“Africa Remix”

According to Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, art made in Africa since the end of colonialism is not necessarily postcolonial, but most of the works in “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent,” shown this summer in Paris following appearances in Düsseldorf and London, fit the bill. For Appiah, that prefix post- indicates not merely a temporal, historical division, but also an inherent critique of the hierarchical power structures of colonialism, much as postmodernism critiques and subverts the grand illusions and metanarratives of modernism. The art in “Remix” provokes reflections on the complicated nature of Africa, a hybrid, syncretic continent of political instabilities and rampant cultural changes.

Such a colossal exhibition of twentiethcentury African art abroad is rivaled in size and consequence only by Okwui Enwezor’s 2001–2002 “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” which visited New York and Chicago. While “Short Century” included art from the ’40s onward, usefully glossing African modernism in its concern to create a genealogy for contemporary work, the present survey of living artists takes a further step toward establishing once and for all the validity of contemporary African art. Although individual works in “Remix” may suffer for lack of adequate breathing room, the curatorial strategy has a point, all but shouting that a survey is impossible, the contemporary artistic production of this enormously diverse continent too vast to summarize.

To provide a semblance of structure, Cameroonian curator Simon Njami grouped works by eighty-one artists from roughly half of Africa’s fifty-four nations under three abstract dualisms: Identity and History, Body and Soul, and City and Land. (“From” is a loose term here, as a number of artists, owing to the vagaries of politics and globalization, no longer live in their birth countries.) Male artists already prominent on the international roster, like Zwelethu Mthethwa, David Goldblatt, William Kentridge, and Yinka Shonibare, are happily joined by up-and-coming female artists like Loulou Chérinet, Tracey Rose, and Wangechi Mutu.

As the title “Remix” suggests, montage, collage, and recycled materials predominated, reflecting local specificities via globally postmodern strategies. Examining postcolonial dreams gone awry, Michèle Magema’s two-channel DVD installation Oyé Oyé, 2002, juxtaposes the artist’s torso, marching in the Congolese uniform she wore as a child when her parents fled Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1983 as political refugees, with montaged footage of group dances performed during dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s “national authenticity” campaign. Meanwhile, Zineb Sedira powerfully addresses the postcolonial present in her three-channel DVD projection Mother, Father and I, 2003. The artist silently bears witness as her parents describe the ongoing difficulties of surviving Algeria’s bitter war for independence.

Although “Remix” won’t end the identity debates that plague contemporary African production, one thing is certain: A truly postcolonial art, fully cognizant of its historical contingencies, is coming out of Africa. And it has much to show us. Samuel Fosso’s Le Chef qui a vendu l’Afrique aux colons (The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonizers), from the series “Tati, autoportrait I–V” (Tati, Self-portraits I–V), 1997, has deservedly become the show’s signature image, adorning posters and the cover of the catalogue. An Ibo born to a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Fosso escaped the Biafran war as a child to become a studio photographer in the Central African Republic. Fosso’s patterned backdrops and incongruously juxtaposed props play on traditional West African studio photography, but his campy, ominous self-portrait here suggests a complicity that is by implication universal.

Allison Moore