Arnolfini Bristol 5 May to 1 July
Al Cameron, co-curator with Nav Haq of 'Superpower', informs me that this project created speculative confusion when news of it first leaked out to his peers. It is an interesting statement in that it speaks of common cultural perceptions: is the mystical legacy of Afrofuturism (or Black Science Fiction), as evidenced by the work of Sun Ra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, DJ Spooky and the Otolith Group, looked at in a different light from the work of, say, Stanley Kubrick, HG Wells or George Orwell? 'Superpower' sits at the juncture of these complex questions without directly alluding to a particular agenda or wishing to redefine a historical canon. Subtitled 'Africa in Science Fiction', the exhibition is a snapshot of a recent surge of art that has been influenced by the tropes of generic science fiction and its relationship to the African continent. Futurism, dystopia and mysticism thus become unifying qualities that link the different temporal zones within the Arnolfini's galleries.
The tone is set early on with a two-hander in Omer Fast's Nostalgia II, 2009, where a documentary filmmaker can be seen interviewing a jovial Nigerian refugee who is perched in front of a green screen. 'We know people are dying. [Your story] doesn't have to be about politics or even war,' says the Caucasian interlocutor. But before long, the documentary maker grows twitchy, shifting from an interlocutor to an interrogator: he informs the Nigerian refugee that he would like to capture the minutiae of his life and childhood; however, his interviewee cares only if his image will end up in the final film. This noirish tension, compounded by translation issues, is echoed throughout the works in the show.
Joao Maria Gusmao and Pedro Paiva's three short 16mm films, made between 2006 and 2011, delve deeper into the tense limits between perception and representation. Delivered in slow motion, banal images begin to suggest alternative meanings. An image of a blind Kenyan man at first seems wholly supernatural, yet as the film reels unwind, it becomes clear that the subject of Gusmao and Paiva's film is merely eating a piece of papaya fruit--it is an everyday act that has been mediated to create a kind of 'alien' identity.
The anxiety inherent in the politics of race and image-making continues in Pawel Althamer's Common Talk: Mali, 2008-. In the gallery documentation we can see Althamer with his Polish travel companions donning luminescent gold body suits in the Malian community. Attempting to form a 'science fiction in real time', the artist manipulates the classical notion of the extraterrestrial invading Earth through the reverse allegory that occurs when a western or colonial force unexpectedly appears in the territory of the so-called Other.
Aware of the diverse source material that encompasses the fanatical culture of science fiction, the exhibition also presents two works by Neill Blomkamp, the commercial writer and filmmaker behind the South African feature film District 9 of 2009. In 'Superpower' we are witness to Alive in Joburg, 2005, a prequel to Blomkamp's feature. Here, a mixed aesthetic (half futuristic western science fiction, half DIY cut and paste) is used to cull together visual material that juxtaposes popular images of CGI aliens against the backdrop of the contemporary urban landscape of Johannesburg. Blomkamp interviewed the Afrikaans minority residents in the city about their attitudes towards new immigrants to South Africa. The stark and brutal hints of racial unrest that manifest themselves in these conversations create a jarring kind of pastiche as Blomkamp intersperses such commentary with visions of intergalactic aliens, as opposed to the illegal 'aliens' to which the interviewees refer. …