New Art Exchange is dedicated to championing BAME art and artists, it felt like perfect timing to have Africa State of Mind’s launch in line with NAE’s 10 year anniversary. The exhibition showcases the work of 16 artists from across Africa, and presents Africa as both a psychological state, as well as a physical territory.
Upon arrival, I was taken by an outdoor stand previewing the exhibition, the caption of the piece instantly piqued my interest - the photograph titled Toi Toi, depicts a spirited South African song and dance, reminiscent of apartheid protests.
The exhibition houses three themes: Zones of Freedom, Inner Landscapes and Hybrid Cities.
Zones of Freedom unfolds in the gallery with the rest of 16 Shots, the series from which Toi Toi belongs. These black and white works by Musa N Nxumalo feature the South African student protests of the #feesmustfall movement of 2016. The monochrome rendering qualifies the documentary style, defiant yet playful, which echoes in both the visuals and titles of the works. One such piece is a nightlife scene titled Wake up, kick ass and repeat! with its subject extending both middles fingers. Another is titled Are the fees gonna fall or nah? Succinctly put by Nxumalo, this series ‘disrupts simplistic narratives.’
My other favourite, at the opposite end of the colour spectrum within Zones of Freedom, is Athi-Patra Ruga’s 3-piece Night of the Long Knives. Its fixed element (a zebra in all three works) amidst a lush, flowery backdrop, saturated in technicolour glory, conjures an interpretation of a fantastical Zamunda. In part, these images represent the realm of fantasy in which Ruga holds as the ‘apartheid activists’ dreams of building an African Utopia, free of white colonial presence.
I was captivated by Inner Landscapes’ The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’Zombo Before the Great Extinction. Its curatorial display which sprawls across a lengthy wall in five parts described as ‘acts’, appropriately befits the subject’s literary and historic grandiose narrative, which Angolan artist, Kiluanji Kia Henda, describes as a ‘critique of colonial-era notion of Africa as a land of noble savagery and a verdant paradise’.
Being inclined towards boldness and brightness, Moving Shadows from Hybrid Cities, naturally drew me in. This showcase of solitary figures, accentuated by their shadows, against vibrantly coloured backgrounds had me contemplating the peaceful beauty that can be found in solitude. Self-taught photographer, Girma Berta, describes his work as “creating images which exemplify the contrasting colours and personalities on the streets of his home town of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “
Historically, photography has been used to confine Africans through the colonial gaze, famine, floods etcetera.
It is most refreshing and heartening to see representations of Africa and Africanness through the subjective gaze of Africans themselves - the beauty, the ugliness, the complexities, the contradictions, the ambiguous. As Ekow Eshun, exhibition curator, reiterated to me, “Who knows what Africanness is? Historically, photography has been used to confine Africans through the colonial gaze, famine, floods etcetera. But through the work of actual Africans living in Africa, you see something very different represented.”
Africa State of Mind is exhibiting at The New Art Exchange until Sunday 16 December 2018.