Writing Art History Since 2002

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David Brodie on Africa Remix

Africa Remix is a monster The significance of an event such as Africa Remix<I> being hosted in Johannesburg is, I think, a given. The irony of an African show only coming to Africa three years after it began its tour is also a given, but does not take anything away from the momentousness of the occasion Africa Remix is a monster. There is something of a slight remove, however, a sense of déjà vu, as one walks around the show, seeing so many works that one is already familiar with. Not familiar as objects, but familiar with as reproductions, having seen them in countless magazines and websites over the last three years. And this sense, of Africa Remix as having given birth to its own (mostly played-out) spectacle, should not be underestimated. But presumably this is not an unexpected consequence. Indeed, Africa Remix was the blockbuster that simply had to happen. After a decade of well-documented African and diaspora shows across Europe and the US, an increasing African presence on Biennales (and perhaps, even more importantly for the cynics, an increasing African presence in the galleries and art fairs), an Africa show was needed – a very big one. And here we have it, conceived, at least in its earliest manifestation, by some of the same people that gave us Magiciens de la Terre (1989). Africa Remix is as much a strategic flexing of contemporary European institutional muscle as it is a market-induced phenomenon. Ery Camara, writing in the catalogue to the exhibition A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad (2003), notes that the “role that museums play in articulating and disseminating the <I>strangeness of what is considered African still remains questionable due to the ambivalence and ambiguity of museum discourse”. This ambivalence is, I believe, at the heart of Africa Remix’s rhetoric. “Africa”: there is a declaration, the continent in its entirety. And then, “Remix”: a disavowal coupled to a promissory note. “Remix” implies a radical shift in viewpoint, a re-positioning that allows a drastic re-looking, an implicit disavowal of the notion of a fixed or authentic point of reference or authorship. Remix Theory promises critical conjunctions and ‘grafts’ that are progressive – be it in music, architecture or visual arts – where the hybrid sum is far greater than its parts.The question, of course, is whether Africa Remix delivers on this promise. The answer tends to pull in two directions. Depending on how you look at it, Africa Remix is either a space of productive tension, or it is simply an expedient space Africa Remix is a monster.The show is jammed packed. Bursting, really. This has been a constant criticism as the show has travelled from venue to venue. The cynic in me would argue that this is symptomatic of the mega-show meets mall aesthetic underpinning Africa Remix. However, I realise this is a clear curatorial strategy, intended to evoke the chaos of the bazaar, the taxi rank, the market. And perhaps also something more philanthropic is at play here: to show as much work as possible to art-hungry audiences. But leaving aside this didactic impulse, there is something quite patronising about this strategy: it speaks to the creation of a theatrical spectacle around conditions of contingency and cacophony, which is here deployed as (romantically) irreducibly African.As with its earlier Pompidou incarnation, the exhibition opens with Mounir Fatmi’s Obstacles (2003), an installation comprising show-jumping poles scattered across the opening, some built up, others taken down. Three small wall-mounted screens play video clips and music. A painted wheel of skeletal legs spins on the wall. Opposite this, a wall-text reads: “My Father has lost all his teeth; I can bite him now”. This is a work that asks us to re-orientate ourselves, to move around these obstacles, and to connect this negotiated movement to the artist’s larger allegorical project – the political processes and negotiations of shifting cultural, generational and geographical power relations and strangeness. The protagonist in Fatmi’s videos, The Horseless Man, has all the subdued mania of a fallen aristocrat about him. The relationship between ruler/slave and observer/observed has shifted. The father truly has lost all of his teeth. Or have they perhaps just been pulled?The prevalence of Arab-African artists on the show is notable, and certainly political. A question emerges: How do we now measure otherness? Is he Arab? Is she African? Muslim? The loaded quality of the mask, as object and metaphor, is explored in works by, amongst others, N’dilo Mutima, Hicham Benohoud, and Romuald Hazome. The mask now reveals itself in another incarnation, as tied to Arab and Muslim identity: the burqah, the veil, the headscarf. These things have become, in western media, the most visible markers of difference. And because of this, the work of Algerian artist Omar D. and Morocco’s Yto Barrada and Ymane Fakhir moves beyond the realm of a mere documentary seductiveness (with us playing the part of ethno-tourist voyeurs). They occupy a more urgent space in which political narrative is central.In general, the works I found most compelling were those offering an uncomfortable, jarring effect that dislodges the complacency of current rhetoric. Shady El Noshokaty film, The Tree of My Grandmother’s House: The Dialogue (2001), is a portrait of his family paying homage to a departed family member. With its low-resolution image, hyper-devotional declarations, and call to prayer audible in the background, the work references a radically different mode of media-induced monstrosity: the homemade, web-released, suicide bomber video. The artist notes that the installation is, “a psychological study of the concept of death and philosophies of incarnation, judgment and immortality”. About her work, White Women (2002), Loulou Cherniet writes on her website, “It is undoubtedly a relief for most people who see this film that the filmmaker is a female mulatto”. The premise of the work is simple: eight black men sit around a table and recount stories of their interactions and problems with, as well as general philosophical beliefs about, white Swedish women. The men tell stories that are at once humorous and quite devastating. The storytellers play the role of victim, seemingly outraged by their objectification at the hands of these women who are looking for the much-mythologized “big black dick” (a line from the film). The men are the contemporary manifestation of the noble savage; however, the savages now seek permanent residence in Sweden. With political asylum increasingly difficult to secure, marriage to Swedish women, and fathering children born in Sweden, are far easier means of escaping Africa and ensuring a life of northern European gentility. There are other superb moments. Among them, Bili Bidjocka’s achingly spare installation, Room of Tears (2004), that speaks of a condition of permanent longing. Jane Alexander’s spectacular African Adventure (1999-2002) installation. Joel Andrianomearisoa’s Paravents (2004), a subtly subversive Kaaba form that references Jean Genet’s dramatic poem set at the time of the Algerian war of independence.”Authenticity’s primary structure is the fiction which reproduces it as a figure of a unitary, homogenous belief in the particularism of an African essence,” writes Okwui Enwezor in his contribution to A Fiction of Authenticity. Without disavowing the many brilliant works on display, my overriding sense of Africa Remix is that it promises a new vision, but ultimately doesn’t fulfil its potential. This may simply be an outcome of its old age. Samuel Fosso, Julie Mehretu and others are already playing the global game; they have already been institutionalised, in a sense. Ultimately, I wonder if Africa Remix really offers something more substantial than a new, but equally problematic, version of the game of revealing an authentic Africa? Africa Remix is a monster.David Brodie is an independent curator based in Johannesburg

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