November 2, 2008

Contemporary African Art in Two NYU Galleries

I recommend seeing two exhibitions at NYU galleries, both located on Washington Square East, before they close in early December:

The Poetics of Cloth
African Textiles/Recent Art
Grey Art Gallery
Through December 6, 2008

The Poetics of Cloth: African Textile/Recent Art is a significant exhibition that explores the continuities of the textile tradition in contemporary African art. While the focus is on the medium of cloth, the exhibition nevertheless explores the topic through photography, painting, sculpture, and video as well, showing the continuities of the textile tradition within a larger art conversation. The contemporary African artists represented here show a deep respect for tradition even while departing from it and exploring the dynamics of change on the continent.

Atta Kwami, a Ghana native who grew up the son of a sculptor, painter, and textile designer, creates abstract paintings that could belong to western modern painting but also clearly come out of West African visual culture. Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian artist born in London and an international art rock star, has a knockout large C-print of an image of a storm-tossed ship sailed with Dutch wax prints that's titled La Méduse, referencing the shipwreck depicted in Géricault's painting. The Dutch wax prints, Dutch and British-produced interpretations of Indonesian batiks, found a large market in West Africa and became associated with African culture. The cultural complexities of colonization implied within this work are immense. In addition to Shonibare's image, many of the works in the exhibit are photographic images of people wearing their choice of clothing. Several of the most stunning artworks in the exhibit are the beautiful, tactile works of cotton or silk themselves, Adinkra cloths and Kente cloths or other types, but even El Anatsui, an artist from Ghana now living in Nigeria, creates contemporary patterned objects out of slats of burned or treated wood. The star work of the exhibition, however, is Rikki Wemega-Kwawu's Kente for the Space Age, 2007, a visually powerful artwork woven of colorful used phone cards and plastic twine.

S&M: Shrines and Masquerades in Cosmopolitan Times
NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
80 Washington Square East Galleries
Through December 6, 2008

This exhibition in NYU's 80 Washington Square East Galleries features contemporary work that reinterprets the legacy of African Shrines and Masquerades. The work is sometimes serious, but as is the nature of masquerading, some of it is also mischievous and very funny. In this serious-funny vein, be sure to take in the video by Lyle Ashton Harris, one of the show's curators and a member of the Steinhardt faculty, of himself "Performing MJ." Keeping in the vein of rock stars, I'd also like to recommend Chris Bogia's two separate shrines to Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. Bogia creates the icons in each shrine by weaving panels that recreate their Blue and Horses albums, respectively. Senga Nengudi's wall sculptures of found objects, nylon hose, wire, and sand are elegantly-made and skillfully composed. The same can be said of Onyedika Chuke's Fur Composition #6 of goat pelt and fabric as well as the exquisite pencil drawing of the pelt that's near it on the wall. Most all of this work adds to the overall theme, and the curators chose well. The exhibition testifies to the rich possibilities of creating meaningful artworks within the known tropes and the practices of the distant past. This exhibition is refreshing in its balance between playfulness and thought-provoking cultural exchange. Anyone who has ever created a shrine to someone or experienced the interior changes when dressed up as someone else will certainly get this exhibit. But they may come away from seeing this work, like I did, with a more profound understanding of the deep need to pay respect to cherished beings and to imagine life in someone else's skin.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple

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