I love that African artists are getting exhibition space in European galleries. But being told to “Assume Art Position” by a Milanese gallery?

Such a strange, combustible collage of nonsensical superiority (“Africa” being directed to take on “Art”), and the allusion to “assuming” a sexually subordinate position in a title might be seen as appropriately titillating, especially when it comes from the cheesy world of Italian galleries – but please, a newsflash: neither “Africa” nor its artists need to be told to assume any position.

And amidst the terrible sentence structures (witness the fragment below), we learn from this press release that Africa is a single country (and we really cannot make excuses based on unfamiliarity with English):

In a country such as Africa, characterized by contradictions and important issues in the social, economic and political realm; art becomes the preferred way not only to escape reality. It becomes also the best way to address it, absorb it, understand it and ultimately criticize it.

The press release, to which Joost Bosland of Michael Stevenson Gallery alerted me (he guaranteed that it was “not tongue in cheek”), assures that the show, curated by Yakouba Konaté (curator of the Dakar Biennial) at Primo Marella Gallery, is “an important group show focused on contemporary art from Africa”. Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), Soly Cissé (Senegal), Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Moridja Kitenge Banza (Republic of Congo), Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo (D.R.C.), Jöel Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), and Peter Eastmann, Cameron Platter, Stuart Bird, and Athi Patra Ruga of South Africa are included.

The work exhibited is undeniably powerful and nuanced–in ways that this gallery’s positioning of the art and artists does not seem to recognise. Particularly significant are the textile hangings of Konate (the curator himself), the sexually alluring, dangerous figures within Ruga’s prints, the playfulness of Platter’s video work, and the Rorschach bleeding of Tuogo’s watercolours. Moridja K. Banza’s video, “Hymne à Nous”, where a collective of identical men (modeled on the artist himself)  – perfection in bronze-hued nude–sing a harmony, built on a combination of lyrics from the anthems of the Congo and Belgium (themselves French “hymns” based on Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude), provides an arresting full-stop to the simple posturing of the gallery (still from “Hymne à Nous” above) . This song of the one-and-many alludes to Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer–those sacred bodies both included and excluded by law, both sovereign and slave – as well as the revolutionary possibilities available to bodies erased by Power/in service of Power.

If the aim of the show “is to bring to the attention of the European public a selection of works, sculptures, paintings, installations and videos, that effectively epitomize the most recent artistic trends from a country with a rich cultural and artistic tradition,” then yes, the curator was instrumental in picking pieces that don’t pander to the expectations for wood carvings from Africa. But having to deal with that gallery, and that attitude in order to exhibit your work can’t have been an easy negotiation. Konate must have Achille Mbembe-like balls and bravado.

There’s going to be a catalogue, too:

Primo Marella Gallery has published the catalogue “Africa, Assume Art Position” featuring critical essays by Prof. Yakouba Konaté. The catalogue positions itself as a seminal publication for the research and understanding of the last trends in African contemporary art.

I can’t wait to see it.–Neelika Jayawardane

Further Reading