Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane is the first in a series of exhibitions in which two artists have been invited to create new work in response to one another.
Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane is the first in a series of exhibitions in which two artists have been invited to create new work in response to one another. An extensive undertaking by the National Museum of African Art, the launch exhibition included site-specific installations and several older works António Ole of Angola and Aimé Mpane, an artist who divides his time between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Belgium. Of interest is how these artists, both showing in North America for the first time, deal with strife confronted in both their nations.For more than a decade, Ole has made work that relates to the turbulent colonial and postcolonial conflicts in Angolan society. On the Margins of the Borderlands (1994-95) is a mixed-media installation incorporating paper from police reports, taxidermal crows, bricks and computer-generated images of the ocean. All these objects are assembled as part of a boat that symbolically refers to the history of the artist’s coastal hometown of Luanda. Ole created the work as an act of remembering; he does not want the memory of colonialism, forced labour and the political turmoil of his country to be forgotten.Evidently, On the Margins is a cornerstone piece for several works including Stolen Bodies/ Secret Texts and Hidden Pages/ Stolen Bodies (2001). In these works Ole again makes use of found objects, including records of the Benguela slave trade, to construct a visual tableau of colonialism in Angola. He weaves forms that have personal significance with materials that have broader connotations. While On the Margins refers to childhood memories, signs and symbols of Luanda’s current and past history are incorporated as well.Two works by Mpane make an indelible impact. As one enters the gallery space, to the right is a nude figure made of approximately 4,652 matchsticks. It lit to cast a dramatic shadow that looms larger than life on the wall. In front of the figure is a wooden cross and on the floor, flat cut-out forms resemble clothed figures – a woman and a child with shoes. Entitled Congo, Shadow of Shadow (2005), the work relates to the fragility of existence in the Congo. Mpane refers to the impact of gangs and rebels on a community in which the only remnants of human life after pillaging and murder are shoes.More than 70% of the DRC’s population is Christian. It is understandable then that the image of the cross has strong ramifications and credence. Faith is important, religiosity a natural haven in a societal marked by upheaval. However, the shadow of the matchstick figure hovers over the cross and dwarfs this symbol. Does the nude figure with head bowed and arms folded represent the essence of man as spirit lamenting the loss of human life? Does the cross, in addition to being a symbol of faith, mark a gravesite?The carving Nude (2006-08) presents a lone male figure standing with one hand on the hip. The figure is beautiful and dignified. Although part of a larger project that contains nine standing male nudes carved from a block of laminated plywood, it presents a striking counterpoint in the context of this exhibition.The exchange between the two artists over a two-week period resulted in Rail, Massina 3, an installation by Mpane, and Ole’sAllegory of Construction I. Ole continued with his investigations started years ago in Chicago and Dusseldorf, where he used local materials to construct site-specific installations. Here he worked with detritus found in Washington junkyards to create a neat colourful display reminiscent of musseques. His colour selection and ordering of materials convey his current optimism about the state of affairs in Angola. Mpane’s painted wall recalls the brightly collared shop fronts of a specific street and living quarter within Kinshasa. It is a façade of stores that have no wares to sell. Created from memory, vibrant painted signs advertise everything from a photo studio to food store. Three vendors’ boxes stand in front of this work, each holding a flag of the Congo, Belgium and the United States respectively. The US flag is hung upside down. Questioned about this, Mpane responded: “I used it as a symbol of alarm… the economic crisis is also here.” The colourful boxes themselves are slashed with an adze to symbolise Mpane’s empathy and anger at the hardships of his countrymen. The mock façade of this Congolese business district punctuates the financial stress and strain experienced by many merchants and potential consumers, as well as their hopefulness that the coffers of their stores will be filled.A.M. Weaver is a curator and writer based in Philadelphia