How much responsibility does the curator have to present a framework for the pieces on display, and when does she run the risk of over-explanation? Is the “curator” the person who leveraged connections to get the work on display, or the person who assembles a group of artworks that enlighten the viewer on a heretofore unknown/misunderstood topic? These aren't new questions in the field of exhibition-making, but they were certainly on my mind as I viewed these nineteen artworks hanging in the BNY Mellon Gallery of the August Wilson Center (Fig. 1). Curated by painter Osi Audu, this small exhibition debuted at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art (Detroit, MI) before traveling to The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (New Paltz, NY) and concluding at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh.
Those who follow contemporary African art would be familiar with the styles of the six featured artists: Osi Audu, Nicholas Hlobo, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Odili Donald Odita, Nnenna Okore, and Elias Sime. The artist-cum-curator aside, all exhibitors are represented by major established galleries: Stevenson, James Cohan, Jack Shainman, etc. These associations were noted in almost every publicity and didactic text. So what differentiates this exhibition from a glossy commercial gallery installation? With fifty-word labels that introduce each artist's practice generally, but none of the works on display specifically, the viewer must turn to Audu's short introductory text to determine the underpinning raison d'ětre of this exhibition:
Abstraction is as indigenous to African visual culture as it is to other parts of the world. The exploration of purely formal elements is not only readily evidenced in the rich traditions of textile designs and other decorative practices from the continent, but is also present in the stylizations of much figurative work from Africa. The six artists in this exhibition, all born and/or raised in countries in Africa, produce work thematically or conceptually connected to the continent by pursuing the use of abstraction as a way of engaging in a broader conversation about art. In our increasingly global existence of the 21st century the world is becoming less and less exotic, and is being experienced more as a sphere of commonalities of being, dreams, fears and aspirations. Cultural ideas once thought as discrete are now being understood as archetypical, having resonances across the wider world. Aesthetic engagement with form is as important a part of the content of these artists' works as is their symbolic, historical, socio-political, or conceptual significance.
Art history certainly boasts a fraught discourse when it comes to the categories of “African art” and “abstract art,” from waves of European appropriation, to the categorization of primitive arts as malformed fetishes, to the erasure of pioneering abstractionists altogether. We might read Abstract Minded as a pushback to MoMA's Inventing Abstraction: 1910–1925 (2012), which entirely elided the influence of both historical and contemporaneous artmakers from the African continent. Unfortunately, while the work on display is quite strong, the curatorial text's implication of formal continuity does not aid the average viewer as they try to connect “rich traditions” of woven and sculptural abstraction with the compelling nonnarrative work on display. In other words, the curatorial framework implies that contemporary African artists are the heirs apparent to abstraction based on the styles and forms of their monolithic forerunner: “African visual culture.”
Ignoring the problematic homogenization of historical art from the continent, this direct correlation between an African culture of the past and a contemporary abstract painting is most evident in the work of curator-artist Audu. In Self-Portrait, Benin Head (2016; Fig. 2), Audu echoes the form of an Iyoba figure from the kingdom of Benin, emphasizing her peaked hairstyle through the meeting of planar forms. Similarly, Self-Portrait, Ogoni Head (2017; Fig. 3) draws from an Ogoni mask's parted hairstyle and upturned nose to arrive at the division of gray at the top of the form and the protruding rectangular element from its side.
While Audu's artwork aligns with the curatorial premise he authored, the pieces from other exhibitors diverge from such rootedness in “indigenous” abstraction. Nicholas Hlobo's work—which was not even displayed in the Detroit debut of this exhibition of six artists—is described as “stitch[ing] together a torn South Africa through abstract forms,” a characterization that both glosses over the artist's interest in gender and sexuality and reductively burdens his work with entanglement in South Africa's famous history of apartheid (Fig. 4). More frequently, Hlobo's weaving of soft ribbons or industrial rubber connotes genitalia and innuendo and is paired with a title in Xhosa. Since the exhibition gives no direction on how these particular works by Hlobo depart from the typical themes of the artist, the viewer flattens Hlobo's art practice and reads these works as simple portrayals of “his country as a headless monster.”
In spite of the flimsy framework, the majority of pieces on display are very compelling. Elias Sime's Tightrope Contrast (2017; Fig. 5) is a dazzling grid of eighty panels meticulously covered with electronic wiring. Following his penchant to work with electronic detritus, Sime masterfully reworks meters of cables into a complex composition that is equally engaging when viewed from a distance or close up. Many of the rectangles in Tightrope Contrast are self-contained abstract patterns, though a few instances of continuity across panel borders belie the work's cohesive cacophony.
Equally compelling are Serge Alain Nitegeka's paintings, particularly Found Mass I and II (Figs. 6–7). The clean geometric forms are masterful examples of hard-edge painting and dynamic color balancing. Though the labels again draw an oversimplified relationship between the abstracted forms and a physical referent in Africa (“His works are abstract aerial views” inspired by “his home city of Johannesburg”), Nitegeka speaks of his rigid style as a tool to gain control. His oeuvre addresses the psychological reality of forced migration, a phenomenon that is not only topical for today, but also personal to the artist.
The works chosen for this exhibition are certainly all abstract in their visual form, but only a few—and especially Audu's—are based on physical or traditional referents. And it is true that the participating artists are all connected to the African continent. But constructing an exhibition from this simple premise, without offering sufficient nuance or context, is to undermine the impact of the insightful work from all six artists. Though this installation offers a polished veneer, its potential to generate an insightful analysis on abstraction remains untapped.