The glue that binds together the ARS 11 artists is their relationship to Africa. The coordination vectors are places on the map, such as Agbogbloshie, Brazzaville, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos, Maputo, Nairobi and Helsinki, and global phenomena, such as refugeeism and diaspora, environment and consumerism.
The relationship between man and the environment is prominent in the work of many of the artists in the show. Woman as the builder and destroyer of the landscape is the topic of the photographs of the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga. Many artists use discarded goods and waste as material for their work. Romuald Hazoume from Benin makes his works from plastic jerrycans that have been used to smuggle petrol from Nigeria to Benin. He transforms them into African masks, because “that’s what Westerners want anyway”.
Another artist who reuses waste material in his work is El Anatsui from Ghana. His gigantic tapestries made from flattened bottle tops already attracted attention in the 2007 Venice Biennale. Materials can serve as cultural memory, evoking the history of colonialism and trade, for example. But this is not recycling in the ecological sense of the term. The materials and forms in the artworks can also convey a powerful spiritual charge or can reference the traditions of some particular culture. This is the case with the works of Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland whose sculptures made of cowhide and tails also clearly allude to the traditions of both classical and modern sculpture.
The South African artist Pieter Hugo has photographed young men on a landfill in Ghana, burning electronic waste to salvage the metal parts for sale. The mood and presentation in the photographs are uncannily close to the famous Finnish painting by Eero Järnefelt, Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood). Criticism of consumerism is also the theme of Samba Fall, a Senegalese artist living in Norway. The message in Fall’s installation, composed of video animations and counterfeit credit cards, is familiar to all people around the world.
The opposite of the breathtaking landscapes in nature documentaries is urban Africa and its megacities. One of the oldest artists in the exhibition is the Nigerian photographer J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, born in 1930. His contribution is an extensive series of more than a hundred photographs produced in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. In the black-and- white pictures, the capital of Nigeria appears as the centre of fashionable urban life, attracting visitors such as the young Queen Elisabeth II of Britain. A different Lagos comes across in the works of Emeka Ogboh, where the listener’s ears are bombarded with the sounds of the bustling contemporary Lagos. Abraham Oghobase combines self-portraiture with the urban milieu of Lagos. In the photos, we see him straining to lift himself off the ground and to set himself apart from everyone else.
Brazzaville dandies or sapeurs are the protagonists in the photos of Baudouin Mouanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The sapeurs wear colourful clothes and Western labels, and may pay the equivalent of an average Congolese’s annual salary for a pair of shoes.
The everyday life of ordinary people is the topic of the Danish photographer Ditte Haarløv Johnsen, who moved from Copenhagen to Maputo, Mozambique, when she was five. In her photographs she returns to her childhood milieu. Another artist returning to places from her childhood is the Finn Laura Horelli, who lived in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, when her parents were working there.
AFRICA IN MOTION
In Africa, everything is in flux. Borders are redrawn. Some areas cross the threshold of awareness in the West, others are forgotten. Crowds of people migrate between countries. In her work, Ursula Biemann follows the flow of illegal immigrants across the Sahara. Every inch of the desert is monitored closely by satellite, and the movement of the caravans of immigrants can be followed using Western high technology.
The Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo makes use of his own travel experiences in his art. In the 1990s, he tried to get to Finland without a visa, he travelled on a train in France in first class dressed as a refuse collector, and tried to get onto an aeroplane with three suitcases sculpted from solid wood.
HISTORY AND MEMORY
Recollection and the simultaneous presence of different time periods are among the shared starting points of many works featured in ARS 11. Sammy Baloji combines black-and-white photographs from the Belgian colonial period with new pictures taken in a mining area in the province of Katanga, for a long time the economic centre of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a video work, Vincent Meessen travels to Burkina Faso to track down a boy shown greeting the French colonialists on the cover of Paris Match in 1955. Another Finnish artist in the exhibition is Elina Saloranta, who worked in Zambia as a volunteer in 1997. She had a pictures of herself, dressed in a nun’s habit that she had bought, taken with locals. In the exhibition, Saloranta’s travel pictures are juxtaposed alongside archive photos from the history of Finnish missionary work.
Political and economic rule in Africa is not only a privilege of Western colonial powers. The grip of China on the African economy is growing. The conquest was launched in the 1960s by the then Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of China, Zhou Enlai, whose likeness the South African artist Michael MacGarry has incorporated into his work.
A particularly dark chapter in the history of Africa is the spread of AIDS. The ARS 11 exhibition features ceramics by the internationally acclaimed Ardmore studios from the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. The politically conscious ceramics break taboos and seek to tell the public about the dangers of AIDS.
REAL AND IMAGINED PERSONS
Artists, too, are in the picture. In a performance that brings together many extremes, artist Steven Cohen dresses up as a luminous chandelier to bring light to a Johannesburg slum being demolished. In Vincent Meessen’s video The Intruder, a figure wrapped in white cotton causes consternation in the everyday bustle in Ouagadougou.
Pictures of Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Haile Selassie and Muhammad Ali are familiar from the international press. But something is amiss here. On closer inspection, you realise that they are all one and the same person, the photographer artist Samuel Fosso. Born in Cameroon, Fosso spent is childhood in Nigeria, but fled the Biafran War to the Central African Republic, where at the age of 13 he opened his own photographic studio.
For many generations, the women in Mary Sibande’s family worked as maids in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Based on this family history, Sibande has created a fictitious woman named Sophie who blends stereotypical roles and turns them upside down. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many European trading ships were wrecked along the South African coast. Andrew Putter blends reality and fantasy by imagining what the shipwrecked mariners would look like had they been rescued by the Mpondo people and adopted their ways.
Real events also underlie the works of the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who depicts the Rwandan genocide and, in particular, a speech by the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, in which he regrets the events on behalf of all Western countries. If only we had known…
In his series of African ministers, Kudzanai Chiurai, an artist who fled from Zimbabwe to South Africa, challenges the clichés associated with African identity and the hip-hop culture in particular. In Chiurai’s work, Africa is ruled by a black president with a cabinet of imaginary ministers. In the work of artist Georges Adéagbo from Benin, we witness a meeting between two great men of history, Napoleon and Mannerheim.
Religion and spirituality are evident in the works of the Italian artist Patrizia Guerresi Maïmouna. While in Senegal, Guerresi converted to Mouridism, a form of Sufism that emphasises mysticism and mediation. In her work, symbols and figures representing African Islam meet those of other world religions. The pictures of men by Rotimi Fani-Kayode represent a meeting between the spiritual heritage of the Nigerian Yoruba culture, Christian motifs and the Western manner of depicting the male body. In his mural, the Nigerian-born Odili Donald Odita, who made his career in the United States, combines the legacy of modernist painting with many traditions of geometric ornamentation.
Piia Laita and Jari-Pekka Vanhala