by drawing directly from their personal experiences. Nigerian-born Olu Oguibe scrawls political graffiti across traditional woven mats, and South African Kendell Geers (one of the few white artists in this exhibition) wraps a carved Yoruba figure in the red-and-white tape of the Chevron oil company logo. An even more effective look at the politics of oil is Odili Donald Odita's installation Heaven Can Wait, a wheelbarrow filled with Nigerian currency standing in a sticky black pool. It's placed in front of one of the artist's glowing abstract landscapes, and the juxtaposition allows us to see not only the troubling politics but the expansive beauty of his homeland.

Not the standard Rock and Roll Hall of Fame treatment
photo: Robin Holland
Not the standard Rock and Roll Hall of Fame treatment

Just as Lichtenstein knew his comic books and Warhol savored Campbell's soup, these artists are thoroughly conversant in the sights and sounds of Africa, and their authoritative familiarity proves infectious. Watching Pascale Marthine Tayou's Shakara Scene Oloje—delightful footage of the habitués of a recording studio in Cameroon—I suddenly got it. By shifting my attention away from the impact of American pop on other cultures (a/k/a the American Effect) to a pop figure of such magnitude that he could only be ignored in the United States, I am made increasingly uncomfortable with my own provincialism. Maybe I should hop on a plane or visit the next international biennial, though cultural tourism is not really the antidote. At least, after seeing "Black President," I know one thing about Africa that I didn't know before: I have to be there.

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