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JEFFREY BROWN: The Congo, 1960: a momentous part of 20th Century history: Africa’s move from colonialism to independence. The newsreel footage and much more are part of a unique exhibition called “The Short Century,” now at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York.
The focus here is the cultural crossroads of Africa and the West told through paintings and pop music, fabric and films, books, building models, political posters and photography.
The exhibition’s name is about marking time: the “long” 19th Century of European domination, running all the way through World War Two; the “short” 20th Century of liberation movements and independence, beginning for this exhibition in the mid-1940s, ending with the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994.
JEFFREY BROWN: And while the Africa of poverty and war sometimes makes the evening news, this modern cultural Africa is rarely seen in the West, as the exhibition’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, learned when he first came here from Nigeria.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: Coming to the United States, you know, a little more than 20 years ago, I was really confronted with the complete absence of what I consider to be a history that I belong to. And, and this is — I was really astonished to find out that there was absolutely no space for, you know, people of my generation to have any representation.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was the sense of Africa that you found when you first came here?
OKWUI ENWEZOR: The sense of Africa was completely, you know, an empty, non-modern, non-contemporary, you know, space that — full of tribal and primitive, you know, art.
JEFFREY BROWN: The very extent to which Africa joined in modern art movements is one key piece of this show — paintings from Ethiopia, sculpture from Sudan, photography from Mali, and on up to contemporary styles, like room-sized installations and video art.
So much of the work that you’ve brought together is unknown to most people. Give us a way in. What are you trying to do?
OKWUI ENWEZOR: One way to understand Africa is really not only – you know, simply through the frame of the kind of upheavals that we’ve seen in the continent, but really to look very deeply into the cultural particularities that have come out of the continent also, that have also contributed in shaping a much larger and much more complex view of what the continent has been able to produce since after the Second World War.
JEFFREY BROWN: The story of how so-called primitive African art influenced artists like Picasso in the early 20th Century is fairly well known. Art in the West — what came to be known as modern art — was never the same. This exhibition shows how the influence doubled back to Africa and changed art there as well.
You can see it in abstract painting by South African Ernest Mancoba in the late 1940s or these representational works by his countryman Gerard Sekoto, also from the ’40s.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: Gerard Sekoto is really one of the most significant modern South African artists of the 20th Century. He brought this about with a painting style that is really quite controlled. Very disciplined and obviously very much interested in the very craft of painting itself.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sekoto was trained and worked in a black township in Johannesburg.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: His subjects were always, you know, the South African township, the inhabitants of that township and the subjects was really trying to render in as complex a way as possible, the dignity of the people who occupied that space.
JEFFREY BROWN: And this is at a time when that particular subject was not being undertaken.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: Well, not only just not being undertaken, that one could say that really the very concept of painting a black image under apartheid could be see as almost like a political act.
JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, another key point of the exhibition is to show how Africa’s culture and art have been wrapped up in its politics. Videos and films document its history. Political posters suggest a world of struggle, often violent. Photographs capture the almost surreal encounter of whites and blacks, the trials and triumphs of emerging African leaders.
Another approach to history is this cycle of paintings by Tshibumba Kandu Matulu from the 1970s.
The paintings show scenes from the epic of the Congo: the brutal colonial period under Belgium; the creation, in 1960, of an independent state led by Patrice Lumumba. Only months later, Lumumba was toppled and killed in a military coup.
Congo, later called Zaire — today Democratic Republic of the Congo, has lived through repression and civil war for decades, while Lumumba has become an almost mythic figure.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: This is not so much about the representation of the past, as much as it was a representation of what remains, a very, very active and strong, you know, aspect of the present.
JEFFREY BROWN: So this is an artist creating memory, in a sense.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: That’s what makes it remarkable, this very studious, very committed attempt to manifest this story in all its guises. And I think it’s just really quite remarkable given the very limited means that the artist has at his service.
JEFFREY BROWN: The nexus of art and politics runs throughout the exhibition, especially in works by South African artists. A piece called “South African Coloring Book”, with its bitter and ironic captions; a slide show of lost family portraits that asks pointed questions; and a powerful film mixing animated drawings and documentary video by William Kentridge.
And then there is this sculpture, called “Butcher Boys”, from the mid-1980s, by Jane Alexander. Brutish, animal-like figures — whites deformed by their complicity in the apartheid system.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is about as in your face as you can get. This is half-human, half-animal, mouth, no mouth –
OKWUI ENWEZOR: It’s a manifestation of the surreal, it’s a manifestation of the horrific. But there’s also something very ennobling in looking at these because you want to say that is not me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, not everything here is so laden. There is the foot-tapping fun of “highlife” music and photos of young people at play, in love, and strutting their stuff. Contemporary artists have created works of great scope and beauty like this by Yinka Shinabore, called “100 Years.”
They’ve also done works that require a bit more explanation. Ghada Amer’s art is political, but the focus is the politics of being a woman in today’s Islamic society — a mattress with two figures carved out of it, an embroidered canvas, and a curious stack of fabric panels inspired by a fashion magazine for veiled women. GHADA AMER: I didn’t want to do masks because I was African and I didn’t want to do calligraphy because I am coming from Egypt, so it was fine, it was history, but for me I wanted to be totally involved in the modern, Western art.
JEFFREY BROWN: To Okwui Enwezor, another example of the wide diversity of African art.
OKWUI ENWEZOR: To talk about what is African about African art is to confound all the predeterminations that has often been attached to African art. It’s a plurality of experiences; it’s a plurality of approaches, and a plurality of narratives.
I think this is really the area that you know the exhibition I wanted to focus on — to look at the ways artists, writers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers have really you know used the, the larger context of the cultural richness of the continent to tell, you know, new stories and to create new ideas.
JEFFREY BROWN: “The Short Century” exhibition runs through May 5th.