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Africa Calling, by Jonathan Jones


Le Monde Vomissant
By Chéri Samba (Democratic Republic of Congo), 2004. Acrylic on canvas.
© Hayward Gallery

Image source: http://arts.guardian.co.uk/gallery/
Text source: http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/

There’s plenty to admire in Africa Remix. But Jonathan Jones wonders if a whole continent can really be captured in a single exhibition

Wednesday February 9, 2005

Africa is a scandal,” writes curator Simon Njami in the catalogue for Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Not many people would disagree. Africa, the poorest continent, with the most terrible problems of war and disease… But Njami doesn’t mean that. His catalogue essay is written in another language, that of curators: he means “scandal” in a theoretical way. Africa is a scandal because it is “hybrid”, because it is inherently transgressive, because… no, let us leave it there. Suffice it to say that Africa Remix flails around to find an Africa that can claim its place in the world of biennales, glossy art magazines and proliferating theory. That it ends up discovering the same old realities of injustice and poverty probably says more for the honesty of African artists than for the thinking behind the show.

The good news: Bodys Isek Kingelez is in it, and he is a mad genius, a visionary architect of futuristic worlds, which he builds in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. His work is full of loving detail, crowded with formal and chromatic surprises: skyscrapers in opulent yet neat shapes, neon lights, spacious highways and parks. Kingelez is a true modern artist as much as a contemporary one. He has an ideal of city life, a cartoonish utopianism that may, underneath, be an ironic and pessimistic joke about the failure of real cities, anywhere, to be as lovely as his dreams.

Pessimism clings to a lot of the work here despite itself, or despite the promotional claims made for it. Goncalo Mabunda welds together pieces of guns to make sculptures, including a rusting Eiffel Tower. This Mozambique artist seems on the face of it to be uplifting and redemptive – swords into ploughshares, automatic weapons into chairs. But there is a gloom and a wretchedness to these objects, with their cargo of the slain.

Recycling of one kind or another is the dominant aesthetic in Africa Remix. This is subtly different from the cult of the readymade in current European and American art. The Duchampian object selected and isolated by the artist is by definition historyless, made new. The recycled or collaged object is the opposite: a lump of memory. To make art from scrap is to make a lugubrious monument to its previous users. So Dilomprizulike’s human figures made from rubbish and El Anatsui’s curtain of reused aluminium and Titos’s aeroplane of trash are grim and sombre things, for all their creative verve. They are hand-me-downs, inherited houses full of bad memories. Willie Bester makes this explicit in his For Those Left Behind, a monument to victims of apartheid forged from scrap metal of that era – guns, badges, chains.

Unfortunately, Bester isn’t very good, and in general this exhibition lacks quality control. I don’t just mean it has bad work, but it aspires to the condition of an art fair or festival, in which a large number of artists of wildly varying merit display one or two works. So there is only one – brilliant – cityscape by Kingelez, and just two works by the terrific Congolese painter Chéri Samba.

Even on this limited showing, Samba’s Le Monde Vomissant is a startling painting. An African-faced Earth spews out the indigestible continent of America. There is a list of some other vomit-worthy places. It’s strange, grotesque, funny – but a very incomplete representation of the art of Samba, who paints Hogarthian scenes of everyday life full of gross jokes, surreal rage and lyricism.

This kind of painting has real popular roots and purposes in Kinshasa, and it could have been shown in far more depth. The reason I like it is not out of a crusty affection for painters but because Samba seems to tell us about African contemporary life, rather than setting out to fit into a global art system. You see this in his touching image The Bankrupt.

Samba and Kingelez are well-established names in French and other museums on the continent. The organisers of Africa Remix would probably say they are more interested in discovering the new. But they don’t discover anything very much. You could, of course, and logically should, define the “contemporary” as any art being made now, and an exhibition that really showed us a broad cross-section of images and artefacts from Africa made in the past couple of years might juxtapose traditional art made for tourists with living folk objects like painted coffins and with Kingelez’s utopian cities. This is not that exhibition. It uses “contemporary art” in the way it is generally used, to mean art aware of modernism and its aftermath. But who defines “contemporary art”, and why should it matter more than, say, “tribal” or popular art from Africa? And why should African art have to fit a sterile and middle-class western idea of the culturally pertinent?

The exhibition’s preference for that which asserts its right to be called truly contemporary and sophisticated means that it includes lots of photographs and lots of video. The image chosen for the publicity is Jane Alexander’s tableau of human and animal hybrid figures on a bed of red sand. It has obviously, irritatingly, been selected because, in a photo, it looks like an African answer to the Chapman brothers. There’s also lots of work made by artists of African origin who live in Europe and the US. London artist Yinka Shonibare, shortlisted in last year’s Turner prize, contributes an installation commenting a bit tritely on colonial history, and New York painter Julie Mehretu contributes, er, New York paintings. And the emphasis on modernity inevitably favours the most western population in Africa – who are white South Africans. Do they really need the leg-up?

Africa resists this kind of exhibition because it is one vast and terrible reminder that life and death are more real than art – more real than video, anyway. By insisting on the urban and the technological, Africa Remix misdescribes the continent. What do we say about the masses who live outside the city and have no art magazines? That they are the objects of history, and only city-dwelling elites are its makers? In the end, the anthropological collectors at the British Museum, routinely disparaged for imperialism, do a better job of sampling the different pasts and presents of rural and urban, traditional and modern art.

The Hayward show is a relentlessly upbeat advert for an African contemporary art it is determined to invent. But that’s enough criticism. In the end, this is a subject I probably shouldn’t even be writing about. What do I know? Racism is limitless. Recently I was asked to write about Yinka Shonibare for the New York Times. The editor asked if I could connect his work with “tribalism in fashion”. I couldn’t. But who knows how many ignorant things I’ve just written. Maybe Africa really does need its installations to be acknowledged as much it needs a war on poverty.

· Africa Remix is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, from tomorrow. Details: 08703 800 400

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