Tel Aviv Museum of Art Strikes Colonialist Tone With 'Regarding Africa' Exhibit

There is no pain and no suffering in an exhibition that presents an Africa without wars and violence, ignoring history along with the present day

Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
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Pieter Hugo, from the series 'The Hyena and Other Men.'
Pieter Hugo, from the series 'The Hyena and Other Men.'Credit: Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

What is Africa? A dark continent, but full of color; a place of great activity, frenetic, bursting with energy and joie de vivre. And what is African art? Colorful art, of course, overflowing, representing physical and passionate people in somewhat strange haircuts and bizarre clothing, in a wild natural environment or a neglected urban one. Alas, it was worth waiting until 2017 for an exhibition organized on the basis of the battered cliches that haunt the continent, and in an easy-to-use version, suitable for children, pleasant to look at.

A series of heroic, bloody and unfortunate anti-colonial struggles, post-colonial thought that has existed for about half a century, contemporary research regarding the formation of an African philosophical tradition — there is no trace of any of these in the exhibition; they are of no interest here. Instead, the plaster walls in the hall were painted purple, green and blue, and on them hang works that range from art to raw ethnography (a video that “collected selections of music and dance from Africa”) to high-level entertainment (a clever dramatization of an urban legend to the effect that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was born in North Sudan). Really, a celebration of art at its best.

The name of the exhibition, “Regarding Africa,” may be a tribute to Susan Sontag’s last book, “Regarding the Pain of Others.” But there is no pain and no suffering in this exhibition, which presents an Africa without wars and violence. “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,” wrote W. H. Auden at the start of his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” But he was referring to the European Old Masters, such as Bruegel or Bosch. The African artists, as the exhibition demonstrates, cannot even be wrong, because they don’t deal with suffering at all; they are interested only in the future.

The exhibition describes Africa — a subject that is not limited or modest in scope, it should be said — through a prism of “Afro-futurism.” This is a concept that was coined about 20 years ago and designates a blend of technological utopianism and non-European mythologies and cosmologies in the music, literature and art created by African Americans and on the dark continent itself.

“Whether the subject is a world view or an aesthetic approach,” writes curator Ruth Direktor at the beginning of the exhibition catalog, “Afro-futurism is a way of skipping over the history of Africa and the African diaspora and thinking about Africa in futuristic terms.”

And the exhibition really does organize an impressive skipping over, a real salto mortale, over everything that is actually happening in Africa. Anyone viewing it will find it hard to remember that this is a poor, starving continent, suffering from a deadly AIDS epidemic, a continent whose resources are being stolen by huge international corporations. In Africa there is endless exploitation of the inhabitants through manual labor; the profits are enjoyed in places far distant from them. There is also political and existential oppression of the population in civil and imperialist wars. All that exists in the present, while the exhibition skips lightly toward the future.

It requires shameless impertinence to celebrate the omission of Africa’s history in Tel Aviv. Historical memory is sometimes all that remains to the subjugated and serves as a basis for validating their demands and for the vitality of their uprising. Afro-futurism’s turning to the future was meant to be emancipatory, antagonistic utopianism, reversing the balance of power so that “the last will be first.” But it is brought into the museum as a display of a disconnected future, lacking ties to the past, developing normally and properly without any question about its conditions or cost.

'Good Governance,' 2016, by Adjani Okpu-Egbe.Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Comforting context

The entire exhibition is covered in a film of happiness and goodness. Even the strongly expressed works dissipate in the flattening and comforting context provided for them. Malick Sidibé’s sharp photographs of post-liberation Mali are not tied to any struggle and appear in the exhibition as arousing a false hope. There are fascinating paintings by Adjani Okpu-Egbe, with enlarged man-animal figures dotted with many formulae (equations of production and profit, initials of the names of the world powers, the International Monetary Fund and more). These become a reflection of “a raw and expressive artistic language,” in paintings that “are characterized by an outburst of energy,” whose main feature is their colorfulness. Pieter Hugo’s photos of hyenas and their trainers don’t carry a threat here; they remain exotic. Even the works of Abu Bakarr Mansaray of Sierra Leone depict the horrors of Africa in “drawings full of fantasy and imagination.”

Wangechi Mutu’s video installation is a kind of emblem for the entire exhibition. To the strains of the song “Amazing Grace,” which is not sung in the original English but in Kikuyu, a tribal language spoken in parts of Kenya, the artist, wrapped in a white dress, walks toward the sea and slowly sinks into it. The contexts of the work are clear: A hymn written in the late 18th century by an opponent of the transatlantic slave trade became a famous African-American gospel song in the mid-20th century, an anthem to the historical memory of slavery and black perseverance thanks to the grace of God. But all that is left of the exploitation and the torture, the suffering and the call for rebellion, is a drowning bride, Ophelia-like, immersed entirely in clean, pure beauty. All this is created from a song whose melody is familiar to everyone; it fills the sonoric space of the exhibition — what difference does it make in which language? — in a musical and visual style that is very far from anything connected to Afro-futurism. But who cares?

The curating of the exhibition arouses many questions: Many of the works — about half the works by African artists — were taken from a single art collection, the Pigozzi collection in Geneva. Apparently the artistic output on the continent is not large enough to require varied sources of mediation. Apparently too, art in Africa simply isn’t broad enough to fill an entire exhibition, and it was therefore necessary to devote a substantial part of the small exhibition space to works of Israeli artists — those who went to Africa and returned to tell the tale, or who tie their work to Africa, or who observe the community of asylum seekers in Israel in “Little Africa,” in the offensive language of the curator.

I feel sad about the local artists who agreed to have their work displayed in this narrow framework. As for the African artists, now rising stars on the international scene who were presented uncompromisingly and extensively at the 2015 Venice Biennale, curated by the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor — they are angrily and with difficulty paving ways to political and cultural decolonization. They really no longer need anything from a colonialist exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

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