New York

View of “Fred Wilson,” 2018. Photo: Tom Barratt.

View of “Fred Wilson,” 2018. Photo: Tom Barratt.

Fred Wilson

Intelligent, expansive, and elegantly trenchant, Fred Wilson’s exhibition at Pace was a clarion announcement of conceptual sophistication during the dog days of the summer gallery season. “Afro Kismet,” a sprawling collection of objects, images, paintings, and text, was shown in New York after being presented in slightly different forms at both the 2017 Istanbul Biennial (where it originated) and Pace’s London outpost earlier this year. The innovative strategies of research-based reappropriation and museological critique that Wilson employed in “Mining the Museum”—his landmark 1992 intervention at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, in which he quite literally forced the institution’s collection to speak of previously elided or suppressed histories of racism and slavery by redisplaying and recontexualizing works contained therein—have become ingrained in wider contemporary practice. At once cold-eyed and lavishly seductive, “Afro Kismet” demonstrated how effective these techniques can still be when utilized by an artist with Wilson’s particular sensitivity to detail and nuance.

The show continued Wilson’s ongoing investigations of the lives of African people in the Mediterranean region (his sleuthing began with his work for the 1992 Cairo Biennial and ran through his exhibition for the US pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale). In “Afro Kismet,” he addressed the question of black history within Ottoman culture not only by putting found objects into dialogue with one another, but also by displaying artworks made expressly for his project. As he had in Istanbul, Wilson discovered rich source material in Orientalist paintings from the nineteenth century. For the biennial in Turkey, he placed enlarged reproductions of African figures alongside formally elaborate paintings in which they were hidden. At Pace, he installed a set of paintings, in which such figures were the primary subjects, next to West African sculptures and objects. The Great Question, 2018, for instance, consisted of a Dan mask placed next to Frederick Goodall’s 1859 canvas The Kissar Player, while a Lobi figure was paired with an 1850s painting showing an African horseman in Love Is a Country He Knew Nothing About, also 2018. (The title is taken from James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country, part of which the author wrote during his time in Istanbul; the literary presence of Baldwin, along with that of Shakespeare’s Othello, suffused Wilson’s show.) Meanwhile, the project of foregrounding neglected African and Afro Anatolian characters within Ottoman image narratives was taken up by several suites of engravings that Wilson had dug up in shops around Istanbul and then détourned by covering them with sheets of translucent vellum. Small holes were cut into the vellum, revealing and reframing the compositionally subordinate black figures.

Wilson mapped out the African diaspora here via trajectories of exchange and trade—in goods, in ideas, in images, in bodies—and two showstopping sets of objects (which dominated the show) that invoke these approaches. A pair of gorgeous traditional Turkish Iznik tile walls in deep brownish blacks and rich blues, made with Turkish artisans and named for the translations of the calligraphic Arabic inscriptions they bore—Black Is Beautiful and Mother Africa, both 2017—faced each other in the center of the space. Meanwhile, The Way the Moon Is in Love with the Dark and Eclipse, both 2017—colossal, monstrously beautiful black chandeliers that underline the relationship between the two empires with a mash-up of Venetian glasswork and Ottoman design—were suspended above. (A selection of other similarly extravagant glass objects designed by Wilson and made by Murano craftsmen were on view in an adjacent space.) But less imposing pieces also had a subtle power. Trade Winds, 2017, for example, was one of a number of small altered globes. Its surface, nearly swallowed up by thick washes of black paint, became a plainspoken symbol of the ceaseless movement of African goods and bodies, and of African bodies as goods, across the centuries and around the world.

Jeffrey Kastner