Kendell Geers, Flesh of the Spirit 19, 2016, bronze, 57 1/2 × 17 3/8 × 13 3/8". From the series “Flesh of the Spirit,” 2010–.

Kendell Geers, Flesh of the Spirit 19, 2016, bronze, 57 1/2 × 17 3/8 × 13 3/8". From the series “Flesh of the Spirit,” 2010–.

Kendell Geers

Kendell Geers, Flesh of the Spirit 19, 2016, bronze, 57 1/2 × 17 3/8 × 13 3/8". From the series “Flesh of the Spirit,” 2010–.

One of Kendell Geers’s most iconic works is his Self-Portrait, 1995: half of a broken Heineken beer bottle, ready to be used as a weapon, bearing a label reading IMPORTED FROM HOLLAND. As the work of a white male South African descendant of Dutch colonizers, this simple object encapsulates two of the major and returning themes of Geers’s art: violence and identity. In this recent pair of exhibitions in Brussels, both titled “AfroPunk,” he showed his own work alongside traditional African art to create compelling variations on his recurring concerns.

The show at Rodolphe Janssen included a huge wall painting, Lines of Flight 299, 2012. At first glance it appears to be a Sol LeWitt drawing, with a multitude of white lines connecting to each other against a burgundy background. Look more closely and you’ll see that these drawn lines are in fact depictions of barbed wire—a material that Geers has often used in his work in reference to its historical role in enforcing apartheid. A group of four bronze sculptures from the series “Flesh of the Spirit,” 2010–, looked like vintage traditional African art objects but were in fact scanned 3-D prints of ancient and rare African artworks that Geers has reworked. With these experiments in a sort of three-dimensional trompe l’oeil, Geers examines whether a copy can have the same power and spiritual radiance as the original. By placing authentic tribal works such as a centuries-old wooden figure by the Tellem people of modern-day Mali or a late-nineteenth-century Congolese Metoko figure side by side with his technically fabricated remakes, Geers asks about the relation between the work’s “flesh” and its spirit. What’s interesting to see is that the two types of objects don’t clash, nor does one over-power the other. They form a single installation in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Three wrapped objects from the series “Twilight of the Idols,” 2005–12, whose forms suggest those of African sculpture, questioned the dichotomy between the traditional and the contemporary in a different way. Here, the artist didn’t use a 3-D printer to turn the unidentified found objects into something else. By wrapping them with chevron tape, he made them look like voodoo dolls, mysterious since you can only guess what they look like in their original state.

Meanwhile, at Didier Claes, Geers showed predominantly traditional African art—Claes is an expert in the field—alongside his own. Monument (Brick), 2012, consists of an ordinary brick that is circled by a white line, as in a police crime scene, and bears a golden plaque recounting the following bone-dry anecdote from a South African newspaper: “mmabatho—A family of six suffocated at Takaneng in Bophuthatswana at the weekend. Police said a mother and her five children used a hot brick to warm their bed and it caused their bedding to smoulder and give off smoke. Police spokesman Colonel Dave George said that, due to lack of proper ventilation in the room, the smoke suffocated the entire family. —Sapa.” Because the brick was on the ground one had to bend down, as if praying or bowing to the dead, to read this tragic story. A traditional Kota figure from Gabon was placed on a shelf above this minimalistic yet powerful installation. The traditional purpose of this object is to memorialize the dead; here, the brass and copper that adorn the head and construct the face of the figure mirrored the color and material of the commemorative plaque on the brick. A more solemn and powerful meeting between works from different times and origins is hard to imagine.

Jos Van den Bergh