Beyond Borders: Global Africa joined previous shows around the world to expand the thematic and formalistic narratives of African art in terms of genealogy, identification, transatlantic networks, and influence.
While borders can conjure the calamitous aftermath of the transatlantic itinerary, “beyond borders” in this exhibition was theorized as an invitation to question the geopolitics of aesthetics under late capitalism. In doing so, curator Laura de Becker, the Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator of African Art at UMMA, remarked that “to draw a border is to perform a conceptual act that demarcates, defines, and classifies” (2018: 8). Having defined “border,” she went ahead to transcend its sociological and psychological imaginaries through a nuanced reading of previously neglected art historical narratives and arrived at a unique curatorial paradigm.
This paradigm involved the assembling of more than thirty-five works of African artists from the fifteenth century down to the present inside the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Works in four curatorial categories—exchange, hybridity, influence, and identity—were carefully analyzed with a sustained attention to detail and intermix across age, style, forms, and theme. For example, the nineteenth century nkisi figure (Fig. 1) of the Bwende people of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) received a localized reading in the exchange zone of the exhibit as a power object produced by bangana (expert healers). De Becker proceeded to show that some of the motifs on the objects were shared across ethnic borders of central Africa, where colonial authorities chose to dissolve such borders in their pursuit of imperial agenda.
An example of Pwo (woman) masks (Fig. 2) of the people of Chokwe in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia was made of wood, tukula powder, clay, string, metal, fur, snakeskin, cloth, chicken foot, and a tax token button. The detailed description of these materials by the curator gave primacy to the ingenuity of mixed media ideas these artists employed, a sure match for Western hyperconceptual mixed media artists. The search for varying degrees of feminine beauty also run across regional works that dwell on the theme of Pwo.
Under “hybridity,” the curator rethought the century-old generalized interpretations of African art, rising above prevailing dichotomies to reinforce particularities. She pulled together the complex but historic interplay of materiality, iconography, and creative methodology to illustrate how the entangled social, economic, cultural, and political relations between Africa and the rest of world have produced originality in global art. For example, she cleverly showed how trade transactions between local Chokwe chiefs and Europeans transformed the visual iconography of nineteenth century prestige stools from Angola, DRC, and Zambia, especially in the works titled ngundja (ceremonial chair) and prestige stool. These chairs were embellished with “brass tacks which were imported into Africa and traded for wax, ivory, rubber, and slaves” (de Becker 2018: 28).
Perhaps to prove that both nineteenth century African artists and contemporary African artists are not sequestered from global flows of ideas, the curator included a 2011 archival digital print by Fabrice Monteiro in this hybridity section. Monteiro himself represents a hybrid collage in terms of his ancestry, with a Beninese father and Belgian mother; his works also viscerally connect to questions of hybridity. His work titled Signares de Saint Louis #10 (2011; Fig. 3) shows a black woman holding an umbrella above her head, dressed in a long, flowing silk gown. She stands in the frontage of a wooden house with a framed portrait of a white man placed on the wall. The portrait suggests a nineteenth century Portuguese merchant. The woman's umbrella bears the same color as her dress, while her excessive brown scarf flows downward towards her waist. Her beautifully decorated face stares at the camera. The pose of the white merchant in the framed photo could represent the fashioning of power that came with imperial conquest. The woman's elaborately refined apparel, elegance, and pose could depict a sartorial world that came with what John Berger described as the “new power of capital” and “new attitudes to property and exchange” (1974: 84). And these both came with European imperial encounter, interactions teased out by Monteiro.
Another striking work in this section was Leviathan (2016; Fig. 4) by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai. This work is a giant model of a wooden ship bedecked with found objects and materials that connect colonial and imperial history with contemporaneity. An assortment of textiles bearing Christian icons and colonial symbols of authority subtly evoked the conscious cruelty that came with slavery and colonialism. In her catalogue essay, the curator drew an analogy between Chiurai's Leviathan and Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), noting how an underlying foreboding of religious and political significance from Hobbes's book may have informed Chiurai's. Other works such as William Adjete Wilson's No 3. First Encounter, from The Black Ocean (2009) bespoke the strange nexus between the ship and the ocean as two critical elements of transatlantic slavery. Wilson's forms are naively surrealistic, with funny animal and human figures and exotic ideas that depict a rash disregard for traditional Western formalist elements.
In the third section, titled “Influence,” there was evidence of inspiration from both African stylistic processes and Western thematic inclinations. Alison Saar, for example, born in United States, represents this fusion. Her work Janus (2003; Fig. 5) and another work titled Nkisi nkondi by an “unrecorded” nineteenth century artist from Vili group, DRC and Angola, bear visible stylistic similarities. Nkisi has outward projections of iron nails and metals, while Janus has similar projections made from wood. The countenances of both bear a striking resemblance. However, the torsos deviate remarkably. While Nkisi represents a human figure with a formal frontal pose, Janus is a sculpture of two female heads joined together but facing opposite directions. Both make allusions to an inherent spiritual power.
Houton Maludi's work La vie a Kinshasa II (2014; Fig. 6) arguably provoked a radical aesthetic idea in terms of its apparent departure from predominating styles in this section. A monumental canvas filled with a monochromatic rendition of intricately drawn pen-and-ink work revealed the artist's references to the Cubist repertoire, which the artist claims inspired him to evolve a style he calls “Mono-chromique Cubisme Symbiotique Quantique.” This style, quite astonishing and perplexing upon visual scrutiny, achieves perfect harmony with an interpenetrating, minute agglomeration of geometric shapes and forms. The work speaks about the urban chaos and catastrophes occasioned by failed postcolonial statecraft in Kinshasa, DRC. Works by the much-celebrated artist Cheri Samba in this section made indirect allusion to the same socioeconomic challenges facing the DRC.
The last section here, “Identity,” had works of established and rising African artists such as Serge Alain Nitegeka, Sam Nhlengethwa, Seydou Keita, Omar Victor Diop, Nandipha Mntambo, Wangechi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley. The diverse materials used and ideas expressed in the works revealed individual searches for identities. One fact was revealing here: African artists who have interacted with Western exhibition spaces for significant portions of their careers were substantially featured, perhaps revealing a curatorial struggle to deal with a recent question of “how to present artists we have grown all too familiar with, without replicating a generic, global perspective of contemporary African art” (Cantone 2018: 86). Subsequent exhibitions should be seen to rise above this curatorial roundabout by resisting the continuous urge to show “over-exposed” works and artists. Institutional funding must encourage efforts to rediscover unknown artists across the African continent and elsewhere.
Although the gallery provided an expansive space for these works, their manner of distribution tended to eclipse the curatorial approach of categorization. Once inside the exhibition space, an observer may have struggled to grasp the groupings.
Series of activities following the exhibition included a discussion facilitated by Africanist art historian Ray Silverman with Nii Quarcoopome of Detroit Institute of Arts, Sylvester Ogbechie of University of California, Santa Barbara, and Monica Udvardy from University of Kentucky. The talk centered on inherent epistemological debates around collections, repatriations, and display of African artworks in Western art museums. Other activities included performances by Tunde Olaniran, Haleem “Stringz” Rasul of Detroit, and Franco “Slomo” Dhaka of Harare, Zimbabwe, with live music by SMTD alumnus Everett Reid and a student jazz combo. Conversation with curator Laura de Becker and an interactive storytelling session with the students of University of Michigan were also included.
The exhibition was accompanied by a beautifully designed, professionally written catalogue providing historical and intellectual engagement with the exhibits: Laura de Becker, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, foreword by Museum Director Christina Olsen (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2018. 88 pp., $20.00).