Allusions to the horror2/18/2015
“Field, Road, Cloud: Art and Africa,” at the Des Moines Art Center through April 19, takes its title from the works of Alfredo Jaar, an artist from Chile, one of the whitest nations on earth. That alone challenges politically correct academic criticism that rejects showings of African art in contemporary museums. DMAC director Jeff Fleming begins his introduction to the exhibition’s excellent catalogue with an acknowledgment that “collecting, interpreting and exhibiting works from a culture that a Western curator cannot completely comprehend or grasp fosters concerns about misinterpretation and colonization.” Curator Gilbert Vicario noted that the museum will be subjected to considerable criticism from the politically correct wing of the art world for daring to present a mix of traditional African artifacts and contemporary art from the likes of Jaar.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The Art Center’s defiance pays off with one of the most thought-provoking shows in years. This exhibition is a veritable demonstration of how Africa changed the rest of the world and vice versa. Jaar, whom Vicario said is very pleased to be included in this show, contributes a series of cibachrome prints and digital animations from his work in Rwanda during genocide. The horrors of what he saw convinced him to only allude to it in his art. He shows a tobacco field, a road to a killing ground and a cloud above a church on that killing ground. A separate work reveals three young men embracing during a memorial service. Black and white prints accompany the works to relate the venues with the horrors that took place there. Vicario thinks the series has a poetic quality. Archibald MacLeish’s poem from “JB” comes to mind. “If God is good, he is not god. If God is God, He is not good. Take the even, take the odd. I would not sleep here if I could, except for the little green leaf in the wood.”
Jaar uses light boxes to illustrate the green leaves of hope. Vicario says that is an intentional repurposing of a medium usually employed by advertisers trying to sell their goods to people who do not need them. Jaar explains things this way: “I have a strong emotional connection to Africans, and I think that is present in the way I approach my work. Africa was exploited and now completely abandoned by the rest of the world.”
Three contemporary artists recycle western goods with irony. Romuald Hazoumé fashions a traditional African mask out of a plastic petro can, the kind that litter West African highways. El Anatsui builds a giant curtain, resembling a fish net, out of liquor bottle caps. That invokes the slave trade — slaves moved to the Caribbean in exchange for rum. African American Nick Cave constructs altar sculptures with “black memorabilia saturated with the most vulgar, most obscene oppression you can imagine.” One Cave piece celebrates a Doberman pinscher on a duvet, reminding us that many people treat dogs better than humans. Another is built on a bed of thistle seed (a bird seed also known as “Niger seed”) and molds used for ceramic roofing tiles. The molds are filled with more black memorabilia that relate to life, sex and slavery — a gun-shaped cologne bottle, a heart-shaped liquor bottle, shaving brushes, dice, chains, hands, etc.
African American Radcliff Bailey shows “Notes from Tervuren,” a series of gouache and ink drawings with cut-out photos on sheet music. Those pays homage to the town in Belgium that presented the first African art show in Europe, one that would influence Picasso and a dozen other modern art pioneers.
Moberg Gallery’s “Large Works” show (through March 14) includes a local take on the theme of “Field, Road, Cloud.” A Jordan Weber painting mocks Wayne Thiebauld’s trademark cakes by relating frosted doughnuts to the deaths of African American teenagers across a map of America. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.