In Jean Rouch’s documentary Les Maîtres Fous (1954), the members of a religious sect in Ghana, hysterically possessed by the spirit of their colonial masters, slaughter a dog and argue over whether it is better to eat the animal raw or cooked. Were they remembering the Berlin Conference of 1884, when 15 European heads of state sat around a table and carved up the African continent? Over a century later, the last remnants of colonial rule departed from Africa, leaving behind a long history of violent exploitation.
Modernism was born from this encounter, as Picasso and the surrealists roamed the corridors of the Musée de l’homme in Paris, finding forms in African sculpture to shake up the stale heritage of 19th-century art academies. But was exposure to 20th-century Western culture equally fruitful for African artists? For them, was modernism a means of aesthetic liberation from timeless tribal rituals, or a weapon of domination, irrevocably tainted by the colonialist enterprise?
In “The Short Century,” an encyclopedic exhibition of post-war African art, curator Okwui Enwezor presents overwhelming evidence that African artists stood modernism on its head. Spanning the continent from Tangier to Cape Town, and encompassing art, film, photography, architecture, political posters, cloth, and music, “The Short Century” makes for long viewing. The sheer quantity of material gives the show a whiff of didacticism. But at its heart it offers a dialogue of rare depth between Africa’s multiple, complex, and vibrant art and the turbulent histories that accompanied its great push for liberation.
The story begins after World War II, when leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast (later Ghana) convened to call for African independence. In 1960 alone, 17 new nations shook off colonialism’s yoke. On P.S.1’s third floor, the corridors echo with slogans from the struggle, shouted in archival clips of revolutionary mobs vying with royals and statesmen for the continent’s future.
It was a time of both bloody conflicts and unbridled optimism. Algerian women hid bombs under their veils, setting them off in cafés filled with French officers. Hipsters in Mali did the twist, immortalized by Malick Sidibé’s camera as they danced the night away in Bamako’s open-air nightclubs. Elsewhere in the same city, elegantly attired people of regal bearing posed before richly patterned fabrics in Seydou Keïta’s photography studio, creating formal portraits of vivid individuals sheathed in an incorrigible air of blooming chic.
Painters and sculptors who had studied in Europe returned home, mixing tribal and Western influences in art they invested with the aura of ritual objects. Born in the Ivory Coast, sculptor Christian Lattier was trained in Paris but returned to Abidjan in 1962, where he created fantastic string-and-wire constructions that recall both African fiber art and Christian religious iconography. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi’s elegant canvases and delicate, Dubuffet-like drawings from the 1960s negotiate between arabesque abstractions and sub-Saharan subject matter.
The colonial metropolis, typically divided between the gleaming new city and the winding, close streets of poor native quarters, was the physical embodiment of the cordon sanitaire that racist ideology erected between rulers and subjects. Ousmane Sembenè’s first film, the gentle short Borom Sarret (1963), produced in a newly independent Senegal, follows a lorry driver through an ordinary day in Dakar, filled with hunger, inhumanity, and petty humiliations.
South African photographer David Goldblatt’s images of Afrikaner churches, built like spaceships or strange fortresses, and his pictures of frail, provisional shantytown chapels are potent reminders that apartheid was in the first instance a crime of geographical dislocation. So is Kay Hassan’s installation of video monitors and luggage piled atop a small herd of bicycles, next to a mural-sized collage depicting a stream of refugees. “We need new trees,” a man explains on tape, as the camera pans across the rubble of Soweto. “New flowers, new birds, new leaves, new stones,” he continues. “If we have to build on what these people have left us, we’re doomed.”
Yet all around him, in P.S.1’s large, second-floor gallery, are works inspired by an architecture of remnants, from Zwelethu Mthethwa’s color photographs of dignified people in makeshift dwellings cobbled together from discarded packaging, to Angolan artist Antonio Olé’s immense assemblage of doors, window frames, sheets of corrugated metal, and pieces of carved wood. In Africa, it seems, modernist bricolage is no mere aesthetic strategy, but a means of survival.
That colonialism transformed Europe as much as it did Africa is suggested by the sly installations of Nigerian-born, London-based Yinka Shonibare, whose knockout exhibition is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Shonibare cuts elaborate, Victorian-style outfits, complete with bustles and waistcoats, from wax-print fabrics traditionally associated with Africa (though the cloth itself imitated designs from Dutch colonies in Indonesia and was produced by Manchester factories). Like those 19th-century British novels woven through with threads of empire, the work implies that overseas territories were close to the skin of Europe.
And that racism deformed white South Africans as thoroughly as it did their victims is evoked by the large-scale sculpture of Jane Alexander, which shows three humanoid mutants sitting naked on a bench. Bits of animal horn and bone have melded with their faces; their glassy cow eyes see no evil, and their missing mouths and ears can neither speak nor hear of it.
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.
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.