Eye on African Art ; the Rich Diversity of Voices Belies Old Stereotypes of Carved Masks and Tribal Sculpture

By Emilie Boyer King Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Eye on African Art ; the Rich Diversity of Voices Belies Old Stereotypes of Carved Masks and Tribal Sculpture


Emilie Boyer King Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When artist Cheick Diallo completed his design studies in France, his dearest wish was to return home to Mali to put his new skills to work. But he soon understood this would be a bad career move. In Mali, as in much of Africa, there is virtually no market for artists and designers.

"After I had finished studying, I wanted to go back to Mali," explained Mr. Diallo in his workshop cluttered with objects and furniture whose elegant designs hint at subtle African inspirations. "But I knew I would be isolated. In Africa, people don't know what design is, so I first had to create a market myself."

Today, Diallo splits his time between France and Mali, regularly returning to his homeland to work with local craftsmen. He has now carved a niche both in Europe and Africa. But he is one of only a few. While contemporary art is flourishing all over Africa, the continent doesn't have the money to support it.

"In Africa, contemporary art is still something new. People don't really know what to think about [it]," says Simon Njami, arts curator and founder of the renowned arts journal Revue Noire. "In the West, the role of the state is fundamental in the development of this sort of art. Over there, governments don't have this sort of money, or they don't give themselves the means to support it. But outside Africa, the market is growing because buyers, collectors, and institutions are discovering the variety and richness coming out of the continent."

An exhibition of contemporary African art currently showing at the Pompidou Center in Paris is a startling reminder of the creativity flowing from the African continent. Anyone who still thinks African art consists of the traditional masks and sculptures that so inspired the Modernists such as Picasso or Matisse, is in for a big surprise.

"Africa Remix" is the largest collection of contemporary African art ever shown in Europe. For the first time, works by artists from the entire African continent and the diaspora are brought together in a vast, sometimes daunting space, filled with sound, color, and powerful, often disturbing, images. These works, which include painting, sculpture, photography, and video and music installations, would cause their Western counterparts envy.

Visitors are greeted by a monumental installation made up of obstacles displayed in awkward positions across theroom. The work, which is physically taxing to walk through, reflects the difficulty of entering the unknown world of contemporary African art.

Humor peppers the work of Paris-based Zoulikha Bouabdellah from Algeria, as she evokes the fusion of Western and African cultures with "Blue, White and Red," a work for which she has filmed herself belly-dancing to a slow rendition of the French national anthem.

Around the corner, a commanding totemic tower made from plastic jerry cans by Romuald Hazoume from Benin reveals an impressive skill at recycling mundane objects into a work of powerful beauty.

In the poetic and evocative installation "Onomatopoeia," South African artist Wim Botha explores the legacy of apartheid by using elegant furniture from a typical Afrikaner household - which he hangs from the ceiling.

"We have seen the contradictory currents that ripple across contemporary Africa," says Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition. "From the end of apartheid in South Africa to the land disputes in Zimbabwe ... from the upsurge of religious fundamentalism in the north to the [beginnings] of democracy. It is these aesthetic and intellectual shifts of identity that the artists in 'Africa Remix' express. …

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