New African Art, Resisting Assimilation

The Studio Museum in Harlem examines the art of the African diaspora

The art market most closely mimics the larger economy by obsessing over youth and constantly seeking new areas for expansion. Just as advertising covets a demographic in which age 34 begins to signify decline, the commercial-gallery system is skewed toward younger artists. The art world is also always on the lookout for fresh territories to incorporate. The rise of Chinese artists and collectors is an obvious example—or Takashi Murakami's transformation of Japanese anime culture into a global brand. Even a geopolitically unstable country such as Lebanon has recently seen a number of its artists achieve substantial critical and market success.

Africa, however, is a different matter. Its art continues to remain resistant to assimilation, and if Okwui Enwezor and Robert Storr's extended, impassioned debate in recent issues of Artforum is any indication, the question of how to even begin representing African artists is still subject to serious dispute. Into this confusion intelligently steps "Flow," assembled by the Studio Museum in Harlem's associate curator, Christine Y. Kim. The exhibition presents the work of 20 artists under the age of 40 who were either born in Africa or whose parents emigrated. Only a few of the artists in the show currently live in Africa full-time. Yet whatever their present location (most reside in the United States or Europe), each is immersed in a diasporic African artistic tradition whose contribution to world culture has been immeasurable.

The exhibition's title and art employ an elusiveness that strategically engages with contested issues of representation. In this sense, "Flow" follows smoothly on the Studio Museum's earlier "Freestyle" (2001) and "Frequency" (2005), important shows that featured younger African-American artists working with issues of identity in complex, nuanced, and sometimes inscrutable ways. The artists in "Flow" are also concerned with constructions of self, though usually with an eye on a larger context. In snappy photographs by Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko and large, flat paintings by Mustafa Maluka, dress and style—some of it adapted from Western fashion magazines—play primary roles in expressing identity. Conversely, Thierry Fontaine's five photographic self-portraits use elements such as shells, clay, and a shattered mirror to conceal the artist's face, while Grace Ndiritu's video, The Nightingale (2003), consists of the artist wrapping and unwrapping her head with fabric to the accompaniment of a Baaba Maal song.

Elusive self-portraits: Thierry Fontaine's cri blanc (white cry), 1998
Courtesy Studio Museum
Elusive self-portraits: Thierry Fontaine's cri blanc (white cry), 1998

Michèle Magema's videos also eclipse their subjects' heads—this time through framing—in order to reference the anonymity that can accompany the African presence in Western countries, as well as to give added focus to the stories her videos enact. In Au Bord de la Loire (2006), it's a quite simple one: a mirrored image of a woman walking with a flower in her hand, which she quietly tosses away at the end. The flower turns out to be the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the monarchy in France and the icon branded on the flesh of escaped French slaves following their recapture. Along with issues of personal and collective identity, this anti-colonial motif weaves its way through "Flow," surfacing sharply in two pieces by Latifa Echakhch that perfectly match anger and humor: La Marseillaise (2005), a portable document shredder paused while chewing through paper music of the French national anthem, and Erratum (2004), an installation of Moroccan tea glasses shattered against the wall.

But critique can begin to feel heavy-handed when it's not also directed internally; thus, work that points its reproach both ways stands out in "Flow." Among the most memorable pieces in the exhibition is Trokon Nagbe's I have two reactions to power; 1. To run and pretend the rules don't apply to me 2. Secretly hope for its destruction (2008). The top portion of the painting abstractly renders in black and white with gold explosions an image from the "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign that commenced the current Iraq War; the bottom half precisely and beautifully depicts a neighborhood in Monrovia where plants sprout amid uninhabited shanties and buckling buildings. Hanging from the ceiling between the painting and its viewer is an orange mesh tunic bristling with sharp nails poking both inward and outward. This shielding sculptural component turns back on itself the distress it's prepared to inflict on those violating the sovereignty of its wearer.

The work in "Flow" is notable for its resourceful handling of diverse materials—traditional or contemporary, African or not, artistic and otherwise. If the hybrid creatures in science-fiction writer Octavia Butler's novels ever needed an architect, Olalekan B. Jeyifous would be the ideal person for them to commission. Like the impulse behind much of the art in "Flow," his idea of home in four architectural models on display is adaptable and mobile. Made of light-colored wood and utilizing honeycombed grids or elevated on stilts, these futuristic yet organic structures feel buoyant in both design and materials. This capacity to float—however slightly—is one response to the difficult conditions of exile, whether voluntary or forced. It's also a way to evade being appropriated. Although feelings of displacement and incongruence permeate much of "Flow," its art responds with an element of creative affirmation.

 
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