Installation shot of The Global Africa Project (all photos by author)

The Museum of Art and Design, New York’s The Global Africa Project makes an audacious claim: to present the art, design, architecture, and craft of the contemporary African diaspora. Given that Africa is the world’s second largest continent, with a population of over one billion dispersed among 54 distinct countries — never mind the millions of people of African descent living elsewhere — any attempt to survey its production and influence seems impossible. However, the curators — Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, formerly director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and currently the Charles Bronfman Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at Maryland Institute College of Art — have embraced the unwieldiness of the notion of “Africa,” creating an exhibition that intentionally raises more questions than it answers.

Sims and King-Hammond treat the idea of an “African” artist broadly, choosing those who work in what they describe as “the psychic space of Africa,” including Serge Mouangue, a Cameroonian designer who currently lives and works in Japan, Kim Schmahmann, a white South African artist and furniture designer, members of the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative in Karnataka, India, descendents of East African slaves brought over to India, Sheila Bridges, a Harlem-based African-American interior designer, and Janet Goldner, an American artist of Eastern-European descent who splits her time between New York and Mali. It is precisely these kinds of transnational, culturally hybrid linkages that the curators embrace as truly representative of African in the 21st century.

A Rainbow of Objects

Arguably the most exciting — and successful — aspect of The Global Africa Project is its inclusion of objects representing virtually every kind of creative production, from painting, sculpture, and photography to furniture, textiles, and wallpaper, as well as jewelry, fashion design, costumes, quilts, and baskets. Significantly, the exhibition has been organized thematically rather than by medium, allowing examples of various art forms to be seen alongside one another. This kind of arrangement rejects the hierarchical treatment of objects that privileges fine art over design, and design over craft. In The Global Africa Project, a quilt created by the Gee’s Bend Quilters, a group of women in rural Alabama, and a painting by Mickalene Thomas or Kehinde Wiley are given equal consideration.

Installation view of Nick Cave, “Soundsuit” (2004)

This approach not only enables interesting connections to be drawn between diverse forms of production, but also highlights the often tenuous boundaries between media: how should we classify a work like “Change” (2010), a collaboration between New York-based artist Algernon Miller and Ugandan jewelry designer Sanaa Gateja, fabricated by the Kwetu Afrika Women’s Association Angels, a women’s collective in Uganda? An intricate tapestry created out of paper beads made from recycled Obama campaign materials, the project is both a conceptual exercise and an example of a traditional craft practice adapted to incorporate modern materials. Similarly, Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, one of which is on view in the exhibition, are conceived as “wearable sculptures” inspired by African ceremonial costumes and masks. Made primarily from found objects, they not only function as ornate costumes for live dance and musical performances (the display also includes a video of the artist performing in the suit) but also as sculptural assemblages.

The integration of art and design not only serves to elevate functional works to the level of fine art, but also to force us to rethink the way we conceive of either category. The exhibition allows us to see Cave’s Soundsuits in conjunction with other examples of costume design, like that of Victor Harris — also known as the Big Chief of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indian Tribe — but also with Iké Udé’s photographic self-portraits from the series Sartorial Anarchy, a highlight of the exhibition in which the artist draws upon the figure of the dandy by styling himself in flamboyant ensembles that combine pieces from different cultures and time periods: in “Sartorial Anarchy: Untitled #4” (2010), a straw boater hat festooned with flowers is worn with a boy scout shirt, tweed breeches, and Italian football socks. “Sartorial Anarchy: Untitled #2” depicts the artist in an Ottoman-style turban made from West African fabric, a dramatic hooded cape, and a contemporary button-down shirt. Each of these works explores the inherently performative nature of dress and the possibilities of costume, a point of comparison that transcends the confines of medium. Similarly, an understanding of Udé’s photographs is enriched by considering them along with Sheila Bridges’s “Harlem Toile de Jouywallpaper and fabric, a re-envisioning of traditional 18th-century French toile patterns with the pastoral scenes and white figures replaced with African-American stereotypes, such as figures playing basketball or wielding boom-boxes.

Art in the Global Economic System

Installation view of Iké Udé’s “Sartorial Anarchy” series (2010)

Another notable consequence of including design and functional objects alongside art is that it allows, perhaps insists upon, a discussion about the role these works play within the global economic system, one that is rarely aired publicly within museums. As the curators have stated, part of the impetus for the exhibition was a desire to explore and address the ways in which art, design, and craft have played a role in economic development, particularly on the local level. The exhibition features a number of socially-engaged projects that actively attempt to use art and design as a means of revitalizing communities: Tyree Guyton’s “The Heidelberg Project,” in which the artist and his family, along with local children, converted abandoned houses in their crime-ridden Detroit neighborhood into an enormous art installation, transforming a blighted community into one of the city’s most successful tourist attractions, is included in the exhibition, as is a selection of woven baskets by the Gahaya Links Weaving Association in Rwanda, a company that employs rural Rwandan women to create baskets that are exported to the United States and Europe. The project gives these women a means to support themselves financially while simultaneously preserving a local tradition.

The curators occasionally point to political themes, particularly the exploitation of African people and resources by large corporations in works such as Hank Willis Thomas’s altered photograph “Scarred Chest” (2003), a black male torso covered with scars in the shape of the Nike “swoosh” logo and Yinka Shonibare MBE’s “Black Gold Toy Painting 6” (2006), which addresses the legacy of colonialism and its contemporary analogue, the multinational corporations that profit from African resources such as oil despite the overwhelming poverty of the surrounding population. However, the exhibition also includes a BMW “Art Car” decorated using a traditional Ndebele wall-painting technique by South African artist Esther Mahlangu from 1991 and a collection of soccer gear designed by Kehinde Wiley for Puma to celebrate the 2010 World Cup, the first to be hosted by an African country, accompanied by a Puma-commissioned portrait of Cameroonian soccer star Samuel Eto’o.

Kehinde Wiley, “Samuel Eto’o” (2010), photos by Patricia Blanchet from the “Burkina Reflected” series (2005)

These sorts of luxury products, themselves produced by multinational corporations, are well outside the reach of the majority of the African population, a fact that is glossed over in the exhibition. Though the curators allude to the “branding” of Africa, they do little to explore the implications, particularly the exploitative ones, of that notion, instead featuring these objects in essentially celebratory terms. Encompassing the work of over 100 artists, the exhibition is, not surprisingly, uneven in terms of the individual objects on display; a good number seem to have been included simply because they illustrate the show’s guiding themes of cultural hybridity and exchange rather than artistic merit. However, as a whole, The Global Africa Project manages to convey a sense of the diversity of contemporary African art and design and to dispel the notion of a singular African aesthetic. The exhibition expands the idea of what African culture might be, insisting that we recognize its place in — and its broad impact on — a globalized world.

The Global Africa Project is open at the Museum of Art and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan) through May 15, 2011

Rachel Wetzler is a New York-based writer and a PhD student in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Tumblr and Twitter.

One reply on “Global Africa Project Dissects the Idea of Africa”

  1. I really like the idea of dissecting Africa as the fullness of its cultural riches is undervalued because of the reputation around its name. Putting those pieces together can really be an astonishing revelation to the world. As I myself am an artist living in London owning more than 300 peieces of work, much of it large scale (e.g. 5ft x 4 ft painting) which can be viewed at Kind regards Mbeng Pouka.

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