Intricately cut paper overlaid with colorful paint and gold leaf, monumental narrative paintings, drawings featuring animal-human hybrids, and large panels painted with abstract patterns greeted visitors at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh's special exhibition entitled “The Ease of Fiction.” Independent curator Dexter Wimberly organized the diverse array of media and subject matter around two tenets: The four artists featured in the show are US-based but African-born, and their respective artworks interrogate the ease of accepting narrative as truth. Although many of the questions posed in Wimberly's exhibition have been asked before, the show provided timely and nuanced insight into a number of issues relevant to the fields of African art, contemporary global art, and international politics.
Juxtaposed on the first floor of the exhibition were the mixed media works of Sherin Guirguis (b. 1974, Egypt) and the monumental oil paintings of Meleko Mokgosi (b. 1981, Botswana) (Fig. 1). The lower level featured a video of the artists discussing their works, the drawings of ruby onyinyechi amanze (b. 1982, Nigeria), and Duhirwe Rushemeza's (b. 1977, Rwanda) sculptural paintings. The organization seemed to be driven by space constraints—Meleko Mokgosi's large-scale paintings require substantial room and high ceilings—but overall the pairings produced a compelling visual dialogue.
Despite these four artists' distinct styles, they approach questions of identity and truth through compositions layered with meaning and ambiguity. Rather than curating a group of artists who represent polarized points of view, Wimberly brought together artworks varied enough to provide diverse perspectives and generative of nuanced dialogue. For instance, Sherin Guirguis's Untitled (Bab Huda) opens the exhibition with its complex layering of paper, paint, and gold leaf (Fig. 2). Born in Egypt, Guirguis moved to the United States at age 14, and she recreates Egyptian architectural sites through mixed media paper cutouts. Untitled (Bab Huda) represents the door to Huda Sha'arawi's house, one of the last functional harems of Egypt.1 Huda Sha'arawi was a prominent Egyptian feminist leader, and while Guirguis specifically recalls the gender politics of the Egyptian home and harem, her colorful geometric patterns and use of shimmering gold leaf create a dizzying composition of ambiguity.
As the opening work of the exhibition, Untitled (Bab Huda) was a literal but abstruse doorway into the show. The choice to introduce “The Ease of Fiction” with Sherin Guirguis's works also underscores the issue of categorizing African artists. Often Guirguis is grouped with contemporary artists from California or the Middle East. Her inclusion in the exhibition is an important reminder that geography and nationality are human constructions rather than indisputable truths.
The title of this show, “The Ease of Fiction,” refers to the ease with which people accept established narratives as indisputable truths. Informed by their own cultural identities, all four artists grapple with established narratives of geography, culture, and art. ruby onyinyechi amanze was born in Nigeria, but grew up in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States. amanze's works explore a sense of displacement generated by the diaspora. Her drawings, often described as Afrofuturist, feature aliens, ghosts, and hybrid creatures—products of displacement that imply not only past trauma but also the possibility of an imaginative and fantastical future. In tenderhearted (audre) crosses the sea (Fig. 3), amanze depicts a human-like leopard standing upright with its paws tucked into the pockets a yellow hooded jacket. Behind the leopard, a black camel carries an amalgamation of brightly colored and patterned fabrics. amanze's rich literary title constructs a narrative of whimsical proportion. The main character of this story has a name, a description, and a destination, but visually the motifs are unfamiliar. Attempting to read the brightly colored fabrics as Nigerian is difficult; trying to understand the human-like leopard possibly named audre proves elusive. These visual motifs exist in the ambiguous spaces between geography, culture, and art.
Like amanze, Duhirwe Rushemeza plays with notions of cultural and artistic hybridity. Born in Rwanda, Rushemeza currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Inspired by Rwandan cow dung paintings known as Imigongo, she creates sculptural paintings such as Red Ochre, White and Blue by layering industrial materials.2 Rushemeza's works also feature highly abstract patterns and compositions informed by Western painting traditions (Fig. 4). Her practice reflects the notion that in the spaces between, a visual culture is no longer stable. Instead, a new visual language must be created.
Moreso than any other artist featured in this exhibition, Meleko Mokgosi explores the complex relationships between power, history, and fiction. The exhibition included his Ruse of Disavowal (Fig. 5), an installation of large-scale paintings first exhibited at the Lyon Biennale in 2013. Mokgosi takes images of daily life in Southern Africa—a wedding, men at rest, an empty sitting room—and mixes them with visual motifs of violence, tragedy, and bureaucracy that evoke Southern Africa's entrenched history of colonialism. In a filmed interview displayed within the exhibition, Mokgosi notes the futility of attempting to associate history with truth: “We are always interpreting things. I think there's … no kind of filtering of reality that does not go through representation.”3
Each of the four artists featured in Wimberly's exhibition added insight into the ease of fiction. Together, they provided multifaceted and often ambiguous answers to questions concerning the categorization of diasporic African art and the negotiation of complex identities in an increasingly globalized world. These questions are not new. With the development of postcolonial theory, exhibitions concerning diasporic identities and the boundaries of African art have become, for lack of a better word, popular. One need only think of “Afro-Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic” (Tate Modern, 2010), which traced the impact of black culture on modernism and the diversity of contemporary diasporic artists, or the 2016 Armory Show that spotlighted global artistic production from African and African diasporic artists as a part of its “African Perspectives” focus. “The Ease of Fiction” echoes many of the ideas and methods established by postcolonial scholars and previous exhibitions.
Yet Wimberly manages to distinguish “The Ease of Fiction” as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue through the framework of fiction. The recognition of history and accepted truths as fiction is a starting point to understanding many of the works in the show, but it can also be conceived of as a strategy for navigating an increasingly globalized world. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED talk in 2009 describing the concept of a single story: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”4 Adichie's words reinforce the idea that to fully understand narratives and storytelling, we must acknowledge their flaws. In a political climate that prizes single stories and polemics, understanding the ease of fiction is critical to developing a more nuanced conception of the world and its many histories.
After its showing in Raleigh, the exhibition moved on to the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, California.
“Passages//Toroq by Sherin Guirguis.” Islamic Arts Magazine, November 7, 2013. http://islamicartsmagazine.com/magazine/view/sherin_guirguis_el_beit_el_kabir/
“Meet the Artist—Duhirwe Rushemeza,” ReAfrica Digital Magazine, July 4, 2016. http://reafricaonline.com/the-culture/meet-artist/
Meleko Mokgosi, February 29, 2016. Filmed interview, THE BHOLDR, http://www.thebholdr.com/blog/2016/2/29/the-ease-of-fiction-curated-by-dexter-wimberly
Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” July 2009. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en