Eric Gottesman, The Last Days of Baalu Girma, 2013, ink-jet print from Polaroid negative, 42 × 52". From “Africans in America.”

Eric Gottesman, The Last Days of Baalu Girma, 2013, ink-jet print from Polaroid negative, 42 × 52". From “Africans in America.”

“Africans in America”

Goodman Gallery/Johannesburg Art Gallery

Eric Gottesman, The Last Days of Baalu Girma, 2013, ink-jet print from Polaroid negative, 42 × 52". From “Africans in America.”

South African artists, dealers, and scholars often mourn the demise of the Johannesburg Biennale, a short-lived experiment in post-apartheid city branding and global outreach that ran for just two editions, in 1995 and 1997, invoking its legacy in interviews, essays, and tribute exhibitions. In 2010, the Goodman Gallery launched In Context, an occasional series of citywide exhibitions and events that aimed to address the void left by the defunct biennial—it is less a successor than an ambitious stopgap until something new emerges. To cocurate the second edition with her, Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers invited Hank Willis Thomas, who in the first edition had exhibited A Place to Call Home (Africa-America), 2009, an aluminum map depicting the two continental bodies in lonely cohabitation, hung next to El Anatsui’s bottle-top drapery Ink Spill, 2009. Thomas’s piece, which summons actual geographies while proposing speculative mappings, was used as the conceptual frame for this second installment, “Africans in America.”

The lineup at the two Johannesburg venues for “Africans in America” included ruby onyinyechi amanze, Ghada Amer, Stan Douglas, Lyle Ashton Harris, Wangechi Mutu, Odili Donald Odita, and Daàpò Reo, among others, representing a loose assembly linked to the African continent through practice or biography. Given the broad selection of artists and the expansive remit of the exhibition—to explore transcontinental connections using the slippery cipher of Africanness—a sense of randomness was probably unavoidable. Kehinde Wiley’s vivid 2010 portrait of Ghanaian soccer player John Mensah was shown opposite Alfredo Jaar’s shimmering light-box work One Million Points of Light, 2005, a deliberation on the transatlantic slave trade by way of a photograph taken from a watery vantage off the coast of Angola facing out toward Brazil. Jaar’s work, equal parts document and radiant abstraction, troubled the visual conceit proposed by Thomas in his reimagined map of two disconnected continental bodies in conversation. What about South America? The inclusion of two untitled photos of Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth holding placards offering transactional services, from his “Noticias de America” (News from the Americas) series, 2011–12, didn’t really answer this question.

There were, however, instances of productive juxtaposition and alchemical pairing. The minimalist gesture of Theaster Gates’s Afrostack, 2012, a ceramic bowl embedded in a concrete plinth used to display a single bound volume of Jet magazine from 1974, complemented the worldly focus and compositional sobriety of three photographs by Carrie Mae Weems from her “Constructing History” series, 2008. Mourning, 2008, in particular, a tableau vivant depicting three black mourners on a raised platform in a film studio, struck a grace note that resonated through the exhibition. The agitated mark-making of Julie Mehretu’s Epigraph, Damascus, 2016, a six-panel photogravure work on paper that includes architectural motifs from the war-wracked Syrian capital, was effectively paired with Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Drawing, 2016, an expressionist oil-on-paper figure study that skitters between dilettantish statement and deeply existential gesture. Overall, the exhibition was marked by a low-key anxiety. Thomas spoke repeatedly of the schism between Africa and its diaspora. “Our roots,” he said, speaking for African Americans in general, “may be from [Africa] but many of us don’t necessarily feel any more at home on the continent than we do on the continent of our birth. Our home is a place in between.”

Themes of wandering and liminality were adroitly explored by Eric Gottesman in twelve photographs depicting the imagined last days of Ethiopian novelist and journalist Baalu Girma before his disappearance in 1984. A similar sense of loss, but also generative hope, was evident in the text on a green flag displayed in Brendan Fernandes’s installation opposite, The End, 2014, inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois: IN THE END / THE END / NOTHINGNESS / IT IS OVER / AND / THEN REBIRTH. The strong undertow of mourning and anxiety in “Africans in America” was matched by diverse manifestations of creative resilience.

Sean O’Toole