“Exhibition Histories and Afrofictions”

Michaelis Galleries
31-37 Orange Street, Hiddingh Campus, University of Cape Town
July 20, 2017–August 18, 2017

The Otolith Group, In the Year of the Quiet Sun, 2013, video, color, sound, 33 minutes 57 seconds.

In his infamous 1984 exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal,” cocurated with Kirk Varnedoe at the Museum of Modern Art, William Rubin argued that the West’s absorption with the cultural objects of Africa and Oceania was both a “critical instrument” and a “countercultural battering ram.” He used juxtaposition to visually argue his point, an orthodox museological technique that curators Nkule Mabaso and Lucy Steeds cleverly employ here to draw attention to the often-distorted construction of African identity by outsiders. Organized into three parts and composed of eight films—five made in the twentieth century and linked to exhibitions and festivals staged between 1949 and 1989—this exhibition represents a timely fillip to decolonization debates raging at the University of Cape Town, the venue’s host institution.

The exhibition starts with George Hoellering’s chiaroscuro depictions of rotating, spotlit African figures and masks, Shapes and Forms, 1950, which are intercut with studies of Western paintings, including Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. London-based Elizabeth Price’s User Group Disco, 2009, which presents barely legible revolving objects from an imaginary hall of sculptures, shows up the hokeyness of Hoellering’s reverential Impressionism. In the second section, two back-to-back televisions offer contrasting portraits of artists negotiating Africa as site: Fatou Kandé Senghor’s Giving Birth, 2015, is an exhibition edit of her feature-length study of Senegalese sculptor Seni Awa Camara, while Stones and Flies: Richard Long in the Sahara, 1988, sees Philip Haas accompany the taciturn British Land artist across Algeria’s desolate Hoggar plateau. The Otolith Group’s In the Year of the Quiet Sun, 2013, an exploration of liberation politics and aesthetics using the narrow prism of Ghanaian postage stamps dating from 1957 to 1966, visually and sonically dominates the third sequence of works, an aggregation of older American, Russian, and French responses to African independence, all of them bounded by an ethnological frame.

Sean O’Toole