“Global Vision: New Art from the 90's”

Deste Foundation

The first of a three-part series devoted to cross-cultural identity, “Global Vision: New Art from the 90’s” inaugurated Athens’s new Centre for Contemporary Art, the pet project of Greek Cypriot collector Dakis Joannou, whose Deste Foundation was behind a number of high-profile exhibitions in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The premise of this show, while not particularly new or original, was nevertheless a sign that US-style multiculturalism has begun to make headway in Europe, where cultural difference is a major topic of discussion as the continent moves toward economic and political unification.

This first installment of “Global Vision,” however, had less to do with a European problem than with a sampling of individual reactions to historical or social “otherness.” It included the work—all taken from Joannou’s holdings—of Nikos Charalambidis, Kcho, Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, Jocelyn Taylor, and Kara Walker, all of whom are schooled in Western artistic traditions, yet shun a universalist approach in favor of one tied to a specific cultural context. These particulars were the show’s greatest strength, especially in the case of Kara Walker. whose disturbing, poignant take on the ugliest chapter US history—slavery—has particular vigor in Europe, which has yet to come to terms with its colonial past, let alone its participation in the slave trade. Walker was represented by a large black paper cutout entitled Being The True Account Of The Life Of N, 1996, and seven sepia-colored gouache drawings, all of which evinced her take on behind-the-scenes sexual deviancy in plantation life.

Questions of race were likewise addressed in Chris Ofus and Yinka Shonibare’s art; first-generation Brits of Nigerian heritage, the pair use materials associated with Africa. Brightly colored fabrics or elephant dung, for example, explode distinctions between high art and crafts while ironizing the West’s hunger for exoticism. In Ofili’s two paintings (both 1997), seductive surface texture and color are deployed in images of explicit, stereotypical black sexuality: Pimp features a huge black phallus with a red-lipped face, surrounded by cutouts of African-American media figures like Mike Tyson, Scottie Pippen, and James Brown; the cutouts have been superimposed onto shots of female crotches culled from pornographic magazines. On the canvas’s lower edge, Ofili has attached three balls of dung inscribed with the words “Pimping Ain’t Easy.” Shonibare’s somewhat more restrained gesture—a Victorian-style gown made from the wax-print cloth used in traditional African dress—mixes signifiers of colonizer and colonized, while also celebrating the artist’s affinity for pattern and decoration.

Cuban artist Kcho’s sculpture La Columna Infinita II, 1996, a collection of makeshift wooden boat frames held together with metal clamps, uses classic modernist vocabulary (Kcho has been called a poor man’s Brancusi) to create a metaphor for his compatriots’ quest for the American dream.

The least compelling works in the show were by Taylor and Charalambidis, who touched respectively on representation of the black female body and reductivist perceptions of Greece (as an idealized bastion of classicism or the cradle of cavtourist kitsch). Taylor’s 1996 video Alien at Rest, which shows the African-American artist walking naked through SoHo, has the formal ingenuity of an art-school exercise. Instead of being confrontational, it merely reiterates the endemic prudery of the States. In Greek Cypriot Charalambidis’s computer-manipulated photograph, figures dressed in traditional Greek costume appear to pose for a cleaning product advertisement; the picture speaks directly to a population coming to terms with its place in the consumer-driven European family. While these last two examples illustrated the difficulties of inserting local concerns into international discourse, as a whole, “Global Vision” was a promising attempt to address a new openness to diversity.

Elizabeth Janus