Writing Art History Since 2002

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National Museum of African Art | Washington DC

Berni Searle, To Hold in the Palm of the Hand, 2000, inkjet print on vellum, hennaThe exhibition Body of Evidence, held at the National Museum ofAfrican Art in Washington DC, was intriguing for the way the 25contemporary African artists selected to show, for the most part,referenced the human form. The body was often represented asfragmentary or non-existent. Apparently, the exhibition was anepisodic journey through the human condition, straddling the temporalrealities of the political and cultural, and transcendence into themetaphysical realm.The directive for choosing the work in the show was to presentglobal trends in contemporary African art. However, this prism hasroots in past histories that are both politically and culturallycharged. Willie Bester recounts the atrocities of apartheid, in GreenCar, and Antonio Ole’s Hidden Pages/Stolen Bodies is an exegesis inmulti-media of Angola’s colonial legacy. Georgia Papageorge’sfilm Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil, in part, servesas a healing ritual, while Berry Bickle’s Sarungano is a monumentalshrine for the missing and the dead, victims of violence and itslegacy in contemporary Zimbabwe.More than half the show featured artists from South Africa, manywere part of Reclaiming Art/Reclaiming Space, an exhibit held at theMuseum in 1999 that captured the climate of South Africa shortlyafter apartheid. Consequently, most of the works in Body of Evidencewere made before 2001.Several of the artists, such as Rudzani Nemasetoni, Gavin Jantjesand Johannes Phokela, were not on view during my visits to theMuseum. (However, after reviewing their works through catalogues, Iwas sorry I missed these politically driven pieces, remnants of pastreflections.) Kay Hassan and Garth Erasmus use collage as theirprinciple media. One is reminded of the African American master,Romare Bearden. In 1963, as a vehicle to construct commentary onsocial change, Bearden embarked on the creation of photomontagesusing magazine clippings. Hassan’s medium is recycled billboardpaper, which he rips to construct roughly hewn figures. His FirstTime Voters is a poignant scene of black men and women lining up tovote.Erasmus also used paper – in combination with found objects -to create Subject to Change, a work that anticipates societaltransitions shortly before the end of apartheid. In composition andstyle, his approach to collage is reminiscent of Bearden’s blackand white photomontage, Mysteries (1964).While the direct gazes of Bearden’s subjects possess a hopefuldemeanour, the expressions of Erasmus’ heads appear to range fromanger and defiance, to fear and complacency. This work offers apostscript to a harrowing past.Sue Williamson’s Can’t Forget, Can’t Remember is aninteractive installation that puts the viewer in control of excerptsfrom South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)hearings. By clicking a cursor on passages from transcripts of theTRC hearings, which are projected on a screen, viewers can listen tostatements by victims confronting their tormentors.Williamson chooses two transcripts: one describes the brutalityand torture methods of a police officer, who sought amnesty formurder, the other recounts the efforts of a grieving widow to make amember of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army remember the fatalshooting of her husband. Williamson, using media images combined withtext, attempts to amplify the violation of human rights duringapartheid.Georgia Papageorge does not refer directly to the body; thelandscape and fabric prominent in her languid film serve asmetaphors. The body is the landscape, the ocean, the cityscape.Massive strips of blood red fabric, representative of a life force,billow along shorelines, cascade down mountainsides, or delineate theperiphery of Brazilian cities. With Africa Rifting Papageorgeostensibly illustrates the geological chasm between Namibia andBrazil – and their interconnectedness through a shared history. Anaura of solemnity and the ephemeral permeates the piece, evoking theresponse of meditation.This film is beatific and captivating; through it Papageorge makespeace with the loss of her two-year-old daughter.Included in this presentation is Berni Searle’s outsized printof a henna blackened palm, To Hold, in the Palm of the Hand. The workforms part of her Discoloured (1999) series, which lingers on themost sensitive parts of the body: the nape of the neck, small of theback, and palm of the hands. The work was made shortly after the TRChearings, tribunals that art historian Annie Coombes argues lackedthe means to truly express national pain and collective guilt.Searle’s prints, created five years after South Africa’s firstdemocratic election, give voice to the hidden nuances of sufferingreiterated by the TRC hearings.Searle’s work is deeply immersed in identity and genderpolitics, and evocative of post-colonial discourse, a fact evidentfrom her recent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One ofthree artists featured in New Photography 2007, Searle contextualisesmemory and the past, using not only her body but faded silhouettes offamily photos made of crepe paper. There is an ambiguity to both theseries About to Forget (2005) and Approach (2006). In Approach,Searle ascends and descends a huge mound of grape skins, discardedfrom a wine farm near Cape Town. Her stained frock is the only cluethat the mound is not made of earth. Searle is more and more esotericin her inferences. These photographic sequences of a towering mound -with her female form and the tranquil luminosity of an azure sky -construct psychological landscapes.About to Forget is a journey into other realms. Searle’spresence is absent and captions let us know the crepe papersilhouettes are family members. The cutouts, immersed in water,literally dematerialise. As they fade, gradually from frame to frame,we are given images of swirls of red dye against a milky whitebackground (the residue of a fleeting memory?). Searle discreetlyintegrates the experiential, cultural and social into a subjectivepresentation, capturing moments revisited from multiple perspectivesrather than through a linear narrative. She conveys the juncture offluidity evident in contemporary feminist practices.Body of Evidence is a survey show, a snapshot of explorations byartists in Africa at a pivotal juncture. Shifting from the politicalto the conceptual effortlessly, varied and pluralistic discourses arepresent. Multi-media works predominate, with several artists activelyengaged in filmmaking and installation.Agendas, for some, in recent years, lean toward an idiosyncraticaesthetic, rather than political/social explorations. The artists’personal symbol systems determine the multiple readings inherent intheir expressions.AM Weaver is an independent writer and curator based inPhiladelphia. She is currently working on a feminist sculpture project, entitledRustic Forms/Mythic Bodies

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