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The travelling exhibition, showcasing a diverse group of African artists is on view in South Africa

The old and almost forgotten tag of “Africa the dark continent” came under intense scrutiny by 54 artists – each representing a country in Africa. They created work which grapples with aspects of illumination, energy and sustainability in a diverse group exhibition titled, ‘Lumières d’Afriques’, currently showing at the Standard Bank Gallery. The exhibition is a visual representation of the idea that the 21st century belongs to Africa. Rather than this being an exhibition which showcases utopian viewpoints of the continent – it instead, shines a light on many of the challenges facing people living in Africa – it showcases various manners which these challenges are being tackled.

However, before rushing to the conclusion that the issues addressed in the works created for this exhibition concern Africa and its people solely, one should heed the words of Aurelien Lechevallier, the Ambassador of France to South Africa. He remarked on this perception at this exhibition’s opening, saying, “The message conveyed in these art pieces are universal as much as they are continental”. This sentiment is exemplified perfectly in the knowledge that this travelling Pan African exhibition was first experienced by audiences at the 2015 edition of COP, by the French President at the Theatre National de Chaillot and in the Eurostar Station in Gare du Nord in Paris (France), moving on to Abidjan (Cote d’ Ivoire). Since then it has travelled to Darkar (Senegal) in 2016, 2017 saw the works being presented at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva (Switzerland), 2018 saw this exhibition travel to the African Union’s Headquarters in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia); while 2019 saw the show being hosted at the Mohammed Museum in Rabat (Morocco). This exhibition’s arrival in Johannesburg – arguably the continent’s economic powerhouse – not only underlines the statement made by Ambassador Lechevallier regarding the universal importance and appeal of this exhibition, but also highlights the importance of why this exhibition is hosted in South Africa at this time.

Emeka Okereke (Nigeria), Light Switch, 2015.Emeka Okereke (Nigeria), Light Switch, 2015.

The 54 works on show by 54 artists each representing a country on the continent cover a wide array of materials ranging from textiles, paintings, photography, installations and sculptural works. Each piece engages with its African-ness while simultaneously challenging stereotypes and expectations of Africa, its people as well as the perceived realities and expectations of the world at large. Equally as varying are the themes and topics tackled by these artists: The photographic work, Light Switch (2015), by Nigerian artist, Emeka Okereke; depicting the artist in a dark room looking up at a single light bulb, is a commentary on the aforementioned “Dark Continent” tag. She asks, how there can be darkness and no light in a continent where the sun never ceases to shine? This is a question posed metaphorically, suggesting that continent with the highest population of melanated peoples cannot exist in darkness.

Aïda Muluneh (Ethiopia), Darkness Give Way to Light, 2015.Aïda Muluneh (Ethiopia), Darkness Give Way to Light, 2015.

The photographic print Darkness Give Way To Light, on Hahnemühle rag by Ethiopian artist, Aïda Muluneh, is a contemporary representation of a traditional and cultural practice of body and face painting common in different regions across the continent. The work itself also draws inspiration from a story told by her Indian friend. He told her of how his father, who lived in a rural region was so determined to be educated that he would sit in front of a lamp post which was the only light source in his village and use that light source to study. Thus, depicting how vital electricity is in the aspirational pursuit for greatness not only on the continent of Africa but across the globe as well. This depiction of the artist posing regally with her face painted and hold up a page with eastern scripted text on it. This suggests a bridging of cultural and traditional sentiments which allude to both African identities as well as to the existence of cross-cultural global shared experiences.

Paa Joe (Ghana, Electric Bulb, 2015.)Paa Joe (Ghana), Electric Bulb, 2015.

The conceptual reverberation Muluneh’s work can be seen echoed in works such as that of iconic Ghanaian artist, Paa Joe. His sculptural fantasy coffin piece Electric Bulb, is a piece which reinterprets the traditional funeral Ghanaian rituals which aimed at presenting the personality of the deceased through elaborate coffin designs. With this work – which offers the tradition under a contemporary light – Paa Joe blurs the lines between traditionalist craft and high art.

Athi-Patra Ruga (South Africa), Miss Azania, 2015.Athi-Patra Ruga (South Africa), Miss Azania, 2015.

South African multidisciplinary artist Athi-Patra Ruga tackles national pride from an alternative viewpoint with his 2015, Miss Azania, a photographic piece which has Ruga continuing his fusion of performance, textile and fashion design, installation and photography. In this instance, the idea of National pride is presented through the guise of beauty contests and the procession that comes with it – simultaneously commenting on aspects of identity while recontextualising the Eurocentric into an African context. Here Miss Azania is presented in a garden setting which alludes to portrayals of the period of enlightenment.

Through discussing the works of this small sample of artists exhibiting in this exhibition, it becomes clear that the light that shines out from the artworks on show, aid not only in creating enlightened perceptions of our continent and artists but also of perceptions of Africa globally.

Catch this exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, before it closes on 9 April 2020.

Nolan Stevens is an arts writer, curator and award-winning visual artist based in Johannesburg, with a focus in Afro-urban subject matter.

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